On June 7, 1981 our small family gathered to celebrate my parent’s fortieth anniversary. We chose the Goldenrod Showboat, a St. Louis landmark located at the foot of the levee on the Mississippi riverfront. It was memorable and raucous night. Almost every visit to the Goldenrod was a treat. It was a bawdy sort of place that harked back to the glory days of ragtime music, dim lights, free-flowing liquor, and melodrama theater where the audience hissed the villain and heckled the actors. It was permanently moored but still afloat (since 1909) and was subject to the whims of the river. It would move up and down the cobblestone levee as the river rose or fell. It would sway slightly when a large towboat pushed a string of barges up the river. Our family had a little bit of a connection to the old floating theater: my Aunt, my Mom’s sister, was the wardrobe mistress and sewed and repaired the actors’ costumes and occasionally dabbled in scenery fixes. We visited the Goldenrod most years and my Aunt and Mom would share stories of the actors who once performed on the stage. It was an impressive list including Bob Hope. Red Skelton got his start on the Goldenrod. Edna Ferber was at least partially inspired by the Goldenrod for her novel Show Boat.
As I recall, looking back over 37 years, we had a wonderful time listening to the St. Louis Ragtimers playing in the Salon before we went into the theater for a table on the floor in front of the stage. I remember my Dad giving my Mom a necklace with a single ruby as an anniversary present. That was a rare event – they were quietly devoted to each other and not prone to buying gifts of that sort. Although I don’t recall what play we saw that night the whole evening was etched on my memory. Only eight years later we would be putting them in a nursing home – coincidentally, and sadly, on their forty-eighth anniversary date.
The Goldenrod began life as a mobile floating theater in 1909, joining about twenty other showboats that brought culture and entertainment, or what passed for it, to small and large communities all along the nations rivers. If you have ever read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn you might be familiar with the concept. It had been going on for decades through the 1800s and was apparently profitable enough to continue well into the 20th century. The Goldenrod was, essentially, a glorified barge. It never had its own steam boiler, paddlewheel, or any means of propulsion. It was always moved by being pushed up or down the river by a separate stern wheel steamboat. The two ships would be locked together to withstand the river current and then move on to the next mooring. Sometime in the 1930s the Goldenrod pulled up at the St. Louis riverfront and stayed. In a few years it had become part of the fabric of the city.
The Goldenrod had a long run on the levee. It had some mishaps – the Mississippi River is a constant and powerful force tugging at the boats moored on the river. It saw a lot of ships come and go. Through the early years the SS St. Paul and the SS President would leave the levee on daily passenger excursions up and down the river.
In 1940 the new SS Admiral became the premier excursion steamer, holding as many as 4,000 passengers. The Admiral sported a modern streamlined Art Deco design that stood out from the old gingerbread steamboat appearance.
I spent several summer days cruising on the Admiral in my youth and it was a popular date-night destination. Bob Kuban and the In Men performed in the Admiral’s ballroom – a one-hit-wonder musical group. Meanwhile, the Goldenrod would still draw a crowd but it was harder to compete with everything else that was going on. The St. Louis Cardinals were packing people in at the new downtown stadium. Gaslight Square and Laclede’s Landing surged as entertainment venues for a while. The Goldenrod hung on. It caught fire one night in the 1960’s and much of the theater section was gutted. It recovered and was restored and reopened and people came back. The Goldenrod hosted the National Ragtime Festival for several years during this period and was frequented by some well-known ragtime and jazz performers. It carved out a special niche for itself in the music scene for several years.
Finally, time and the river and increased competition caught up with the Goldenrod. It wasn’t cheap mooring at prime riverfront real estate and the ship was showing its age. It was sold to the city of St. Charles in 1989 and repositioned on the Missouri River on the city’s riverfront, about a half-hour west of St. Louis. The ship was refurbished and reopened as the Goldenrod, doing much the same as it did for decades in front of St. Louis. The old ship ran aground in 2002 when the level of the Missouri River dropped drastically. Ironically, when the river level dropped other old steamboat wrecks began to poke up out of the mud and murky water – almost beckoning to the old boat. Damage to the Goldenrod was serious and the city couldn’t find money for repairs. They decided to sell it but there were no buyers. Eventually a group came forward with plans to move the Goldenrod and restore it but even those plans fell through. The boat was quietly relocated to Kampsville, Illinois, moored on the Illinois river. Things went sour. There were court cases and lack of funds – the Goldenrod crumbled away. We heard periodic reports about the old boat. It was going to come back – or it was sinking into the mud. It got a reputation for being haunted so various TV ghost hunters descended on the old boat, creeping around in the dark listening for voices or tell-tale knocks or noises. That was not the kind of performance the old boat was designed for. It seemed like an insult.
There was no coming back. There would be no restoration. It seems that very little was done – or could be done – to bring her back.
The Goldenrod was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and some effort was made to salvage parts of the boat’s interior furnishings and decorations for some future museum exhibition. The most recent news item was a notation in Preservation, by the National Trust for Historic Preservation which listed the Goldenrod as a “lost” landmark. That’s what prompted these old memories.
Scott Joplin and Mark Twain were both alive when the Goldenrod started her career on the river. Joplin’s ragtime music echoed through the hall and the salon of the old ship up to the end. Mark Twain’s brand of humor was no stranger to the old theater stage. Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and vaudeville song and dance performers all graced the stage and inhabited the hallways and actors’ cabins on board the old boat.
None of the original showboats are left. Almost all the old steamboats are gone or sit rotting in the mud at some forgotten mooring. They say the SS President is beached and has fallen into ruin. Even the SS Admiral ended her life as a faded old casino and then sold for scrap. Some old wrecks, like the steamship Arabia, have been found buried under river bottom cornfields and mined for mid-1800s artifacts for museums or for collectors. The Goldenrod had a long life compared to other riverboats but it is still hard to see the end come as it did…forgotten in some debris-filled mud bank.
The photographs are all from the internet sources. Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the old boat. The link shown below is a YouTube video of the St. Louis Ragtimers performing Deep Ellum Blues in the Goldenrod Salon sometime in 1981, a few weeks or days from that visit for my parent’s fortieth anniversary.
Enjoy these old places while you can. We are losing a lot of our history.
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