Showboat fire deemed accidental

by Nathan Whalen

The fire that consumed the University’s Centennial Showboat last month was an accident started by errant sparks from a welder’s torch, St. Paul Fire Department officials said.
Because the fire was accidental, the University stands to receive $1.3 million in insurance money, the same amount already invested in renovating the vessel formerly named Gen. John Newton.
Although faculty members and students involved with the planned Showboat production decided to rebuild the century-old floating theater, the insurance company might still decide the boat’s hull is a complete loss. The University could receive an additional $150,000 in that case.
Stuart Bestland, fire investigator for the St. Paul Fire Department, said the Jan. 27 fire was unintentionally started when sparks from welding torches were able to smolder in dry-rotted wood located next to the welding seam.
As workers welded parts of the boat’s hull together in the weeks prior to the fire, they would chip away at the spark-burnt wood and put out the little fires with pails of snow.
Bestland said he believes that the construction crews did not completely extinguish one of the pieces of wood the day of the fire. It continued to grow until it consumed the whole ship that evening.
The boat’s structure collapsed in on itself during the blaze, making the fire department’s investigation complicated, Bestland said. The collapsed structure allowed parts of the boat to continue to smolder the day after the fire.
Investigators were unable to board the structure the day after because the fire had rekindled.
With the cause of the fire in hand, the University is weighing its options, but it would like to have the charred-out shell remain part of the University.
“We want to build a replica of the John Newton from the current hull up,” said C. Lance Brockman of the Theatre Arts and Dance department.
Brockman added that the former U.S. Army vessel, which the University bought for one dollar in 1958, holds too many memories for the University to part with.
The actual condition of the hull has to be determined before the University can make future plans for the showboat.
If the University does not rebuild the boat, another option would be buying a new paddle-wheel boat.
“Because the fire is unintentional, that means it’s an accident,” Brockman said. He said he expects to get the full return on the loss.
University officials will meet with St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman to discuss the future of the boat’s home on Harriet Island.
“It’s a tremendous loss for the city of St. Paul,” said Steve Rosenstone, the College of Liberal Arts dean. St. Paul spent $250,000 on docking facilities for the boat and intended for the ship to be an island centerpiece.
While the University and St. Paul ponder the future of the showboat, preparations for the play continue.
Opening day for “Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde,” the play originally scheduled to be performed by the Showboat Company this summer, has been pushed back to July 4, 2001.
Thirteen actors have already been appointed to play in the company’s debut production. Theater students are also continuing to work on the play’s set.

Nathan Whalen covers facilities and construction. He welcomes comments at nwhale[email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3236.