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If memories of Goldenrod were cash, the boat would be restored

The historic Goldenrod Showboat is currently docked near Kampsville, Ill.
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 24, 2013: The Goldenrod Showboat, one of the last surviving relics linking St. Louis to a steeped, riverboat past, looks to set sail for its final voyage.

But will it be a retirement to the scrap heap or a glorious return to the St. Louis riverfront? Its fate remains in the hands of a small nonprofit group, the Historic Riverboat Preservation Association.

As Mary Delach Leonard reported in September, the Goldenrod was one of the last showboats to work the Mississippi River before being moored at the St. Louis riverfront. The 200-foot-long and 45-foot-wide vessel was built in 1909 by Pope Dock Co. of Parkersville, W.Va., for W.R. Markle and boasted an auditorium that could seat more than 1,400 people.

On June 1, 1962, an electrical short sparked a catastrophic fire that engulfed the auditorium and damaged the boat’s superstructure. After a new group bought it, a renovated Goldenrod was unveiled in May 1965 and registered as a National Historic Landmark two years later.

In 1989, the boat was purchased by the city of St. Charles, where it was moved and operated as a dinner theater for 12 years. In 2001, record low Missouri River levels forced her aground, and the Coast Guard closed the boat for structural repairs. Now moored near Kampsville, Ill., the preservation association is trying to raise money to restore the boat, before it is lost.

To get a taste of what life on the boat was like, the Beacon, through the Public Insight Network, asked people to share recollections of their experiences on the showboat.

Jamie Spencer, 68, a retired college professor, thought back to a party his parents threw for him during his senior year of high school.

He said it was the fall of ‘62 or spring ‘63, when they watched a production of "The Drunkard.” Spencer said, "I remember the boat being tethered to the shore as we boarded by the gang plank.”

"At some point some of the guys started throwing popcorn on the stage, and I remember getting lectured about it!” he said, laughing. "There was also a running joke that I guess must have happened for real at one time: At the end of the show when the curtain would raise it would grab one of the nearest tableclothes, of course sling everything to the floor. I guess it was their signature joke.”

School teacher Beth Duncan, 50, had a different experience aboard the showboat from the other side of the curtain.

She said she was 12- or 13-years-old when she and her sister were taking dance lessons from Pat Field’s School of Dance in Highland. Duncan said, “I can remember the dance studio boarding the Showboat and performing for patrons riding the boat, it was a lot of fun!”

"We’d do a show, dancing in the big ballroom, doing tap, pompon and afterward we would get to wander over the boat,” said Duncan. "There weren’t too many people on the boat, mostly older people and the parents of the kids who were dancing; what I do remember is sitting out on the deck, the wind blowing through my hair, a smooth peaceful ride, not hurried like things are today.”

Asked whether she’d like to see the riverboat restored to the St. Louis riverfront, Duncan replied in a positive manner.

"If you take a drive along the riverfront, it’s pretty empty and discouraging to see. It seems like there’s been a decline,” Duncan said.

Bill Burmeister, 56, an architect, remembers many of the fine, live, musical theater shows the Goldenrod showcased when on the St. Louis riverfront.

"It had a real, good ol’ riverboat feel to it,” Burmeister said. "It wasn’t like going to Muny or modern stages. It had a relaxed type of feel; everybody in the audience was tuned into the performance with an easy-going atmosphere, there was a really nice social vibe about the place.”

"There were antique dining tables set up around the theater stage and down the length of the boat,” said Burmeister. "The servers were brushed up in 30’s, 40’s burlesque attire adding to that historic early 20th century riverboat feel.”

Burmeister believes that restoring the riverboat to the St. Louis riverfront would help bring back a lost part of St. Louis history.

"The thing you have to remember about St. Louis is that it was created by riverboats,” said Burmeister. "As people began to expand west, they used St. Louis and its focal point on the Mississippi river as the dock on which to launch their explorations. Tying [the Goldenrod] in with the Arch and the other renovation projects down there would be a great to celebrate the opening of the 2015 CityArchRiver project.”

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