Courier-Journal Staff Writer
Down in the quiet backwaters of the Manatee River at Bradenton,
Fla., peace at last has come to the restless life of the last of
the packet boats to churn the rivers of America.
There, in her own specially built basin, is moored the
sternwheeler which once plied the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers as
the Gordon C. Greene and the Cape Girardeau.
By day she serves as a museum, recalling for tourists the
colorful era when passenger-cargo packets were a vital part of the
country’s transportation system. By night she is a floating
restaurant, recreating the atmosphere and specializing in dishes
which once made the river boats famous for dining.
Indications are that the boat, now called the River Queen, will
rest at Bradenton for a long time.
Recently I visited the packet at her Florida mooring, and as I
followed a guide through a tour of the vessel, restored in most
respects as she was in her heyday, I recalled some of her history
and figured the lady deserved a good home.
Though some of her enthusiastic admirers at one time or another
have sworn that the boat was 100 years old, she actually was built
at the old Howard Boatyards in Jeffersonville in 1923. But she was
built from plans drafted just after the Civil War, and thus created
the impression of age. At that, you might say, as packet boats go,
she has lived to a ripe old age, for many of them came quickly to
violent ends as their boilers exploded under the pressure for more
(Still plying inland waters, out of Cincinnati, having been
saved from retirement by Hollywood investors last month, is the
Delta Queen. Technically, she’s not a packet, however, since
she carries only passengers, not freight.)
During her lifetime, the now River Queen has hauled passengers
and cargo over the thousands of miles of the Mississippi, Ohio,
Tennessee, Cumberland, Monongahela and Illinois Rivers. She has
been used as a floating restaurant at two locations; almost became
a floating hotel once. She has been featured in four motion
pictures. She has had five names.
The enclosed article is of this great and beautiful steam boat
give credit to Louisville Courier-Journal and also, Harry Shaw,
staff Writer. (We thank the Courier Journal and Harry Shaw for the
story on this boat.)
When the River Queen-Gordon C. Greene was launched at
Jeffersonville, she was christened the Cape Girardeau, and for some
12 years she sailed the Mississippi, from St. Louis. She was a coal
burner in those days, 237 feet long, 44 feet wide. She was capable
of carrying 170 first-class passengers and a crew of 72.
In 1935 the vessel was bought by the Greene Lines of Cincinnati
and renamed for the late Capt. Gordon C. Greene, founder of the
Greene Lines. It is by this name that Kentuckiana remembers her
best, for she sailed the Ohio and the Mississippi from Cincinnati,
going as far as New Orleans.
In those days, the Gordon C. Greene was the pride of the Greene
Lines fleet. Two of her masters were Capt. Mary B. Greene, widow of
the founder of the line and one of only four women licensed
river-boat pilots in the country, and her son, Capt. Tom Greene.
The boat was elegantly furnished in the manner of the 19th Century
river packets. She was converted to diesel power.
In those bright days, the Gordon Greene was featured in
‘Gone With The Wind’ and in ‘Steamboat Round the
Bend,’ which starred Will Rogers.
It was while she was a Greene Line boat, too, that the Gordon
Greene won the last of the packet-boat races. She tangled with the
Golden Eagle between Greenville, Miss., and Arkansas City, Ark., in
November, 1946. After hours of steaming along with black smoke
trailing and with the two packets just a few hundred yards apart,
the Gordon Greene pulled ahead and reached Arkansas City at dusk, a
winner by eight lengths.
In March, 1948, the Gordon Greene, bound for Cincinnati from an
excursion to New Orleans, had a head-on collision with a towboat
near 12-Mile Island, just upstream from Louisville. Holes were
stove in the bows of both boats. Two crewmen of the towboat were
The Gordon Greene made her last voyage as a passenger boat in
October, 1951, and the Greene Lines regretfully retired her as
‘too old.’ Within the next five years she changed hands
twice, was renamed twice, as the Sarah Lee and the Sternwheeler.
She made a false start as a floating hotel for atomic-plant workers
at Portsmouth, Ohio. She served as a set for the filming at
Owensboro of ‘The Kentuckian,’ starring Burt Lancaster. For
a short time she was a floating restaurant on the Owensboro
Late last year the boat was acquired by the group which now is
operating her in Florida. She made a long voyage, under tow, down
the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans, where she stopped long
enough to serve as a setting for the filming of ‘Band of
Angels,’ starring Clark Gable and Yvonne DeCarlo.
The craft arrived at Bradenton last February and was placed in a
special basin formed by a coffer dam, so she could rest in fresh
water, her hull protected from the salt water of the Manatee River.
The effect of the earthen cofferdam is for all the world like a
levee which makes the old boat look right natural.
‘We have taken great pains to duplicate the furnishings of
the period of the packet boats,’ said Charles L. Clark, general
manager of the operation. The boat’s owners, too, have taken
pains to learn some of the history of the river and of the Gordon
Last summer they had a call from the Robert Reising family of
2211 Longest Avenue, Louisville. ‘One of the boys, Jimmy,’
Clark said, ‘gave us quite a bit of information about the
Here, Mrs. Reising explained that Jimmy, 13, is a great boat
lover, who has made quite a collection of boat models and the
history of boats. Among other things, he has a set of the
blueprints of the boat.
On the deck above the main deck of the River Queen, some
staterooms have been preserved, and they have in habitants dummies,
all abed in the attire of the period they represent.
All except one of the boilers of the craft have been removed,
but the engine room and the cargo spaces have been preserved as
they once were. The stern wheel still revolves, but slowly powered
by electricity, just enough to create the illusion of a moving
At any rate, after 34 years of service and some uncertainty of
life, the old vessel has wound up as all good packet boats should
admired, well preserved and successful.