The Gordon C. Greene
The Gordon C. Greene was built as "Cape Girardeau" at the Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana, in 1923 for the Eagle Packet Company of Saint Louis. Captain William H. Leyhe hired Thomas Dunbar, an eminent riverboat architect, to design and supervise her construction. She was the last packet boat built at the Howard Yard and she was decorated in the old style with a lot of jig-saw drapery, feathered stacks, and a lofty dome on the pilothouse.
Like many another steamboats, she was like a bride in that she wore 'something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue' when she came out. Her engines came from the Ferd Herold, built by the Iowa Machine Works. Her whistles came from another old Eagle packet, the Calhoun. Her hull and cabin were new. Her pilothouse dome gleamed in a coat of shiny blue paint as she entered her St. Louis - Cape Girardeau trade in April, 1924.
She made history before she even touched the water. When Ed J. Howard died he left the operation of the shipyard in the hands of his two sons, Clyde and James E. Howard. They agreed that it would be best if Clyde ran the office while Captain Jim bossed the yard. The day for the launch came and Clyde Howard went into the yard to supervise the work, much to his brother's dismay. He made a good job of it, too. Later they met in the office and agreed that one of them should buy out the other. James E. Howard did the buying and ran the firm until the beginning of World War II.
She served the Eagle Packet Company in their various trades, including Mardi Gras trips from 1925 to 1930, getting a taste of the work in which she was to gain undying fame. By 1935 the pinch of the Depression was so severe that the Eagle Packet Company was forced to do some drastic retrenchment, as they could no longer operate two boats (they also owned the much loved Golden Eagle), but over on the Ohio business was improving. Captain Tom Greene had an idea that he could make money with a tourist boat, so he started looking around for a suitable vessel. The Eagle Packet Company proffered the Golden Eagle, but he wanted no part of a wood-hulled boat. As those were desperate times they sold their fine steel-hulled steamer to the Greene Line for $50.000.
This transaction demonstrated the social unity and integrity of river folk when they faced a bad situation. Captain William H. Leyhe tells the story: "We put a price on her that we thought we would never make with her and we arranged for my brother and me to meet with Captain Chris and Tom on the Tom Greene at Louisville. On the way over my brother said to me, 'I think we should ask for some earnest money in case they don't take the boat, for we have a good trip in sight.' I said, 'Well, if they don't take the boat, we would not keep the money,' so we didn't mention it.
"After the deal was closed Chris said, 'I guess it is customary to put up some earnest money,' and inquired how much. My brother said, 'We will leave that up to you.' Chris said, 'Five thousand dollars?' We said, 'O.K.'
"All arrangements had been made how she was to be paid for and when they would send their men to take her over. Captain Mary Greene was sitting up with us and when my brother and I got up to leave Mrs. Greene said, 'Boys, you will get your money,' and we did."
In 1936 Captain Tom Greene added a second texas to better accommodate passengers and in 1937 altered it again. The result was to make her less pleasing aesthetically, but more attractive from a revenue standpoint, as these were the choicest rooms on the boat. Along with these changes the names of various decks were revised as a move toward better public relations. The boiler deck became the 'cabin' deck, thus ending unpleasant connotations of heat and explosion, and the texas became the 'sun' deck. To everyone's mild amazement, she caught on. People began to come from all over the nation to take long trips on our rivers from Cincinnati to Charleston, West Virginia, New Orleans, Louisiana, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and even to Saint Paul, Minnesota, at prices ranging as high as $275.00 per person!
A peculiar manifestation of our time was expressed by nearly everyone who' rode her: "The first day on that boat I thought I'd go crazy! There was absolutely nothing to do. But after the second day I found myself enjoying, for the first time in my adult life, the luxury of doing nothing." Entertainment on board was homespun, of the audience participation type, such as bingo, square dancing, and amateur acts by members of the crew. After seven to twenty one days of this each passenger felt like a member of the Greene Family.
The boat proved to be a paragon of dependability and seemed to acquire a personal pride in her status as queen of the rivers. Various improvements were made from time to time such as converting to oil firing (the coal bunker became a club room) and enclosing the entire cabin deck with wood and glass, and she began to lose her youthful figure. Other boats seemed to resent her high and respected position and one of them even poked her snoot in a fit of pique near Louisville.
In 1946 Captain Tom Greene had an idea, and with him an idea was practically a reality. He wanted to bring the Delta Queen around from Sacramento to the Mississippi, and so he did. On June 30, 1948, the Gordon C. Greene was deposed as the ruler of the rivers by the larger boat. She was placed in Upper Mississippi River tourist service, but this blow seemed to ruin the old girl's morale. She began to have the most unaccountable difficulties, even breaking her wheel shaft, and began to miss scheduled trips. Her retirement came in 1951. In 1952 she was sold to Portsmouth (OH) and used as a hotel under the name "Sarah Lee", in 1955 she was renamed "The Sternwheeler" and used as restaurant and museum at Owensboro (KY). Some time she also spent a period of time as a floating restaurant at Tampa (FL). In 1960 converted to a theatre, bar and tourist attraction at New Orleans (LA). 1961 sold to Hannibal (MO) for $49,100 and renamed to "River Queen". 1964 moved to St. Louis (MO) and used as restaurant.
She appeared in the famous movies "Steamboat around the Bend", "Gone with the Wind" and "The Kentuckean".
As the restaurant boat "River Queen" she sank at Saint Louis on December 3rd, 1967.
pictures from Jim Herron; scene from the 16mm film "River Queen" from the film collection of Bill Warrick.
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