A steamboat waiting to be rescued...

by Capt. Steve Huffman

On the Lower Mississippi River, some twenty miles below Natchez, there lay a beached steamboat that is begging to be rescued. It is not quite a steamboat "wreck" yet, but time and the elements are working on that.

MAMIE S. BARRET circa 1921


The MAMIE S. BARRETT is a sternwheel towboat that was built in 1921 by the Howard Shipyard, of Jeffersonville, Indiana. Her hull dimensions are approximately 145' by 30' by 5'. She was sold to the U.S. Engineers in late 1923, and was renamed the PENNIMAN in 1935. In 1942 an elevator and special bathtub were installed in the boat for the purpose of hosting President FDR on his Mississippi River Inspection. In 1947 she was decommissioned by the U.S.E. and sold to Vollmar Brothers Construction Company, St. Louis. In 1948 she was sold to the Harbor Point Yacht Club at West Alton, Missouri, and renamed the PIASA. At West Alton she served as a floating clubhouse and her steam engines were removed. One of her boilers became a Coast Guard navigation light, fashioned to look like a lighthouse (see image HERE). By the early 1980s her original name was restored and she became a restaurant on Kentucky Lake. On April 28th, 1983 she was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places. She was sold in 1987 and moved to Vicksburg where she operated as a restaurant/showboat through 1991.

Left: The MAMIE S. BARRETT, 1921.
Right: MAMIE S. BARRETT at Vicksburg, 1988.

During the flood of 1993, the MAMIE was intentionally beached in a cut-off below Natchez. Around 1995 the vessel was purchased for use as a casino boat, but this was not to be. Sometime around 1996 the owner had the entire port and starboard gunwhales replated with new steel. After this work, the flood of 1997 proved that she still floated. At some point in 1999 the vessel was donated to the town of Rosedale, Mississippi. The town no longer claims the liability of owning the vessel.

An actual project, or pure fantasy?

Such a shame to see a boat that once hosted a U.S. President, and listed as a National Historic Landmark, be allowed to deteriorate. What can be done? Well, not much, without spending a significant amount of money.

I learned about the MAMIE's plight while searching for a sternwheeler in the spring of 2000. Keith Norrington, a steamboat historian from New Albany, Indiana, had been a fan of the MAMIE since 1978. Keith had recently rediscovered the whereabouts of the boat. He suggested that I do some research and see who owned the vessel. To get me started, he mailed two file folders full of information and photos to me.

After three full days of making phone calls I finally reached the person who had owned the boat. They informed me that just a few months prior to my call they had donated the boat to the town of Rosedale, Mississippi as a tax write-off. Apparently Rosedale's Chamber of Commerce had plans for making the boat into a floating attraction. I decided to contact the Mayor of Rosedale to see if they were still interested in using the vessel. The Mayor indicated that their situation had changed, and the boat was no longer of interest to them. It was hinted that if someone else could make use of the boat, the town could be interested in donating it to them to be rid of the liability.

Before taking a 700 mile road trip to inspect the MAMIE for myself, I decided to investigate the price of a towing insurance policy for such a vessel. I was very unpleasantly surprised to discover that the insurance premium would be very high. With other projects going, I decided not to pursue the MAMIE due to the high towing insurance rates. The boat still could be rescued, if the right person (or organization) came along with enough funds. For a sternwheeler fanatic like myself, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime project for sure.

Left: The MAMIE S. BARRETT, 2001.
Right: View from the stern.

Left: View of the forward cabin area.
Note the authentic pilotwheels used as
chandeliers in her restaurant days.
Right: View of the port side.

Left: The MAMIE's starboard fantail, paddlewheel, crank
arm and in-grown brush.
Right: Looking up the port guard.

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In June, 2001 I found myself traveling through Mississippi with my wife, Barbara. We were on our honeymoon, and as fate would have it, one of our detinations was Natchez. Being a river historian herself, Barbara seemed as eager as I was to make a side-trip into Louisiana and locate the MAMIE. We located the MAMIE without incident and I snapped the photos above. While looking the boat over, we met a nice couple who owned rental property nearby. They relayed to us the story of how the gunwhales had been replated and how the boat was seaworthy during the 1997 flood.

In July, 2001 I received a phone call from the mayor of Jeffersonville, Indiana. He had recently read an article written by Keith Norrington about the MAMIE for the Waterways Journal. The mayor had contacted me to get more information about the boat, as Jeffersonville was looking for an attraction vessel for the city's riverfront. Photos and information were sent to the mayor's office, but the project has never materialized.

On November 1st, 2001 a certified marine surveyor performed a General Condition Marine Survery of the MAMIE, on behalf of the Howard Museum. Ironically the surveyor's grandfather was captain of the boat when it was the PENNIMAN, and hence his interest in doing the survey.

The intention of the survey was to determine the potential seaworthiness of the vessel and prescribe methods for moving her safely. Some of the structural integrety portion of the survey could not be completed due to poor access to the hull. In lieu of a complete inspection of the keelsons, bulkheads and stringers, the survey suggests moving her either atop a submersible deck barge, aboard a floating dry-dock, or supported between two jumbo barges. There are other consideration with regards to moving the vessel. The owner of the property where the vessel has been beached for nine years may claim, if not ownership, back-rent that was not paid by the previous owner.

The Howard Steamboat Museum had made an attempt in 1993 to acquire the vessel, but funds were not available for its restoration. At that time ACBL (which is part of what was once Howard) had volunteered to cover the transportation costs for the Howard Steamboat Museum as a write-off. The plan was to move the vessel to Jeffersonville and have it placed near the museum on a concrete pad for permanent display. Most of the boat's restoration would have taken place at that location.

The MAMIE S. BARRETT's Pilothouse

Today the Howard Museum still has interest in acquiring the entire vessel for public display. An alternate plan, in the event that saving the entire vessel is not feasible, would be to save just the pilothouse. The MAMIE's pilothouse is nearly untouched, with the original pilotwheel, lazy bench, bell pulls and speaking tubes intact. Although this would be a far less costly approach, all agree it would be much more interesting to have the complete vessel.

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