With the WJ’s “View from the wheelhouse” special issue this week, the Old Boat Column is featuring a unique pilothouse vignette.
Seven decades ago, following the May 1947 sinking of the steamer Golden Eagle (built in 1904 as the cotton packet Wm. Garig), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cleared the wreckage of the steamboat from the head of Grand Tower Island. At the enthusiastic and persistent urging of Ruth Ferris (1897–1993), well-known St. Louis river historian who was a frequent passenger aboard the boat, the pilothouse was lifted from the wreck and placed on a barge. The artifact was then taken to the Corps of Engineers base at the foot of Arsenal Street in St. Louis to await being sold at auction. The Community School, of which Ferris was assistant principal and fifth grade teacher, submitted a bid of $257 to win the “sky palace” of the revered riverboat.
To reach the school campus from the river required a 10-mile journey, which was undertaken on the morning of January 15, 1948. With what had to be one of the most unique parades ever to traverse the streets of St. Louis, Ferris wrote of the occasion:
“With the directions in hand I went to meet our prize en route. At Arco and Kingshighway, the royal procession was heralded by the roar of an escort of motorcycle policemen and a public service truck with linemen to lift power lines, trolley cables and tree branches. The pilothouse, enthroned on a 26-wheel lowboy, proceeded at a dignified pace. I was at the curb, camera in hand, to record this unusual event and, there alone, I laughed out loud, happy that this was really true!
“The great thrill for the children came near the end of the school day. At the first sound of the motorcycles, they ran from the playground to line the school driveway, cheering enthusiastically and following the pilothouse to the chosen site for its installation on a concrete foundation; there it would rest for the next 14 years. During that time all the children knew and loved the pilothouse, but for the fifth grade it was the object of special interest and study.”
Following repairs and painting, largely done by the students, a dedicatory ceremony was held on May 27, at which Capt. W.H.“Buck” Leyhe, beloved master of the Golden Eagle, was the honored guest. The festivities concluded with the singing of a song entitled “Golden Eagle,” composed especially for the event, as bottles of water from the five rivers (Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee and Cumberland) plied by the sternwheeler were sprinkled across the pilothouse as its formal christening.
In the autumn of 1961, the deteriorating pilothouse was donated by the school to the Missouri Historical Society, where Ferris had become curator of the river collections following her 1957 retirement from teaching. The restored relic became the crowning centerpiece of the new and expanded River Room gallery, which opened in 1962, with generous support of Capt. Donald T. Wright, publisher of The Waterways Journal. After over two decades of bringing delight to museum visitors, the pilothouse was dismantled and, with other prized river artifacts, placed into storage.