Addie May: fun-loving lady - 1997
No, the Addie May wasn’t fancy and she wasn’t fast, but she was a fun-loving lady who made her mark as one of the nation’s oldest sternwheel excursion boats.
She was born on the Illinois River in 1923 and she died on the Monongahela River in 1996. In between, she spent most of her 73 years as an Upper Mississippi ferry, excursion boat and dinner boat. She also outlived most of her larger and better-known peers; only the Belle of Louisville and the President have been on the river longer.
For 36 seasons, the Addie May made sight-seeing trips from her landing four miles north of Hamilton on Illinois 96. She was a Pool 19 institution and one of the few excursion boats on the Upper Mississippi. Loyal passengers love to reminisce about this venerable riverboat. They remember weddings, birthdays and anniversary parties held on her decks. They can tell you about beautiful moonlit nights on the river and sudden squalls that sent the boat scurrying for the dock. “The best Dixieland music I ever heard was played on the Addie May,” a white-haired river buff told me once. “I can’t remember the year, but the weather was perfect and we had a full moon to boot.”
The Addie May was also a favorite of William J. “Steamboat Bill” Petersen, superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa and an eminent river historian. Several times during the 1950’s and ‘60s, Petersen chartered the boat and regaled society members with river tales gathered during his Mississippi research.
Of the Addie May’s nine owners, Harry B. “Potsy” Andressen was the most colorful. He was also the holder of some impressive river credentials. Andressen purchased the Addie May following his retirement from the U. S. Lighthouse Service. He spent several years on the Wakerobin, serving as officer in charge of that vessel. Guttenberg Mike Vorwald, veteran Federal Barge Line master and pilot, remembers when Potsy was mate on the Wakerobin, one of several boats which maintained bank lights on the Mississippi River.
The Lighthouse Service was disbanded in 1939 and its responsibilities were passed to the U. S. Coast Guard. Andressen’s license (No. 261030) designated him master of steam and motor vessels of all gross tons and first-class pilot on the Upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the Missouri River from its mouth to Kansas City, Missouri, and the St. Croix River from its mouth to Stillwater, Minnesota.
Built at Grafton, Illinois, the Addie May spent her early years as a ferry at Thebes, Illinois, 44 miles above Cairo. She was a single deck vessel enclosed by a board fence. There were large, swinging gates near the bow on both sides of the boat and a few seats for pedestrians next to the pilothouse. Andressen brought the boat to Keokuk in 1944 and hired a carpenter to convert her to an excursion boat. The main deck was enclosed and s second deck was added. A new pilothouse was positioned at the stern above the paddlewheel. When the work was completed in 1945, Potsy moved the boat to a new landing on the Illinois side of the river where he already operated a popular tavern and restaurant, The Pilot’s Club.
Early in 1961, Andressen sold his business to Donald Gray of Quincy. The transaction included the Addie May as well as a home, restaurant and motel. While it wasn’t spelled out in the sales contract, Captain Potsy more or less went with the boat. “He was a big help to me,” Gray recalls. “He loved the boat and he loved people.” Potsy also continued to make his home at the landing. Vern Haulk of Bushnell was the regular pilot, but Andressen also helped out before Gray secured his pilot’s license. Andressen died suddenly Aug. 14 1962, at the age of 68, only a few weeks after he had renewed his license. Death was caused by a heart attack. Burial was in Oakland Cemetery in Keokuk.
Including her paddlewheel, the Addie May was 80 feet long. Her hull was 20 feet wide with a beam of 26 feet and a draft of 28 inches. The vessel was powered by a Farmall 10-20 tractor engine. Sprockets attached to the axle drove the chains that turned the paddlewheel. At the urging of the U. S. coast Guard, Gray converted the boat to diesel power. “Besides the tank on the tractor, there was a large auxiliary tank behind the pilothouse and the Coast Guard thought that was too much gasoline,” Gray said. He stuck with Farmall tractors, replacing the gasoline model with a 15-30 diesel engine. The boat had a capacity of 125 passengers. Seldom did the Addie May’s cruising speed exceed 5 miles per hour and when the wind was against her, it was considerably less.
Gray was surprised one day to meet the Addie May’s original owner, Eugene Holliday. He came aboard as a passenger and they talked about the boat’s early years. Gray also met other passengers from Thebes who remembered riding on the ferry boat. He learned something about that period when he replaced the decking. Underneath was the original fir deck with horseshoe marks made by animals pulling heavy loads. The Addie May ran charter trips during the week and public excursions on weekends, returning to the dock at one-hour intervals. During the Andressen era, fares were 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. After several years, Gray raised the adult fare to $1.00 and finally to $3.00. Gray continues to make his home at the old boat landing near Waggoner’s Creek.
In 1982, Gray sold the Addie May to John Vize, East Moline, Illinois. Vize refurbished the boat and moved her to Princeton, where she opened the 1982 season as a dinner and sight-seeing enterprise. He painted her white with plenty of red trim and gave her a new name: the Belle of Princeton. A licensed pilot, Vize ran the boat and John Bridges took over the food services. The trip from Hamilton to Princeton wasn’t an easy one, Vize recalls. At Keithsburg, the boat had to maneuver her way past the fallen span of an abandoned railroad bridge. The going was very slow until the Jack D. Wofford arrived on the scene and took her in tow. John had his camera handy and the result was a shot which made it appear that the Belle of Princeton was headed upriver pushing a string of 15 empties.
Vize and his wife, Marie, were married aboard the Belle on Nov. 13, 1982. John told me they were the 27th couple to speak their wedding vows on the oat. During her first year at Princeton, he said the Belle carried 10,000 passengers. She was not a financial success, however, and after two years, Vize sold his interest to Bridges. “She was a good boat and I hated to give her up,” he said. John has a collection of stories about the Addie May, including one from her ferry days when she rescued horses during the disastrous Mississippi flood of 1927.
Vize said the Addie May’s bell, weighing about 300 pounds, is owned by Glen Suiter of Princeton. “The bell is probably worth more than the boat,” he quipped when we talked about the Addie May in 1995. Gray said Andressen told him he purchased the bell from Clat Adams at his famous Quincy riverfront store for $100.
In 1986, the Addie May was on the move again, this time to Guttenberg. Chuck Lawson, who purchased the boat from Bridges, termed himself “an Iowa farm boy who is fulfilling a boyhood dream.” Lawson’s introduction to riverboating turned out to be a rough one. The move from Princeton to Guttenberg took four days. Struggling against April high water and strong headwinds, the boat averaged only two miles per hour on the 110-mile trip. Starting May 1, what was now the Belle of Guttenberg offered evening dinner cruises to Cassville, Wisconsin, and back.
Lawson’s dream didn’t pan out and after about a year and a half, the boat moved upriver to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The new owner was Raymond L. Childs, who provided both dinner cruises and chartered narrated cruises. Childs billed the boat as “the oldest operating authentic paddlewheeler on the Mississippi.” Her new name, Belle of Prairie du Chien, was painted on both sides of the lower deck in letters two feet high. But picture postcards used for advertising continued to carry the Addie May name. Despite three different Belle labels, her original name prevailed. But the spelling of Addie May was another matter. Even Captain Potsy got it wrong when he used Addie Mae on his picture postcards.
In 1992, Childs sold the boat to the Pennsylvania Riverboat Corp., making a 1,700-mile delivery trip from Prairie du Chien to Monongahela, Pennsylvania. Her new home port was on the Monongahela River, 30 river miles from Pittsburgh where the Allegheny and the Monongahela join to form the Ohio River. At the invitation of Childs, Donald Gray took his last ride on the Addie May on June 18, 1992. He boarded the boat at Lock 19 at Keokuk and rode with Childs and his crew to Lock 20 at Canton, Mo. Gray saw the Addie May once more during a tip east in October, 1994. He found her docked at Marina One Resort at the town of Monongahela, but there was no one aboard and no one to answer his questions.
According to a local newspaper story, the boat began sight-seeing cruises between the towns of Charleroi and Elizabeth in September, 1992. There was also an evening dance cruise which included dinner at Marina One’s Riverwatch Restaurant. There was a photograph of the boat and her skipper, Capt. Jay Mock, with Marina One Riverboat painted in large letters below the cabin windows and Addie May inscribed on the front corners. The boat was also resplendent in startling new colors that would have embarrassed some of her former owners—pink and turquoise!
Last fall, Pat Welsh, friend and fellow riverman, received an unconfirmed report that the Addie May had sunk on the Monongahela River. He passed it on to other Midwest Riverboat Buff members and a laborious search for details began. A telephone call to the U. S. Coast Guard’s marine safety office in Pittsburgh produced the first shred of solid information. Lt. David Fish remembered that the Addie May was one of many casualties of a devastating flood that struck the Upper Ohio and its tributaries in January, 1996.
He supplied the name and phone number of Gabe Centofanti of West Elizabeth, Pa., and a fascinating story began to unfold.
Gabe is owner of Centofanti Marine Service, a large repair operation at Mile 24.5 on the Monongahela River. As a river historian, he also has an affinity for old boats. “The Addie May got off to a bad start when she arrived on the Mon,” he told me during our February telephone conversation. “The boat crashed into the Marine One dock and damaged the hull. Then the pilot got off the boat and fell over with a heart attack.” Presumably, this was Raymond Childs. “They called an ambulance and rushed him to the hospital, but it wasn’t too long until he was released,” Gabe said.
The boat’s new owner was John DiMarco, who operated a vending business in the Pittsburgh area. “He bought Marina One, which has a terrible location and poor access. Then he decided he needed an excursion boat to help draw a crowd to the marina,” Centofanti said.
After the accident, they put the Addie May on Centofanti’s dry dock to assess the damage. “The Coast Guard people took one look and were ready to pick up the boat’s Certificate of Inspection,” Gabe said. “But DiMarco was a good talker and he persuaded the Coast Guard to allow him to make sufficient repairs to finish the 1992 season.” The repair work was done at Centofanti’s yard. “We replaced the stern plating. We installed four thrusters at the corners, two forward and two aft, and used them for propulsion. We also installed a new diesel generator and replaced the old clutch and throttle. The owner also did a lot of interior refurbishing,” Gabe added.
In 1993, the marina was sold and the Addie May was part of the transaction. Centofanti said he didn’t know the buyer’s name, but the boat remained at her old dock. “They had her out in the river several times, but she never carried any passengers,” he added. Later in 1993, the owner surrendered the boat’s certificate, apparently because he found it too costly to meet Coast Guard inspection standards. As far as Gabe knows, the boat never left the dock during the 1994 and 1995 seasons.
The January flood of 1996 was one of the worst in the history of the Pittsburgh area. “The Mon came up so fast you could have surfed on it,” Gabe said. The Addie May was lost on Jan. 19, one day before the flood crested. Centofanti said he was standing watch in the pilothouse of one of his townboats about 4 a.m. when he saw something coming downriver. “At first, all I could see was railing. Then I got a searchlight on it and I knew it was the Addie May.”
When Gabe spotted her, she had already traveled more than five miles from the spot where the killer flood had torn her from her moorings. Now she was bearing down on Dam 3, less than a mile downstream. “She made it over the dam in good shape,” Gabe said.
“She had lots of wood in her and she was riding high.” But the worst was still to come. Dam 3 is located a Mile 24 and the river below is dominated by a procession of bridges. “Somewhere in there she broke up and was gone,” Gabe said. “She never made it past the town of Clairton at Mile 20.”
It was the Addie May’s last trip. After 73 years, she left a lot of mourners.
River Ripples Midwest Riverboat Buffs
Newsletter Spring, 1997