Fans of the historic Goldenrod Showboat keep hope for restoration afloat with new fundraising effort | St. Louis Public Radio

Fans of the historic Goldenrod Showboat keep hope for restoration afloat with new fundraising effort

Sep 9, 2013

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The Goldenrod Showboat, a historic vessel that delivered lively theater and music to Midwestern river towns in the early 20th century, now waits at an Illinois river bank for salvation -- or the salvage yard.

Though the clock is ticking, a small nonprofit group has renewed efforts to save the grand old vessel and return it to the St. Louis riverfront.

Steve DeBellis, president of the Historic Riverboat Preservation Association which has been trying for years to keep the restoration project afloat, calls his dedicated band “urban patriots” whose mission is to save an important artifact of Mississippi River history, while dressing up the riverfront.

DeBellis believes the 104-year-old showboat, moored in St. Louis from 1937 to 1989, could once again attract people to the river for entertainment. Longtime St. Louisans might remember that the National Ragtime Festival was held on the Goldenrod for about 25 years, starting in the early 1960s.

“It can be a tremendous asset for St. Louis. It could bring some life to what is frankly a fairly barren riverfront,” said DeBellis who publishes the Globe-Democrat, a nostalgic newspaper named for the old St. Louis daily.

“We’re a nonprofit. We’re doing this for St. Louis -- not to make money,’’ he added.

Other group members include Hugh McPheeters, a retired attorney, who is organizing fundraising efforts and Jacob Medford, a college student from Jerseyville, Ill., who created a website devoted to the Goldenrod.

Fans of the historic Goldenrod Showboat keep hope for restoration afloat with new fundraising effort

Here is what they have to say about their efforts:

1. The Goldenrod Showboat has not been scrapped – yet.

The old showboat is moored on the Illinois River near Kampsville, but DeBellis worries that many people believe it has already been scrapped. The dock owners who bought the Goldenrod at a foreclosure auction in May -- after the foundation lost its battle over docking fees -- have said that salvaging the boat is a possibility.

The Goldenrod was last used as a dinner theater in St. Charles and has had an iffy future for more than a decade.

The Goldenrod sits along an Illinois river bank.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard|St. Louis Public Radio

St. Charles bought the showboat in 1989, renovated it and operated it as an attraction on the Missouri River. That ended in 2001 when the floating theater was damaged due to low river levels. The city decided to sell the boat, but could find no buyers and eventually gave it to John Schwarz, a St. Charles businessman who presented a plan to restore the Goldenrod and reopen it in an enclosed basin. That never happened.

DeBellis said his own involvement began when he contacted Schwarz about an article he was writing about the Goldenrod’s history. Schwarz worked with DeBellis to set up the nonprofit Historic Riverboat Preservation Association to take ownership of the boat in 2008.

Though the foundation paid nothing for the showboat, it had no funding source, DeBellis said, and the recession hampered fundraising efforts.

“It’s like being given the Empire State Building and given no money to run it. I thought if no one else is going to try and save it, we’re going to try and save it,’’ he said. “But when you don’t have a blessed dime you can’t even stage a fundraiser.’’

The Goldenrod became entangled in legal disputes over unpaid mooring fees, eventually leading to the foreclosure auction. The dock owners were the only bidders at the sale.

McPheeters got involved after he saw a news story about the auction, and DeBellis credits him with jumpstarting the foundation’s efforts to buy the Goldenrod back from the dock owners.

Though it has sat idle for years, the group insists that the Goldenrod can be restored. The exterior of the showboat is weather-worn, but the structure is sound and much of the interior décor, such as original chandeliers and gilt mirrors, is intact.

“When you walk in there, it’s amazing how good of shape the interior is in,” DeBellis said. “It looks rough on the outside because it’s wood that needs to be painted. It’s a lot easier to replace a piece of rotten wood than it is to replace rusted-out stainless steel, which was the situation with the Admiral.”

The Admiral, a popular St. Louis excursion steamboat from the 1940s through the 1970s, was repurposed as a casino in the mid-‘90s but was eventually sold for salvage.

2. They care because of the Goldenrod’s unique history.

The preservation group points to the Goldenrod’s importance as an irreplaceable river relic.

In 1968, the Goldenrod was designated as a Registered National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service -- one of only two remaining examples of the showboat era that ended in the 1920s.

“It is the oldest riverboat in the entire Mississippi River basin,” DeBellis said. “Wooden-hulled riverboats and steamboats were built to last 10 years and then they’d be pulled out of service, or they sank or blew up and caught fire. For this boat to still be around in 2013, it’s like watching a tyrannosaurus walk by.”

Credit From The Goldenrod website

The Pope Dock Company of Parkersville, W.Va., built the Goldenrod in 1909 for W. R. Markle, a successful showboat owner of the era. It was a sizable vessel -- 200 feet long and 45 feet wide -- with an auditorium that could seat 1,400. It was lavishly decorated and cost $75,000 to build, the equivalent of about $1.8 million today. The Goldenrod traveled the rivers of the Midwest until 1937 when it was permanently docked in St. Louis. The Great Depression and the growing motion picture industry had taken a toll on showboating.

Among the famous names who came aboard: Red Skelton, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and Bob Hope.

Medford, 22, said he became interested in the Goldenrod when he and some friends happened upon the vessel at its mooring site at Kampsville and didn't know what it was.

“I fell in love with it,’’ he said. “There is some type of energy on that boat that just attracts you to it. Not only the history but the whole boat itself -- the way it was put together. I’ve always had an interest in history, historic buildings. Well, this thing topped them all.’’

Medford contacted DeBellis who suggested that he keep an eye on the boat since he lives closer to it than the other foundation members.

“For the past three to four years, I’ve been going over, checking on it, making small repairs,” he said.

Medford has been researching the Goldenrod and has amassed a collection of historic pictures, which he has been adding to the website. Medford, who will be completing his business degree next spring, said he has also started working on the business side of the preservation effort.

“It is going to be a really cool project,” he said.

3. The group wants to return the showboat to the St. Louis riverfront.

The group’s strategy is to raise enough money to buy the showboat and then move it back to the St. Louis riverfront, near the Arch, where they would restore it. They believe that such a visible location would spur interest in the restoration and fundraising efforts.

McPheeters said he has had a preliminary discussion with the Coast Guard and plans to meet with the Park Service about the plan.

Showboats were essentially floating theaters on barges. They had no engines and were pushed from town to town by towboats. The group plans to restore the Goldenrod’s auditorium to full capacity and return it to its original purpose as a venue for theatrical productions and concerts.

DeBellis said the boat would not be a dinner theater, as it was in St. Charles.

“You need enough seating capacity to make money and make it go,’’ he said.

Eventually, a separate adjoining boat or barge might be added to provide lunch or dinner service.

Debellis said the Goldenrod would also be a tourist attraction and would provide jobs on the riverfront. He pointed to the city’s heritage as a river town.

“You’ve got a riverboat on the seal of St. Louis and no riverboats,” he said.

4. They see a window of opportunity.

DeBellis said that the dock owners are asking $69,508, the amount of dock fees they say they are owed.

The group believes they can convince the owners to sell the boat because of its historic value – and because the Goldenrod is primarily a wooden vessel, so its scrap value isn’t as high as vessels made of steel.

DeBellis said the restoration has been estimated to cost up to $3 million to restore the showboat to its former glory. 

The first step is to raise enough money to buy back the boat.

McPheeters said the group has raised about $27,000 so far and several fundraising benefits are in the works.

"I think it will be a huge asset for the city,” McPheeters said. “It would be one more thing that is unique about St. Louis. I think we’ve underutilized our river frontage.”

McPheeters, 72, said the foundation wants to buy the Goldenrod before year’s end.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on this,” he said, laughing. “But it’s been fun.”

Debellis is encouraged by the donations and credits McPheeters with helping the preservation foundation get the attention of philanthropic organizations. He likened saving the Goldenrod to efforts to restore Union Station or the Fox Theater.

“It’s about saving a national treasure,” he said. “It survived for 100 years, and we’re going to let it go down now?”

To learn more about the history of the Goldenrod: Steamboat.org has published an extensive history.

Medford believes the foundation is finally gaining traction.

“We were spinning our wheels,” he said. “Now we’ve really got a good grip on things and are starting to move and the whole project seems realistic now. Before, it was a good hope and a wonderful thought. Now it’s more realistic. There is more organization.”

Medford said the group will soon have a new website with more information, and the group has a Facebook page.