Tricounty News

History Matters: The Minnesota Centennial Showboat

Whether any 2008 initiatives during the state's sesquicentennial will have a far-ranging impact, only time will tell. And I will surely leave others to discuss that when our bi-centennial rolls around in 2058. But looking back over 50 years, we find two centennial efforts are still very much with us 50 years later. The first still identifies with 1958 in its name: the Minnesota Centennial Showboat. The Showboat, once known as the General John Newton, was first commissioned in 1899. Its story, recounted on the Web site, tells us it served as a maritime courthouse and was visited by at least four U.S. presidents during its active tour of duty. As Minnesota's centennial   approached, the Army Corps of   Engineers sold the "well-preserved" but aged 175-foot stern-wheeler to the Centennial Commission for $1. It was intended from the beginning for the   University of Minnesota. Work   began immediately to transform the relic into a theater recreating an era that has long since faded.   Its centennial contribution was to present old-time melodrama performances at Mississippi River towns throughout the centennial year before taking a permanent berth at river's edge below the University. Many thousands packed the small theater over the next 36 years, booing and hissing villains and cheering dashing heroes in appropriate melodrama tradition. I am one of those who crossed the gangplank to enjoy its 19th-century atmosphere. But in 1993 the Showboat, badly in need of repair, closed after performing a season of Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap." Work began to renovate the Showboat, and a new home was planned on Harriet Island in   St. Paul while retaining ties to the theater department at the U. In January 2000, "half-way through renovations, the Showboat was ignited   by an errant welding spark and burned to its hull." Less than a year later, an agreement was penned to build a brand-new showboat through a partnership with the Padelford Packet Boat Company. Construction took place in Greenville, Miss. On July 4, 2002, the new Centennial Showboat, named the Frank W. Whiting, lowered its gangplank and opened the new 225-seat   theater to the public with performances of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." If you have never taken in a Showboat performance, you are overdue for this fun excursion.  Paddleboats were a key ingredient of our state's history, beginning long before Minnesota was Minnesota. In a wide-ranging   review of state history that   appeared as an insert to the Tri-County News in May 1958, the writer traced "two hundred restless years of transportation in Minnesota" - from canoes to super-highways. The article identifies the Virginia as the first paddleboat to venture up the Mississippi in the early 1820s to carry furs from the vast frontier along their route toward Europe where gentlemen sought the highly-prized Beaver hats and other "modern" fashions. Nonetheless, such trips were few and far between until the   establishment of the Minnesota Territory 25 years later. And then river-traffic exploded to pour out new settlers on the shores of S  t. Paul. Unfortunately, steamboats were also known to explode literally, way too often. Their prone-to-burst, centrally-located boilers made steamboat travel mighty hazardous; but there really were no practical options in those pre-railway days. In 1858, as Minnesota gained statehood, a count of 1,000 boat arrivals was recorded in St. Paul. Passengers and plows, and every other necessary item made its way by paddle-steamer to the territory, and after 1858, the nation's newest state. Products were not just moving one way. The new state was soon producing many products sought by the more established cities of the east. There were the furs of every kind, of course, but soon also items from buffalo robes to ginseng, and later wheat and lumber would dominate the southward shipping. Already by 1867 more than 107,000 bushels of wheat and 250,000 foot of lumber were loaded on the steamers before they left the St. Paul port. Passenger river traffic vanished quickly once it had to compete with the newly laid tracks of steel. Railways were far safer, less   impacted by the weather, and more reliable in their schedules. Commercial use of the river   did not vanish away, but its   future would be less picturesque after paddle-wheelers vanished and were replaced by strings of barges carrying the products of the prairies downstream. But the life of the paddle-  wheeler has not fully disappeared. A renaissance of sorts is taking place. As with many historic   'relics,' their appeal today is as recreation and relaxation, grasping for the "disposable dollar" of today's seniors rather than the pioneers' survival dollar created through the sweat of his brow. Newly built paddle steamers are equipped as luxury hotels or modern casinos and travel the Mississippi and those large rivers flowing into it. If you'd like to experience river travel in a luxury that was never experienced by our pioneer forefathers, from two nights to two weeks afloat, from St. Paul to New Orleans or even Pittsburg, visit a travel agent to see the options. If your disposable dollar doesn't stretch that far, your paddlewheel experience should start with a   visit to the Centennial Showboat and its theatrical performances - currently "The Count of Monte Cristo." ********** Wrapping up a memory ...  The winners' circle: carriage clock - Claire Arnold; collector coin - Jerry Pickle; hand-crocheted doilies - Sherry Donabauer,   Mary Ann Edwards, Colleen Mackereth and Mona Olk; keepsake cookbook - Sheila Hinkemeyer and Lisa Wohlman; history book - Laurence Waltzing; note cards - Joyce Burgstaler and Pat Mares; commemorative trivet - Janet   Eckman; commemorative coffee cups - Brad Donnay and Jan   Nelson; society membership - Pat Brown, Darwin Deuermeyer and Ed Stein. Congratulations to all our door prize winners at the 100th birthday celebration for Kimball's Historic City Hall.  A huge thanks to all our volunteers and visitors for the eighth successful Kimball Days supper and exhibit/celebration. ********** Watch for the next historic program at our Sept. 23 meeting, featuring the 1800s area stockade/  forts. Details in this column   Sept. 11. ********** City Hall's phase 4 will save   energy and money for years to come. It's not too late to participate by sending your donation or pledge to the Kimball Area Historical Society, Box 100, Kimball MN 55353; phones are (320) 398-5743, (320) 398-5250. Minnesota Historical Society wants to be actively   involved in Kimball's history so will match (double) every dollar you give. Fully tax-deductible. ********** "Volunteering: Never has a priceless gift cost so little."