Monday, March 22, 2010

The end of the Riverboat Road

When I moved to the St. Louis area about a decade ago, there were still remnants of its colorful past. I was quickly educated that the Zoo’s birdcage aviary, stables, and Forest Park in general were all part of the 1904 World’s Fair. But probably no other icon better represents the rich history of life along the Mississippi than the glorious Riverboat. At the turn of the century the boats were the work horses in modern river transportation.

My first visit to the Arch also featured a visit to the one and only McDonald’s restaurant on a riverboat. It was docked on the riverfront and a unique way to share a burger and a truly ‘Happy’ meal. I was lucky to eat there because by the Millennium it was gone. Also from the vantage point atop the Arch you could clearly see the Admiral riverboat casino though I never have been on it. Soon it too will be gone, as it surrenders it’s gaming license and place on the St. Louis riverfront by Summer 2010.

My favorite riverboat memory was boarding the Goldenrod dinner boat theater over in St. Charles. I really would look forward to those fun Sunday Matinee shows. Yes, the boat was a little seedy and the food was average, but the experience and history on board was unmatched. Many a famous performer had worked the stage on that little boat over the decades. Sadly it was sold off and removed from the St. Charles riverfront about 5 years back.

So today I see that the old Robert E. Lee replica riverboat restaurant caught fire and burned to the hull in Kimmswick, Missouri. I had the pleasure of eating at the place with my in-laws a few years ago. The food was average for a dinner house, but again sitting dockside on top of a big sternwheeler, looking out over the river, is an experience we will never forget. Its death basically leaves the river in the hands of a few remaining stalwart commercial businesses.

Barge jockeys still move salt and coal up and down the river. There are a few small tour boats with quaint names like the ’Mark Twain’ that roam the Mississippi too. These are little more than highly decorated flat boats with a wheel house and fake smokestacks to entertain tourists for hour-long rides. A few ferries run back and forth between Illinois and Missouri and of course the mighty casino business has flourished nicely as the State’s lick their chops for tax revenue, but they're “boats” in name only.

Yes, the river has quieted somewhat since the days when Riverboats were king. What might have been if St. Louis had chosen the railroads expansion West over the mighty Riverboats is anybody’s guess. The complexion of the country and most certainly Chicago as a major rail hub would have changed dramatically. One thing’s for sure, today would be much the same for the mighty Riverboat – its time has passed by literally and is coming to the last bend in the river.

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