Boats & Barges

After Flood Postponement, Showboat Moves To New Home

The Minnesota Centennial showboat left St. Paul, Minn., on a two-day journey to its new home, Winona, Iowa, reported. Winona businessman Bob Harris, the boat’s new owner, had to postpone the move because of this spring’s high water.

Harris intends to permanently dock the showboat near a railroad bridge. After raising funds, he hopes to open it next summer as a theater, music, party and wedding venue. He also hopes to open a museum of river artifacts in it.

The boat’s story goes back to 1956, according to, when the Minnesota Centennial Commission began to plan for the 1958 state centennial celebration. Frank Whiting, director of the University of Minnesota’s theater program, proposed a Minnesota Centennial Showboat. The commission agreed, and the search began for a suitable boat.

Building one on an existing river barge proved too costly. In 1957, Whiting and the Centennial Commission’s Tom Swain learned that the Corps of Engineers planned to retire the General John Newton, a 175-foot sternwheeler towboat built in 1899. Minn. Senator Edward J. Thye helped to arrange its transfer to the university for just one dollar.

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In its early years, the showboat traveled up and down the river. It stopped for scheduled performances in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Stillwater, Hastings, Red Wing, Wabasha and Winona. The student cast performed one or two plays each season. Each show featured vaudeville-style olios (lively song-and-dance numbers) between acts.

In 1995, the 96-year-old paddleboat moved to St. Paul for $2 million worth of needed repairs. Fire destroyed the boat on the evening of January 27, 2000, months before its scheduled reopening. Only the paddlewheel and burned-out hull remained.

University theater professor C. Lance Brockman led a campaign to obtain a new showboat. In December 2000, the university agreed to a partnership with the City of St. Paul, the St. Paul Riverfront Development Corporation and the Padelford Packet Boat Company to build a new showboat. Construction began the following spring in Greenville, Miss.

In 2004, the showboat program earned the Tourism Partner of the Year Award from the St. Paul Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Padelford Packet Boat Company joined the university’s Department of Theatre Arts & Dance to create the C. Lance Brockman Showboat Scholarship later that year.

The final curtain came down on the Minnesota Centennial Showboat at the end of the 2016 summer season. The university’s 15-year agreement with the City of St. Paul expired, and the university cut the program for budget reasons.

The city solicited various proposals to revive the boat but ended up selling it to Harris.