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Adrift on the Mississip' - BECKY BREAKAWAY - 40 Years Ago!

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Old 06-26-2009, 08:38 AM
Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: On the "Beautiful Ohio" at New Albany, Indiana, opposite Louisville, Kentucky
Posts: 2,078
Default Adrift on the Mississip' - BECKY BREAKAWAY - 40 Years Ago!

The Louisville Metro area was besieged with fierce storms last night, much like the "Big Blow" that struck the St. Louis waterfront on the night of Saturday, June 28, 1969 - four decades ago! Another river history anniversary!

In those days, the St. Louis levee was a lively beehive of activity and it was a typical summer night. The ADMIRAL had departed on her evening dance cruise, most likely with a near capacity crowd aboard of 4,000. The GOLDENROD SHOWBOAT troupe presented a melodrama in the theatre and rollicking music of the St. Louis Ragtimers reverberated out over the cobblestones. The smaller excursion boats HUCK FINN and MISSISSIPPI BELLE offered short trips and, just up Wharf Street, near the Eads Bridge, there was entertainment and "spirits" at THE OLD ST. LOUIS LEVEE HOUSE in the building that formerly housed the Eagle Boat Store. Lights twinkled on boats and bridges, reflected in the Mississippi, and people of all ages strolled along the wharf in the shadow of the shimmering Gateway Arch as soft laughter floated in the evening air.

The venerable sternwheeler BECKY THATCHER (formerly the Str. MISSISSIPPI) just aft of the GOLDENROD, had approximately 100 diners, plus staff, in her restaurant on the second deck. Around 10:00 P.M., with flashing, cracking lightning and rolling thunder, the wind picked up and a severe storm struck the riverfront. Temporarily moored alongside the BECKY was a full scale replica of the SANTA MARIA (an exhibit at the 1964 New York World's Fair) purchased by then Mayor A.J. Cervantes for $375,000 (outbidding the brother of Nelson Rockefeller) and brought to St. Louis in March as a tourist attraction. Her landing barge was not yet ready, so Frank Pierson, owner of the BECKY and GOLDENROD SHOWBOAT, allowed them to tie up alongside the BECKY and to open for tours.

As the storm intensified, the BECKY began to severely rock, the situation worsened by the rolling of the round bottomed SANTA MARIA. On the shore side of the BECKY was the snack bar pavilion built on the steel hull of the first BECKY (which sank in 1965) that was the 1879 snagboat C.B. REESE and later the towboat WOOD RIVER / I. A. O'SHAUGNESSY. Also tied to the fleet was the St. Louis Visitors Center Barge, a small flat with an office on it that contained much steamboaty gingerbread. The restaurant manager made an announcement that everyone should leave the old steamboat, but before an evacuation could be implemented, lines snapped and the vessels broke loose. Several people were on the two gangplanks as they were dragged into the river but safely made it to the wharf. The GOLDENROD did not break loose, but the force of the wind broke windows and caused one of her doors to become concave! As the BECKY flotilla got "underway" they bumped two moored barges (one of them to be the landing barge for the SANTA MARIA) and narrowly missed the small sternwheeler GOLDEN ARROW and minesweeper U.S.S. INAUGURAL, another attraction on the waterfront.

Due to the howling 60+ mph wind gusts, the boats began moving swiftly downriver around 8+ miles per hour. The restaurant manager told the "passengers" to extinguish candles on the tables, nobody should smoke and to sit on the floor in the interest of safety. The bar remained open and drinks were "on the house"! There was no panic amongst those on board. The fleet barely cleared the Poplar Street and MacArthur Bridges by mere inches and continued another two miles where they crashed into the Monsanto Chemical Dock on the Illinois side. The BECKY drifted sideways against the dock, with the SANTA MARIA taking the brunt and acting like a huge "bumper", breaking away and sinking some 30 feet from shore, her wooden bottom crushed like an eggshell, with a gaping six foot hole.

A large pipeline at the Monsanto facility collapsed, amid a shower of sparks and hissing steam, doing considerable damage to the sternwheel of the BECKY. The towboat LARRAYNE ANDRESS, of Big Valley Towing, Vicksburg, had been riding out the storm at the Peabody Coal dock when the crew saw the BECKY and other vessels break loose. The ANDRESS, in command of Capt. Tollie Weeks, with chief engineer Jack Castle and crew, pursued the boats and had almost caught up with them when they hit the Monsanto facility. Capt. Weeks said he saw the "crow's nest" of the SANTA MARIA hit and sever power lines at the same time the BECKY struck a chemical pipeline. Mercifully, the wind was blowing away from the boats or there could have been an horrific explosion and fire. When asked by a reporter why the ANDRESS went to the aid of the BECKY, Chief Castle replied, "People on the river stick together. When a crisis arises you go to help!"

Fearing a fire or sinking, the crew of the LARRAYNE ANDRESS quickly evacuated the BECKY THATCHER and spaced the 100 "passengers" around the small towboat, serving them coffee (even out of saucers and bowls because there weren't enough mugs!) and delivered them safely to the Streckfus wharfboat, since the ADMIRAL was downriver on her nighttime excursion and had gone to the bank until the dangerous storm subsided.

On Sunday morning the BECKY was towed to the Eagle Marine Industries dock across the river. Aside from damage to her paddlewheel, a bulkhead and door were bashed in, causing some damage to exhibits in Ruth Ferris's MIDSHIP MUSEUM on the main deck. A siege of high water followed the storm (Wharf Street was completely submerged) and the BECKY did not return to the levee until early August. Divers searched for the two gangplanks, finding one of them a mile downriver. The other was never located. Ruth despised having the replica ship alongside the BECKY, as it blocked her view of the river from the museum door. She called it the "Santa Banana" and was happy to be rid of it! The ship apparently was not popular with St. Louisians and the newspaper carried an editorial entitled "Columbus Go Home!" The SANTA MARIA was raised, renovated at St. Louis Ship and placed between two barges with a museum and gift shop area. She remained on the St. Louis riverfront until 1973, when she was sold away to Florida, later being destroyed in a spectacular fire on June 27, 1974 - a day short of the fifth anniversary of the breakaway at St. Louis! Lawsuits abounded and Monsanto was awarded $439,972 in damages, half of the total to each be paid by owners of the BECKY and SANTA MARIA. Appeals floundered in courts and later resulted in the BECKY being seized and closed in 1974. A bank sold the boat at auction and she went to Marietta in August, 1975 where she remains today - closed and for sale!

Herewith is a series of photos from the "Becky Breakaway", most of them by a photographer from the now defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

(1) SANTA MARIA alongside BECKY THATCHER - St. Louis - May, 1969.
(2 & 3) BECKY alongside Monsanto dock after breakaway from levee.
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Name:	SANTA MARIA alongside BECKY THATCHER  1969.jpg
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Name:	Becky Breakaway 6-69 1  Monsanto Dock.jpg
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Name:	Becky Breakaway 6-69 2 Monsanto Dock   Bow.jpg
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