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March 2012 Baselines: Mississippi River Monument

The 105 Year Saga Of The S.S. Admiral

Bill Senefsky
Mar 1, 2012
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.
Photo 2/6   |   march 2012 Baselines s S Admiral Docked
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.
Photo 3/6   |   The S.S. Admiral actually predates the Arch. In this 1942 photo, you can see the land cleared for the Arch, and there’s the S.S. Admiral docked under the Eads Bridge just to the north.
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.
Photo 4/6   |   For decades, the S.S. Admiral was a tourist attraction on the Mississippi River, visible from the observation area at the top of the St. Louis Arch.
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.
Gambling on the Admiral’s Future
In 1990, Connelly officially purchased the attraction for $10 million. Another $36 million was invested for transforming the Admiral into its new role as the “President Casino on the Admiral.” The vessel was moored near Eads Bridge, in the shadow of the St. Louis Arch. The gambling riverboat venue sported 1,230 slot machines, 59 gaming tables, and 1 restaurant. Indeed, the riverboat was a full-service river gambling casino, and it was obvious where the profits were expected to be generated.
Photo 5/6   |   Though the famous ship spent its final years as a floating attraction, it was once powered by three 900hp Caterpillar diesel engines. The engines were removed in 1979 and are likely still in service.
The rub was that it took until November 1992 to allow riverboat gambling in the state of Missouri. The gambling business was allowed to flourish onboard until January 1994 when the state Supreme Court threw out the results of the 1992 vote that allowed riverboat gambling. State voters did not help the venue’s cause by rejecting riverboat gambling that April. The following November saw the tides change once again with voters approving gambling once more.
By that point, other riverboat gaming venues had appeared on the river, too. Though the Admiral remained in operation, financial troubles, bankruptcies, and multiple owners meant a steady decline in its revenues and profitability.
Close Call
On the evening of April 4, 1998, the Mississippi River’s water level was above flood stage. For the Admiral, it was business as usual, with more than 3,000 folks onboard. At 7:50 p.m., the towboat Anne Holly was in the mundane process of pushing 14 barges northbound through the St. Louis harbor. Without warning, the towboat struck the Missouri-side pier of the center span of the Eads Bridge. Eight barges broke away from the group, returning through the passage. Three of which headed toward the Admiral, striking her, and immediately causing 8 of her 10 mooring lines to snap. The casino craft then rotated clockwise from her moorings into the center of the river, about 500 feet from shore. The Anne Holly’s captain released his vessel from the other six barges in tow and immediately placed his vessel’s push bars against the moving Admiral that was heading downriver. During this period, the last mooring line snapped, and the casino was only being held with the Anne Holly. Of the 3,000 onboard during the incident, only 50 passengers reported minor injuries. Further excitement developed when all the Admiral’s passengers had to be evacuated by other river craft, as she was off her moorings. Passengers were removed 200 at a time. Total damage from the accident was estimated at $11 million. Thanks to the quick reaction of the towboat captain, a great tragedy was averted. It turns out the river’s height would have caused the Admiral to not collide with the I-64 bridge, causing a possible capsizing of the craft in frigid, dark, rapid waters.
100 Years and More Than $80 Million
Columbia-Sussex Corporation expressed interest in the vessel’s possible purchase in 2005. Its interest, however, was in the casino licensing operations, and not the physical vessel. The rumor was the company had a new vessel planned for construction either at the existing site, or it would attempt to gain approval for a new one on the shoreline.
Photo 6/6   |   Sadly, the legacy of the S.S. Admiral has come to an end. The ship was sold for scrap, and the hull will likely have been cut up by the time you read this. The ship, however, will still live on in the memories of the millions who visited it, and the S.S. Admiral can still be seen in all its glory on Google Maps’ satellite view.
Three years later, in August 2008, Pinnacle Entertainment, the Admiral’s last owner, announced plans to move the vessel north to the Chain of Rocks Bridge. The state, however, refused the proposal, and Pinnacle ceased operations, surrendering its gambling license. The vacant craft was sold to St. Louis Marine, which then quickly sold her to the scrap yard. The Admiral’s theater barge, an addition built in 1980, was sold to the Ohio River town of Jeffersonville, Indiana, to be converted into yet another outdoor attraction.
To add a final twist to the story, a two-alarm fire occurred aboard the remains of the Admiral in January 2010. So after more than an $80 million investment by federal, state, and local governments (along with the private money of countless entrepreneurs), the Admiral is finally history. As her remnants were finally being towed to the scrap yard in Illinois, one observer remarked, “They will scrap all her above decks down to her bare hull. Maybe her hull will then be used for something else.”


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