The 84-year-old bulky President steamboat — the one that grossed nearly a half-billion dollars in gambling revenue when based in Davenport — was a decrepit hulk ready for the bone yard until a central Illinois businessman and entrepreneur had a gleam in his eye.
David Campbell of Effingham, Ill., bought the boat from Bernard Goldstein, the Quad-Citian who has been nicknamed the “father of riverboat gambling.”
It is Campbell’s intention to convert the whale of a one-time excursion boat into a hotel-restaurant-convention center in the small south-central town of St. Elmo, which has a population of only 1,500.
The problem is that St. Elmo is inland, about 90 miles from the Mississippi River, where the President — most of its windows shattered — had been slowly going to pot for about a half-dozen years in several different dockages.
Undaunted, Campbell had professionals all but disintegrate the boat and haul it from the river at Alton, Ill., to St. Elmo, Ill., where it will come to rest in a 20-acre lake of its own.
“It’s not been easy,” says Campbell. “All 300 feet and five stories of the boat have been dismantled and piled on flatbed trucks. It took 100 truckloads to haul all the pieces of the boat to St. Elmo.”
At the moment, hunks of the President are scattered over two acres, like something that has been hit by a tornado.
It is a jigsaw puzzle, and Tony Reid, a reporter from the Herald & Review at Decatur, Ill., recently looked it over and wrote, “The President is going to pieces. The question now is, can all the president’s men (as in Humpty Dumpty) put her back together again.”
Skeptics shake their heads.
“Even my wife, Peggy, told me that I was crazy to try it,” says Campbell.
With the boat totally dismantled, its old pilot house stands gauntly alone, in one piece, on the ground near St. Elmo. It is an ignoble sight for a pilot house that scanned the Mississippi and Ohio rivers for decades. The boat’s 300-plus window frames are helter-skelter on the ground, along with five layers of decks. Pitman rods, that drove the sidewheels, are a heap on the grass.
“Everything is apart,” the new owner says.
Pipes of the calliope, that once beckoned passengers from miles away, have been stolen. Vandals have taken their turn at the old girl. Most of the controls are gone.
The President began life in 1924 as an excursion boat, making regular visits to Davenport and Rock Island.
After retiring from the excursion trade, she was docked in St. Louis for day trips. It was there that she was purchased by John Connelly, who refurbished it and brought it to Davenport as Iowa’s first casino.
When the President docked on the Davenport levee as a casino on April 1, 1991 — amid much hullabaloo — she was an elegant lady, with crystal light fixtures and murals on the walls.
During its decade in Davenport, the President’s gross revenue was $570,025,795. On March 7, 2001, considered too archaic for modern gambling habits, she was pushed by a tugboat away to southern waters, awaiting a buyer. Four days later, she was replaced by the shoebox-looking Rhythm City.
Now, all the President’s finery is gone. “The murals were long ago taken by someone. I don’t know what ever happened to them,” says Campbell.
He speaks assuredly: “No matter its recent past, there’s no question that we’ll have it all together, looking just about like when it was on the downtown Davenport riverfront.”
To make this possible, he hired one of the nation’s ace movers, Jeremy Patterson House Moving Inc. of Washington, Iowa. Mostly, the company moves houses, but occasionally tackles a big job. A year ago, his company moved a condo building in Des Moines.
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He told the Decatur newspaper, “You won’t be able to see the joints when it’s done. It’ll look brand new. It’ll be fabulous.” The owner is doubly confident that it will all go together because he obtained the President’s blueprints from the respected Herman Pott National Inland Waterways Library in St. Louis.
But there are steamboat experts who differ that all the pieces will ever be assembled to look like a boat, no matter how long it takes and the expertise involved.
Michael Blaser, Bettendorf, one of the foremost steamboat artists in America who painted the President in its prime, is among the skeptics.
“I’ve visited with Clark ‘Doc’ Hawley, who has piloted boats like the Delta Queen and the Natchez. He says the shape of President’s sheer was formed in steel under pressure. He told me it will be impossible to reassemble the boat.”
The owner talks with determination, though, that all will be completed by the summer of 2010.
“We’re 200 miles from Chicago. It will be a big draw for people in Indianapolis and St. Louis,” Campbell says. “I’ve been working on this project for four years. When I bought it from Mr. Goldstein, part of the agreement was that I would never reveal the price.”
No one else was seriously interested in buying the boat, even though it is registered as a National Historic Landmark.
The President, called “a beautiful floating whale of a boat” by Rock Island steamboat buff Judy Patsch, was once part of the Streckfus fleet of excursion boats.
“I was always afraid that vandals would torch the boat,” Blaser says. “I can’t visualize it ever can be reassembled, after being cut into so many pieces. I will still remember her as one of the proudest excursion boats of all time.”