Once upon a time, the Mamie S. Barrett commanded a real presence on the rivers of the U.S. In fact, it was even home to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for a brief period. But now, almost a century after it first sailed its maiden voyage, the vessel that marked the beginning of the end of the steamboat era is a husk of its former self. Even as it gathers rust, though, its story is fascinating.
Back in the early 1800s the road networks dotted across the U.S. weren’t widespread or connected enough to prove viable for transport. Instead, people turned to the water to shift their goods, or even themselves. In many places, this was facilitated by the natural rivers that connected several of the nation’s early boomtowns.
Cities including Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans and more were linked through a network that joined the Mississippi, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio rivers. Farmers and industrialists sent their cargo down these waterways, to be exported to the world. Indeed, in a time before highways and railroads, the U.S. economy was driven by water-borne commerce.
Those early entrepreneurs didn’t just rely on the natural waterways, however. Indeed, where rivers couldn’t go, canals – man-made channels – could. For instance, the Erie Canal, finished in 1825, joined Lake Erie to the Hudson River and New York City, which prospered as the primary market for the canal’s trade.
Nevertheless, Americans couldn’t simply throw their goods into rowboats on these vast waterways. It was time for another technological revolution – and in came the paddle steamer. The mighty boat brought together two separate ideas: the use of paddles for navigation and propulsion, combined with steam power.
The paddle as a means of navigation is an idea that can be traced as far back as the first century B.C. Indeed, the Roman engineer Vitruvius described the concept in his mechanical treatise. A few centuries later, an anonymous Roman author then wrote about the potential of using paddles for propulsion. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that these ideas were paired with steam power.
Even then, those early paddle steamers – mainly produced in Europe – were still very experimental. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the first commercial paddle steamers went into operation, including the first to sail the Mississippi River in 1812. That decade, the river would be home to 20 total paddle steamers. But by the 1830s that number would rise to over 1,200.
In fact, there was a huge influx of new steamboats in those decades, with farmers and industrialists seeking to take advantage of the waterways. What’s more, they became so popular that they eventually ended up as state symbols. For example, the Seal of Iowa incorporates the Steamboat Iowa, built in 1838, as a sign of power, progress and speed.
There were downsides to this explosion in steamboat travel, however – most of them environmental. For example, the boats required wood for fuel, leading to deforestation around the river banks. Consequently, the river grew wider and shallower, making navigating it far trickier. And with no trees on the floodplain, flooding of the Mississippi became a bigger problem than before.
Nevertheless, the benefits of traveling on the waterways clearly outweighed the disadvantages for most, because it became such a phenomenon in the 19th century. And there were some iconic boats in that period, including the multiple Natchez vessels, named after the Mississippi city. Indeed, American Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette even traveled on the first Natchez boat.
One of the most famous flagships from the era of river travel in the U.S., however, was undoubtedly the Mamie S. Barrett. Now nearly a century old, the historic vessel’s story is a long and fascinating one. The steamboat has served all kinds of different purposes over the decades, and was briefly even home to a U.S. president.
The boat was the work of the Howard Shipyard & Dock Co. of Jeffersonville, Indiana. Founded in 1834, the company was one of the country’s biggest ship manufacturers. It was also responsible for constructing the Mamie S. Barrett for the businessman Oscar F. Barrett in 1921. And it didn’t come cheap, costing $145,000, or nearly $1.9 million in today’s money.
The Mamie S. Barrett launched from the Howard Yards on August 11, 1921, and made her maiden voyage a fortnight later, in the direction of Cincinnati. It would end up being one of the last sternwheel towboats the Howard Yards ever produced, with more efficient diesel-powered boats coming into favor in the 1930s.
At 125 feet long and 30 feet wide, the Mamie S. Barrett was built to be the Barrett Towboat and Barge Line Company’s flagship craft. Indeed, it was originally a towboat, designed to push barges downriver. Most towboats have a square bow, on which huge plates are mounted to aid in pushing other vessels.
A train of several barges coupled together is typically referred to as a “tow,” and can extend to dozens of barges, plus a towboat. Ships intended for long distance journeys are also likely to have living quarters available for the crew, and the Mamie S. Barrett was no exception. In fact, it could apparently accommodate 11 officers and 27 men, although it’s thought that it actually carried far fewer than this.
Sixteen years after making its maiden voyage as a towboat, however, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers purchased it from the Barrett Towboat and Barge Line Company. They used the vessel for another ten years, renaming it the Penniman. The boat was predominantly employed to cruise inland rivers, monitoring various channels and performing dredging duty.
As well as its more mundane duties, however, the Mamie S. Barrett was also used for a handful of highly important missions. In 1945 for instance, the boat carried a group of dignitaries and officials during an inspection tour. But its most significant use came three years prior to that trip, when the highest authority in the U.S. spent time on board.
Yes, in the Second World War, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the Mamie S. Barrett to inspect strategic sites along the Mississippi River. Of course, this information wasn’t common knowledge at the time, as revealing it would have been a huge security risk. But it’s nonetheless another chapter in the long, characterful history of the ship.
Because the boat was effectively the president’s headquarters during that time, certain additions had to be made, including a bathtub and an elevator. But these weren’t the only modifications made to the vessel. In fact, due to its ever-changing purpose over the decades, the Mamie S. Barrett underwent all manner of changes since its launching.
For example, according to historical photographs, the boat’s aft compartments were extended to reach the stern on the second deck at some point between 1921 and 1947. Around this time, the cabin was apparently also made bigger, while other modifications were made to the stacks and the vessel’s pilot house.
Finally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers retired the Mamie S. Barrett in 1947, selling it to a construction company. The vessel then changed hands multiple times over the next few decades. And during that time, it served a variety of different functions, including as a floating clubhouse, a work barge and a restaurant.
In fact, the Mamie S. Barrett served as a clubhouse for the Harbor Point Yacht Club of Weston Alton, Missouri, for around three decades. As a clubhouse, its name was changed to Piasa, and it underwent even further modifications with the removal of the steam boilers.
Then, in 1981 the boat was sold once more, this time to Dick and Kathy Oberle. The couple restored the boat, including foaming the hull to prevent it from deteriorating, then moved it to Kentucky. There, it became a marina restaurant on the Cumberland River until 1987.
Several years moving on to its next owner, however, the Mamie S. Barrett had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. According to documents filed at the time, further renovation of the vessel was planned, with $100,000 allocated to improve the exterior. However, it was estimated that around $725,000 would be required to fully transform the boat into a first-class restaurant.
Nevertheless, the boat was placed on the National Register for a reason. Indeed, the vessel’s nomination form described it as, “a rare surviving form of riverboat transportation.” Very few other sternwheel towboats survived into that decade and in Kentucky, only one such vessel existed in its original form.
Meanwhile, despite its new status, the boat still passed from owner to owner over the next few years. Then, in 1987 John and Mary Houseman purchased the Mamie S. Barrett, and converted it into a showboat. A restaurant was located on the second deck, with the main deck home to a 120-seat theater. In 1990 it changed hands once again, this time to be used as a casino boat.
However, that purpose never came to fruition. Instead, the boat had one last moment in the spotlight, which eagle-eyed film gurus may be familiar with. Indeed, the Mamie S. Barrett was used as a prop in the 1993 movie The Adventures of Huck Finn, starring Elijah Wood and Ron Perlman.
Following that last hurrah, though, the boat’s story became far less glamorous. In 1993, a flood beached the Mamie S. Barrett, where it stayed for two years before being moved to Vidalia, Los Angeles. A second flood in 1997 brought it back into the water, but its heyday of serving as a restaurant or showboat was over.
Then, in 1999 the boat’s previous owners donated it to the town of Rosedale, Michigan. However, it didn’t have any use for the vessel, and it was ultimately left to rot. While there had been talk of restoring it, nothing ever came of those plans – nor of the interest expressed by museums and other cities in the early 2000s.
Finally, after decades of lying forgotten, disaster struck this once historic steamboat. In 2017 the Mississippi River rose up to the Mamie S. Barrett, and it caught fire. The flames wreaked havoc on the boat inside and out, destroying the pilothouse – a component that had been targeted for preservation just a year earlier.
Not long after the fire raged, writers from the blog For Travel’s Sake visited the wreckage, describing the effects of the blaze. They wrote in 2017, “Charred wood and blackened, twisted metal were all that remained above the steel framework of the main deck.” Indeed, the Mamie S. Barrett’s fate was described as an “unfitting end.”
And you can see from these images – captured by photographer Michael McCarthy for the blog in January 2017 – the boat is merely a husk of its once glorious self. The huge windows through which President Roosevelt had once gazed upon the Mississippi River have been smashed. Moreover, the boat has rusted tremendously over the years, a victim of neglect.
And it’s here in Deer Park where photographer McCarthy found the rotting boat. Indeed, his pictures show the Mamie S. Barrett in a real state of decay. The walls have been stripped bare by the inferno, with piles of debris littering the floors upon which countless visitors have trodden over the decades.
Furthermore, restoring the boat would cost a pretty penny, particular after the fire damage. After all, back in 1983 the price tag quoted on the National Register of Historic Places nomination form to fully restore the vessel was an eye-watering $725,000. Considering the current state of the Mamie S. Barrett, that price tag would now be orders of magnitude higher.
Nevertheless, it’s little surprise that the steamboat fell out of favor in the U.S. And, therefore, it’s also no wonder there was ultimately so little commitment to salvaging the Mamie S. Barrett. Indeed, a number of factors lead to the end of the steamboat era, including the proliferation of diesel tugboats and the Great Depression.
The railroads, for instance, proved much faster and easier to use. And as the network of railways expanded, so the bulk of passenger travel moved over to that far more convenient mode of transport. Steamboats still had their place in the American economy, but they were now mainly used for transporting cargo.
In the end, though, the majority of steamboats suffered similar fates to the Mamie S. Barrett. Indeed, fires and boiler explosions claimed hundreds of vessels before the turn of the 20th century. And by the 1940s the steamboat era was all but over.
However, there are still five steamboats in operation around the U.S. Four of these are day boats, including the Minne Ha-Ha on Lake George, New York, and the ninth Natchez vessel, which still sails on the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, the American Queen, is the only boat to operate overnight, offering week-long cruises.
While the Mamie S. Barrett’s fate isn’t too surprising, then, it’s still a marked change from the roles the flagship vessel once boasted. Indeed, in its current rusted state, it’s hard to imagine it ever having served as a presidential headquarters or clubhouse. And yet, this decaying steamboat has almost a century of incredible American history behind it.