The Becky Thatcher (formerly the steamer Mississippi) at the St. Louis levee in 1968. (All photos from Keith Norrington collection)
Old Boat Column

Ruth Ferris Remembered

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the passing of St. Louis’ beloved river historian, Ruth Ferris (1897–1993), it also marks a five-decade milestone of this writer’s first meeting with her, after enjoying a lively correspondence during the previous year. One of the first things she strongly encouraged (I was then 13 years old) was to subscribe to The Waterways Journal.

While a student at the University of Missouri in the early 1900s, Ferris discovered an account (written by her grandmother) of a school outing aboard the steamboat David Tatum, which was built in 1854 and operated on the Mississippi until it was dismantled in 1865 to become a wharfboat at Cairo.

Determined to learn more about life on the river, she connected with veteran riverman Capt. George Vaughn, who had done his cub piloting on the Missouri River in 1866. The colorful stories that Vaughn shared of outwitting the shifting channel sparked an insatiable curiosity that led Ferris to an exciting 70-year avocation of research, photography, collecting “steamboat stuff” and forming friendships with other river enthusiasts.

A 35-year career as fifth grade teacher and assistant principal of the Community School enabled Ferris to use the river as a teaching tool; she often arranged field trips to the waterfront to tour boats and to visit with kindly Capt. Buck Leyhe at the Eagle Boat Store.

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When the Golden Eagle sank in 1947 at Grand Tower Island, it was Ferris whose persistence persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to salvage the domed and gingerbread-trimmed pilothouse (see WJ, February 26) from the wrecked sternwheeler. After spending 14 years on the campus of Community School, the revered relic became the centerpiece of the Missouri Historical Society’s River Room, of which Ferris became curator after her retirement from teaching.

In early 1966—after she retired for a second time the previous year—Ferris was contacted by Frank Pierson, owner of the Goldenrod Showboat, who had recently purchased the retired steamboat Mississippi to become a restaurant and tourist attraction at the St. Louis levee. Pierson prevailed upon Ferris to design and curate a steamboat museum aboard the boat, which was renamed Becky Thatcher. The rare and unique opportunity to work on the riverfront in the shadow of Eads Bridge and the Gateway Arch lured her out of retirement for the second time.

It was during that period that this writer had the good fortune to become acquainted with her, forming a close friendship that was to last several decades. Infectiously enthusiastic, she was a tremendous influence in my young life and I have always referred to her as my patron saint of steamboating. Fifty years ago this week (Monday, June 24, 1968) will always be a red-letter day.

Besides the excitement of getting to meet my mentor, the visit included stem-to-stern tours of the showboat and Becky; the Midship Museum was a virtual treasure trove of artifacts and remains vivid in my memory as the best riverboat museum of all time.

Throughout a fruitful lifespan of nearly 96 years, Ruth Ferris touched countless lives in a positive way. I am so very thankful for her kindness and tutelage; hardly a day passes that I don’t think of her as I serve as director and curator of the Howard Steamboat Museum.