Bob Harris (left) and Dave Belz (right) are fundraising to bring the Minnesota Centennial Showboat to Winona and dock it at the former railroad swing bridge.
Photo by Chris Rogers.
The Minnesota Centennial Showboat had its last show in St. Paul in 2016.
Courtesy of the city of St. Paul.
by CHRIS ROGERS
One decade after city leaders demolished the Wilkie replica steamboat at Levee Park, Winona has a chance to get another replica steamboat and events center on its riverfront — this time one that actually floats.
The city of St. Paul has agreed to sell the Minnesota Centennial Showboat to a Winona nonprofit. The showboat is a floating theater the University of Minnesota (U of M) created to celebrate the state’s centennial anniversary in 1958 and continued to use for floating performances until 2016. It is an ornate Victorian steamboat that, once upon a time, travelled up and down the Mississippi River presenting performances in different cities, but has, in recent decades, been a stationary tourist attraction on the St. Paul riverfront.
Bob Harris and Dave Belz are the leaders of the nonprofit, the William A. Thompson Dredge Museum, and they hope to raise enough money to dock the showboat at the remnant of the old railroad swing bridge, just downstream of the interstate bridge, in the main channel of the Mississippi River. Harris owns the remnant bridge piers. “I can sure picture it over there. I think it’d be really cool,” Mayor Mark Peterson said.
As the name suggests, Belz and Harris launched that nonprofit in the 2000s in an effort to bring the historic Army Corps of Engineers dredge to Winona — something they are still actively trying to do — but when they learned that the Minnesota Centennial Showboat faced an uncertain future in St. Paul, they saw an opportunity for Winona.
Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (SMU) Dean of Arts and Humanities Michael Charron and SMU professor and Theatre du Mississippi board member Paul Sannerud were crew members on the showboat back in 1982. “It’s the best experience I’ve had at the U of M,” Charron said. “We’d always go out on the gangplank and greet every single person who came to the show, and they were so enthusiastic. That was such a great experience as an actor,” he added. Charron played the character Doc Snifkins in the turn of the century musical, “The Belle of New York.” “I don’t know if I was the bad guy necessarily but I was the guy … trying to marry my daughter off to a millionaire,” Charron recalled. Sannerud built sets, and in another role, actually lived on the boat. “One of the work-study jobs you could get at the time was to be the on-board security and technician on the boat,” he explained.
Charron described the showboat as being in good condition; he was there for its final performance in the summer of 2016. The theater has 225 seats. The vessel is a full 175 feet long by 50 feet wide and features green rooms and decks, according to Belz. It has an elevator, heat, bathrooms, and one thing the city’s Masonic Temple Theatre does not yet have: air conditioning. However, the stated reason for the U of M discontinuing productions on the showboat and ultimately selling it to the city of St. Paul was that the boat was too expensive for the university theater department to maintain, according to a Pioneer Press report. St. Paul sought bidders to operate the boat as a riverfront venue later in 2016, but that did not come to fruition.
Now, St. Paul has agreed to sell the showboat to the Thompson Dredge Museum for $40,000. Under the purchase agreement, Harris’ and Belz’ organization must pay $5,000 by April 15 and pay the rest by June 1. Belz and Harris are launching a fundraising campaign to cover the cost of the boat, the cost of transporting it down to Winona — Harris estimates that will be $15,000-$20,000 — and of making some improvements to the swing bridge to allow the vessel to be docked there. Harris said some dredging will be necessary and pilings would need to be set. Improvements to the swing bridge could wait; Harris said he has another place to store the boat in the interim. Under the purchase agreement, he needs to transport the boat by July 1.
Harris received a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to construct a series of boat slips on the downstream side of swing bridge and build a deck on the top of the bridge in 1995. He said he is working with the USACE and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to get the necessary approvals to change those plans and accommodate the showboat. “I think they’ve got a lot of hurdles before they’re open for business, but I wish them well,” Peterson said.
Belz and Harris said they hope to use the showboat as a venue for performances, weddings, or any kind of event. Having the historic showboat docked opposite Levee Park would add to the city’s efforts to improve the park, to bring people to the river, to develop its downtown, and improve its riverfront, Belz said.
“I think this is so unique,” Charron stated. “If we’re really part of the Great River, it’s part of the Great River tradition to have steamboats. And we have Steamboat Days … It would seem like a natural fit for Winona to have something like this.”
“We’re really happy we’re able to get this for Winona,” Belz said.
Any help people can give would be greatly appreciated, whether its financial donations or professional services, Belz and Harris stated. Donations may be sent to “Mn Centennial Showboat” or “WA Thompson Dredge Museum,” care of Winona National Bank, PO Box 499, Winona, Minn., 55987. For more information, contact Dave Belz at 507-452-1751 or Bob Harris at 507-429-3797.