Rebuilt Centennial Showboat arrives

Elizabeth Putnam

Bearing the Minnesota ‘M’ and wearing Victorian-era American flags, the new University Centennial Showboat reached its permanent home on a St. Paul Mississippi River bank Wednesday, after a 1,400-mile trek upstream from its birthplace in Greenville, Miss.

To approximately 250 people, including St. Paul Deputy Mayor Dennis Flaherty; Jay Cowles, chairman of the Riverfront Corporation; and Goldy Gopher, University President Mark Yudof announced the boat’s arrival.

“I have been waiting for my ship to come in, and it finally did,” Yudof said.

The old showboat burned during renovation in January 2000.

The University’s department of theatre arts and dance has used the showboat since 1958 to stage plays.

The showboat project is a joint venture between the city of St. Paul, Padelford Packet Boat and the University.

Led by ship Capt. William Bowell, Padelford Packet Boat took on the endeavor to preserve the showboat tradition on the Mississippi.

“This represents the partnership between the University and the larger community,” Yudof said.

The University pays $1 per year for the city of St. Paul-constructed docking facility, ticket booth and restrooms at Harriet Island, where the boat will be permanently docked.

Nora Hoeft, a theater senior, watched as the boat glided through the water before reaching the dock.

Hoeft is in charge of art design in the new theater house, something she’s been researching and designing since fall.

“I know every dimension of the boat, but I hadn’t seen it yet,” Hoeft said. “I’m happy it’s finally here.”

Hoeft must now mobilize the crew to make her visions reality.

Jason Clusman, a theater junior, also has his work cut out for him as the shows’ technical coordinator.

He said the theatre department has been anticipating the boat’s arrival for a long time.

“As of now, the boat stands empty,” Clusman said. “Now the hard work begins.”

The first show, a production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” will be held on July 4.

The showboat has been a long process that has finally reached a conclusion, said Lance Brockman, theatre arts and dance professor.

“It’s a wonderful time for (St. Paul) and the University on common ground to welcome the return of a great institution,” Brockman said.

The 100-year-old original

The original boat was a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers work boat built in 1899, which transported passengers and cargo up and down the Mississippi River.

But in 1958, the University bought the boat for $1 and renamed it the Minnesota Centennial Showboat.

The 19th-century-style paddleboat became a traditional place for the University theatre department to stage plays with titles ranging from “Dracula” to “Under the Gaslight.”

For 42 years, the showboat paddled through the waters of the Mississippi, catering to more than 500,000 patrons from every state and at least 48 other countries.

The theatre department halted performances on the boat in 1993 when it was deemed unsafe because of fire and safety violations.

A renovation project went over budget and was delayed while finding an adequate contractor.

Gladstone Construction was awarded the general contract for the $2.2 million renovation in 1999.

Fire on the Waterfront

On Jan. 27, 2000, the project went up in smoke when a fire charred the boat down to its hull.

Investigators ruled the fire accidental, blaming a welding torch spark that flew during renovation.

The fire began after construction workers left between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Fire department officials said at the time that several propane tanks on the boat exploded, making salvaging the boat difficult.

“It looked like the end. Just like a standard melodrama,” said Tom Trow, project coordinator. “But the long tradition will continue.”

Elizabeth Putnam welcomes comments at [email protected]