Hannibal history: Splendor of the steamboat Gordon C. Greene revived in 1961, but short-lived

Local Legacies

By Mary Lou Montgomery

Published in the Hannibal Courier-Post

Saturday, March 24, 1979

Steamboats with calliopes puffing out tunes are almost a thing of the past on the Mississippi (circa 1979), with but one packet boat, the Delta Queen, still making regular summer stops in Hannibal, Missouri

But one steamer – the Gordon C. Greene – became well known throughout the area in its own right. Built in 1923, the boat made its way through the rivers of the Midwest, passing through Hannibal regularly until 1949, when it was retired because the boat was termed too heavy.

However, the boat with all its grandeur was not condemned to the scrap heap. It was towed to New Orleans, its boilers removed, and transformed by its owners into a dinner boat.

In 1961, an enterprising Hannibal businessman, Arthur Krato, and his associate, John Groffel of St. Louis, purchased the aging boat at an auction in New Orleans, and arranged to have the four-story, 210-foot-long vessel towed to Hannibal.

The steamer, by this time renamed the River Queen, was moored on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, near the Mark Twain Bridge. It was formally opened to the public on April 23, 1962, after months of refurbishing and a long-delayed opening because of high water.

It was billed as “Hannibal’s newest tourist attraction,” featuring a restaurant, museum, guided tours and lounges, an old-fashioned melodrama theater and gift shops.

On opening day, 2,000 people signed the registration book in a grand opening garnished with many floral tributes from Hannibal merchants and other well wishers. In charge of the new arrival to Hannibal was Commander Lester “Buck” O’Neil, a personal friend of Krato’s.

The first major event locally staged on the boat was a Law Day luncheon, coordinated by William B. Spaun and presented by the Hannibal branch of the American Bar Association. Nicholas Pentcheff, head of the Bulgarian information desk for Radio Free Europe, spoke to the group of visiting members of the association aboard the sternwheeler.

The CB&Q Railroad provided a special steam train excursion from St. Louis to Hannibal to transport visiting dignitaries to the event.

The life of Hannibal’s grand dinner theater was short-lived, however. The River Queen was only open for two seasons before the historical ship was towed to St. Louis to fulfill a similar position on the riverfront there.

The boat was replaced for a short time by the Mississippi Queen, a 35-year-old Texas steamer which was maneuvered into the spot formerly occupied by the River Queen. This boat was open for tours, but food service was not available.

The River Queen was moved to the Hannibal Iron and Metal Co., where the smoke stacks were cut off for the trip downriver. Once in St. Louis, it became a floating restaurant, lounge and museum.

In December 1967, an odd occurrence ended the ship’s majestic history. The boat sank while moored in St. Louis and was totally destroyed. The cause of the boat’s sinking was not determined.

Photo caption: On its last voyage, the Gordon C. Greene, later renamed the River Queen, was photographed in 1949 by William B. Spaun as it pulled out of Lock and Dam No. 21 at Quincy, Ill. The boat was moored for a time at Hannibal, and later sank while in service as a dinner theatre in St. Louis.

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