Gordon C. Greene

St. Louis, MO 

The GORDON C. GREENE, built as the CAPE GIRARDEAU and being renamed several times in her life ended up in St. Louis, MO, as RIVER QUEEN. She sank there on 1967. When the river stage is very low, some remainings of her hull can still be seen on the St. Louis riverfront between the Eads Bridge and the Admiral casino.

Gordon C. Greene
Gordon C. Greene

Gordon C. Greene History

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!

stateroom plan of the Gordon C. Greene
stateroom plan of the Gordon C. Greene

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.

Message Board Contributions

Members of the Stemaboats.org Message Board have been contributing some memories in January 2003 when the river stage was so low that the remainings of the Gordon C. Green became visible. Here is what they wrote:

Captain Mike Williams, January 12, 2003: “News Flash! This morning here at St. Louis, my brother Tom and I walked upon the remnants of the main deck of the Gordon C. Greene, exposed by extreme low water on the Upper Miss. We have taken digital photos which I hope to post soon on this site, and can also report that we have carefully cut out about 20 feet of the original cypress deck timbers, which are now neatly stacked at my brothers house. We hope to make some of the timbers into neat reminders of this grand old boat.
I am proud to report that on this fridgid morning, once again, footsteps echoed across the deck and amongst the bones of the grand old Gordon C. Greene! More reports soon!”

Keith Norrington, January 13, 2003: “All of these postings about the RIVER QUEEN / GORDON C. GREENE have dredged up a lot of memories. I well recall, as a 13 year old, badly bitten by the steamboat bug, that Saturday in 1967 when my mother had the radio on while she was ironing. As I came through the kitchen I heard the news commentator say, The famous riverboat used in the movie “Gone with the Wind” is sinking on the St. Louis waterfront today.” My heart sank like a stone. The Courier-Journal on Sunday morning had a front page photo of the boat with a caption which read “That Sinking Feeling” and showed the boat listing over. I hoped that old boat could be saved — and I think I even prayed about it at church that day! But it was not to be!
My mentor and patron saint of steamboating, the late Miss Ruth Ferris, was a noted St. Louis school teacher and river enthusiast who was instrumental in saving the pilothouse of the GOLDEN EAGLE after it sank in 1947. After retirement, Ruth was curator of the River Room at the Missouri Historical Society until she retired in 1965. Then, in 1966 she was asked to be designer and curator of a riverboat museum aboard the BECKY THATCHER (ex steamer MISSISSIPPI) at the St. Louis levee. After the River Queen went to pieces due to ice and high water, the tall chair used by the pilot, fell from the pilothouse as the boat tilted over and floated down past the BECKY THATCHER, where Ruth spied it and had a deckhand retrieve it for her museum! That chair (used on the boat during her days as the CAPE GIRARDEAU/GORDON C. GREENE) which shows in MANY pilothouse photos and was even featured on a postcard picture of the pilothouse interior during the time the RIVER QUEEN was at Hannibal, is probably still around St. Louis SOMEWHERE! The pilotwheel was badly damaged and about 3/4 of it was auctioned(along with piles of “stuff” scooped from the wreckage) on the levee in early 1968 for the sum of $140. An UN-glorious end to a wonderful and much loved old steamboat!”

Keith Norrington, January 13, 2003: “It’s great to hear that Capt. Mike and his brother explored the hull of the River Queen (ex-Gordon C. Greene)along the St. Louis levee. The hull has been in the river since the boat sank in December of 1967 and could not be salvaged. The boat began life right here in the Louisville area at Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1923 when the Howard’s built her as the CAPE GIRARDEAU for the Eagle Packet Company of St. Louis. She remained under their ownership until 1935 when the Greene Line purchased her and renamed her GORDON C. GREENE. Retired in 1952, she became a restaurant boat at such places as Owensboro, Kentucky, Portsmouth, Ohio, New Orleans, Hannibal, Missouri and finally at St. Louis where she sank. One of my BIG regrets is that I never got to see her, as my first trip to St. Louis came in the summer of 1968 when I was 14. Nothing was left of her by then but the hull. However, I do have a chandelier from her cabin and a few other artifacts. I have visited the hull numerous times, the most recent being on November 23rd, while in St. Louis for the memorial cruise honoring Jimmy Swift of the Waterways Journal. I stood on the hull and Judy snapped a photo. So, TECHNICALLY, I have been ABOARD the Gordon C. Greene!”

Keith Norrington, January 13, 2003: “The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported yesterday that the Mississippi River might fall to its lowest level since 1989. The story was accompanied by a photo of the GOLDENROD SHOWBOAT grounded in sand at her Missouri River mooring at St. Charles. Tows are going aground in the St. Louis area and the CASINO QUEEN had to be temporarily closed due to the low water conditions. The river was to fall to MINUS 4.6 feet by Friday. The gauge at St. Louis is based on an arbitrary “zero” mark established during a particularly low water period in 1863. At that reading the main channel is about 12.5 feet deep. At the St. Louis levee, the water level is well below where the cobblestones end — hence the reason the hull of the GORDON C. GREENE is very much visible.”


Here are a couple of pictures of the Gordon C. Greene Wreck that John Mullen made while the extreme low water in January 2003 …

… and various historic pictures, from C.W. Stoll collection (courtesy of Judy Patsch), Jim Herron, Kevin Dickmeyer, Judy Patsch, Gary Clermont (Keith Norrington Collection). Thank you very much to all contributors!