Centennial Showboat catches fire, rocking plans for upcoming performance

by Nathan Whalen

It was all coming together.
After seven years of delays and budget problems, the University Department of Theatre Arts and Dance had finally started renovating its century-old Mississippi River theater. Actors were already auditioning for the summer debut production of one of the University’s more historic performance venues.
But it fell apart Thursday night when the University’s Centennial Showboat burned down to its hull while sitting in dry dock.
“This is like losing an old friend,” said Michael Harvey, a University theatre alumnus who attended performances at the showboat in the 1960s.
Harvey was set to direct the showboat’s return performance of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that would have kicked off on July 4. The show will still go on, but it is unclear where.
“This must be really devastating for the theatre arts program,” Harvey said. Harvey, who currently lives in San Diego, was in town a week before the fire to conduct auditions for the performance and to observe the renovation’s progress.
While theatre students and teachers who comprise the Showboat Company were reeling from the shock, they met Friday to start discussing alternative venues. Theatre officials hope to open their production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” on time.
“We have been getting calls from all over the state,” said Sherry Wagner, managing director for University theatre programs. Several theaters and auditoriums — and even boat companies — have made offers to Wagner to host the University’s performance.
Throughout its 42-year University history, the showboat attracted theatre students from around the nation because its three-month summer performances, as opposed to other student venues’ two- or three-week runs, offered them the experience of working on larger, more involved productions.
Up in smoke
The charred hulk that used to be the showboat remains in its dry dock, resting on a bed of ice left over from the dousing the fire department gave the boat Jan. 27 while putting out the blaze.
The 175-foot vessel, sitting in an industrial complex south of St. Paul, caught fire between 5 and 6 p.m. Thursday after construction workers left. When the fire department arrived, the 101-year-old boat was engulfed in flames.
“It was quite involved when we got there,” said Deputy Fire Chief Tim Verros. The fire was hot enough to melt the tail lights of trucks parked near the boat. Six fire companies responded to the fire.
The firefighters’ task of extinguishing the blaze in sub-freezing temperatures proved difficult, especially when several propane tanks on the boat exploded, Verros said.
Verros added that no one was hurt from the resulting explosions.
Firefighters were able to reach the outer deck of the boat, but because of the intensity of the flames and concerns that the boat’s upper decks were weakening, they didn’t venture farther.
The boat was still smoldering Friday, with too many hot spots to allow more examination. The cause of the fire is still undetermined.
Construction workers renovating the boat had been welding and using portable heaters in the weeks leading up to the fire.
“It would have been nice to get her floating again,” said Steven Cartier, one of the owners of Gladstone Construction. Cartier surveyed the damage Friday morning.
“The hull looks pretty good,” Cartier said, while eyeballing the length of the boat and watching the water drain from the still-intact ice-coated hulk.
Many of the construction workers who had worked on the boat were reassigned to other projects Friday.
A 100-year-old story
The showboat was originally commissioned in 1899 as the General John Newton, a general work boat for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It traveled up and down the Mississippi River, hauling passengers and cargo and towing other vessels.
The John Newton also served as a rescue boat during floods and a vantage point for army engineers to inspect riverside construction projects.
The University acquired the John Newton in 1958 for $1 with the help of the Minnesota Centennial Commission. After refurbishment, the vessel was renamed the Minnesota Centennial Showboat.
Owning a 19th-century-style paddle boat, the theatre department decided to keep within 19th-century theatrical traditions by choosing to stage melodramas.
University productions on the showboat, such as “Dracula” and “Under the Gaslight,” were paid opportunities for student-actors. The floating theatre continued running until 1993, when the University had to abandon the boat because it had deteriorated and violated a number of fire and safety regulations.
In the mid-1990s, the University ran into budget troubles when the original contractor for the showboat’s renovations made a clerical error, putting the project over budget. The original general contractor was subsequently released from the project.
In November 1999, Gladstone Construction was awarded the general contract, and the $2.2 million renovation commenced. The reconstruction included expanding the hull, improving the fire systems, creating handicap-accessible facilities and providing seating for 210 people.
When the theatre department announced the contract award, they also announced the location of the showboat’s new home at Harriet Island in St. Paul. The city of St. Paul agreed to provide mooring and ticket booths for the boat.

Nathan Whalen covers construction and facilities. He welcomes comments at [email protected] can also be reached at (612)-627-4070 x3232.