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March 2012 Baselines: Mississippi River Monument

The 105 Year Saga Of The S.S. Admiral

Text By Bill Senefsky

The 105-Year Saga of the S.S. Admiral
For decades in the United States, the riverboats of our inland waterways provided the transportation infrastructure necessary to grow and expand America. In addition to carrying heavy freight and farm staples, these specially designed, shallow craft also provided passenger service and gambling relaxation during their heyday. The most famous river boater of them all, Samuel Clements, forged his understanding of America on these ships. Even his renowned name, Mark Twain, pays homage to this industry.

St. Louis has been home to many riverboats, but like Twain, none has a more storied past than the S.S. Admiral. This prominent excursion craft successfully operated for decades on the mighty Mississippi River. But what made this ship distinctive was her long history and distinctive design.

Admiral of the Fleet
Originally launched in 1907, the Admiral began life as a conventional, side-wheeled, steel-hulled steamboat named Albatross. Dubuque Boat and Boiler built the ship in Dubuque, Iowa. She was fitted with four large steam turbines using the standard technology and layout of the period. Her designed length was 308 feet, with a beam of 53.8 feet and a depth of 7.6 feet. Above the hull she measured 90 feet wide to accommodate her side wheels. In 1920, the vessel returned to dry dock in Keokuk, Iowa, to have her hull lengthened by the Ripley Boat Company. When the ship left the yard for St. Louis in February of 1921, she displaced 1,100 tons. The Admiral measured 374 feet in length, with a width of 92 feet. The S.S. Admiral was longer than a city block, and five decks high. At the time of her 1940 retrofit and reconstruction, the all-steel inland-steamer was the largest inland-passenger vessel in the United States. This unique craft would remain in service for several decades, in a variety of formats and functions, before finally ending her career as a stationary floating casino in July 2011.

Streckfus Steamers was one of the many riverboat businesses on the river. It operated a luxury craft dubbed the J.S. Deluxe that steamed from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minnesota, during the ’20s. This vessel combined lavish furnishings with fine cuisine and was said to have introduced jazz to the St. Louis area as part of its regular musical entertainment for its passengers.

During The Great Depression, Streckfus Steamers decided it needed a newer craft, a flagship if you will, to take dominance of the river trade. In 1937, the company purchased the aged side-wheeler Albatross. The Albatross had been built in 1907 for the Louisiana and Mississippi Valley Transfer Company to haul up to 16 railroad freight cars up the river. She had primarily operated out of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and was of the conventional gingerbread riverboat design.

Full reconstruction of the ship by the Steamers Service Company began in 1938. During the next three years, the vessel was stripped to her bare hull, and five decks were added (two of them being equipped with air conditioning, which was a novelty at the time) at a cost of more than $1,000,000. She had a passenger capacity of 4,400 and made her maiden excursion run from St. Louis in June 1940. The Admiral featured a calliope that played music as she landed or departed a destination. The air-conditioned, two-story ballroom was the most popular part of the ship, but the Admiral was also decked out with a fully equipped game room, complete with pinball and Skee-ball machines on the lower deck.

The rebuilt vessel’s real attraction, however, was her unique and far-out appearance. The all-steel structure was a result of the efforts of Maizie Krebs, a fashion designer for the Famous-Barr department store in St. Louis. Her fanciful sketches were reportedly drawn for Captain Joe Streckfus, but reports from the time suggest neither party expected the radical designs to be implemented.

2,700hp Diesel Power Retrofit
In the early ’70s, a business group, S.S. Admiral Partners, purchased the craft and invested more than $30 million in new renovations. The craft was modernized, and the ancient steam boilers were replaced with Caterpillar diesels driving three props. One engine was fitted to each of the original paddlewheel boxes, and a third was mounted at the stern. The combined system was reported to develop 2,700 hp. Sadly, most of the interior’s art deco items were removed, as the ship was utilized as an entertainment nightclub.

Concerns surrounding the strength of the Admiral’s hull infrastructure cropped up in 1979, and the U.S. Coast Guard declared the vessel unseaworthy. A more permanent mooring situation had to be developed for the attraction. The riverboat was purchased by John Connelly, a Pittsburgh millionaire with past riverboat experience, from the Streckfus family for $600,000 in 1981. His vision was to utilize the Admiral as a docking barge, and thus had her diesel engines removed after he purchased the ship. The locals and city government were not at all happy with this result. A consortium was formed, and the vessel was purchased from Connelly for $1.6 million.

Upon further inspection, estimates called for the Admiral to be gone through again with another $5 to $6 million. As is usually the case, lawyers, consultants, contractor overruns, and other factors drove the costs up. A business group of 53 members paid $100,000 each for a fair share in what they expected to be a profitable venture.

In March 1987, the river landmark was supposed to be an addition to the new St. Louis Center. The updated stationary vessel featured a $2 million kitchen facility and revamped ballrooms. The Six Flags theme park organization was to operate the facility, and estimates of 900,000 yearly visitors walking her decks were promised. This 1980s update proved to be more costly than anyone imagined. For starters, $36.9 million was spent with $7.6 million coming from the taxpayers. The breakdown saw $22 million actually used for vessel rehab and upgrades. The remaining $15 million was paid to consultants, with $6.5 million subtracted for interim fees and millions more set aside for pre-opening fees.

During this period it was obvious that the city and its population fondly remembered the vessel’s good times, and thus did not want the current project to falter. Success was not to be. Just six months after the November 1987 grand opening, the venture collapsed. Failure was blamed on several factors, including the required entry fee, and the hideous fire towers that blocked the view of the vessel. Unbelievably, the craft was again offered to Connelly, who would run the operation for another year. By November 1988, the attraction closed its doors forever as an entertainment center.

By Bill Senefsky
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