Mini-Flood 21: Goldenrod Showboat


photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk

Built in 1909, the Goldenrod Showboat (designated a US National Landmark) is one of only two extant showboats from the era of its origin. The Goldenrod was the last showboat to operate on the Mississippi River, and afterward was moored to the levee downtown for several decades as a destination for live theater and ragtime music. Since, the ship has fallen into disrepair, but a group of dedicated preservationists are now raising funds for its revival and eventual return to the St. Louis Riverfront.


photograph by Ann Aurbach


photograph by James Palmour


photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis


photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

Since the earliest days of St. Louis, the Mississippi River has been an intimate companion and provider for the city. For much of this history, residents first arrived to the city, as well as, received and sent their goods via the important waterway. Where the river and soil meet is as richly significant a place as any in all of St. Louis, for it is a location uniquely associated with both brilliant foresight and harsh hindsight. It is a point where we both welcome visitors and see them go.


photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis


photograph by Chris Naffziger


photograph by Jason Gray


photograph by Ann Aurbach

Above the levee, the country’s tallest monument looms. Despite this, a presence does seem to be missing from the riverfront; a character which communicates something about the historic correlation between land and water here is currently overshadowed. Sure, the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher Riverboats provide a partial glimpse, but the levee was designed to support the traffic of more than one hundred such boats (and it did at its heyday). Certainly, that quantity has not been seen here for generations, although anyone over thirty years old probably remembers several more boats along the riverfront when they were a child. One of these, likely enshrined by a garland of lights, was the Goldenrod Showboat.


photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk


photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

A few years after the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, a gambler and entrepreneur saw his vision of entertainment opulence come to life in West Virginia. “W.R. Markle’s New Showboat”, as it was originally known, was the largest showboat in the world, and although plain (by showboat standards) on the outside, it was richly adorned inside. Later renamed, the Goldenrod Showboat is 200 feet long and 45 feet wide, and features a theater with an original seating capacity of 1400. Lining the balcony inside the auditorium are 21 box seats on two levels. Soaring mirrors in ornamental frames increase the illusion of space, and chandeliers combine with hundreds of intricate lighting fixtures to provide what must have been a truly breathtaking display. Unfortunately for Markle, the Goldenrod was lost to a foreclosure resulting from his gambling debt. In 1922, the Showboat received a new owner, Captain Bill Menke. For many years, Menke directed the Goldenrod toward legendary acclaim. When the Showboat arrived at a destination, its reputation was sure to precede it. In 1937, the Boat made a stop in St. Louis for repairs, and remained thereafter until 1990. In 1962, the Goldenrod suffered a debilitating fire, and so Menke sold the Boat to a group of local businessmen who repaired the structure to beyond its original splendor. Two years after its reopening, the Goldenrod Showboat was designated as a National Historic Landmark.


photograph by Jason Gray


photograph by Greg Barth Projects, LLC


photograph by Greg Barth Projects, LLC


photograph by Laura Harter


photograph by Ann Aurbach


photograph by Shannon Piwowarczyk

In 1989, the Goldenrod was sold to the City of St. Charles, Mo., and was hauled upstream to rest at that location. After more than a decade of successful business as a dinner theater, the Showboat suffered structural damages during a lull in the Missouri River water level. Faced with prohibitive repair costs, St. Charles attempted to sell the Goldenrod, but no buyers could be found. Eventually, the Boat came into the possession of the Historic Riverboat Preservation Association, who are currently raising funds for restoration. Located in Kampsville, Il., on the Illinois River, plans are in the works to move the Showboat back to its former location along the St. Louis Levee.

However, in order for any of these plans to be realized, the organization requires capital. The future of this colorful, 100+ year-old, thread of our local tapestry is in jeopardy. The organization, though capable and well-intentioned, faces enormous expenses to have this dream confirmed. If you are interested in helping out, please make a donation here. Given the historical significance of this particular Boat, I see no reason why St. Louis should not rally to save it.


photograph by Jeni Kulka


photograph by Diane Cannon Piwowarczyk


photograph by Jeni Kulka

Picture 9

*A very special thanks to Jake Medford for enabling Photo Flood Saint Louis to come and photograph the Goldenrod Showboat, a hard-fought cause so obviously close to his heart. The opportunity was once in a lifetime for us, and we all hope that your organization receives some additional support from our readers.

1 Comment
  1. Theresa Harter 9 years ago

    Great images. This is one miniFlood I really would have liked to go on.

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