With Election Day approaching and campaigns heating up, the Old Boat Column this week features a steamboat named for a famous politician.
Erastus Wells was born in 1823 at Sackets Harbor, N.Y. Moving to St. Louis in 1842, he established the first omnibus line and inaugurated the first streetcar company. Wells was a member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen from 1853 to 1867, was president of the Missouri Railroad Company from 1859 to 1883 and was elected on the Democratic ticket to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1868. He unsuccessfully ran for re-election in 1876, but he ran again in 1878, winning back the office and serving until 1881. Not being a candidate in 1880, Wells became president of Laclede Gas Company, a post he held until 1883. The father of St. Louis mayor Rolla Wells (1856–1944) Erastus Wells died at age 69 on October 2, 1893, and he was interred in Bellefontaine Cemetery.
The steamboat Erastus Wells was built in 1907 at Grafton, Ill., for the city of St. Louis. A handsome sidewheeler with a steel hull measuring 188.5 feet in length by 32.2 feet in width, it carried engines having 20-inch cylinders and a 6-foot stroke. Steam was provided by four boilers. The construction cost of the boat was $65,000.
With Capt. Tom Garrison as master, the Wells was manned on the waterfront year-round by a single crew. The boat faithfully flushed off the granite cobblestones of the St. Louis levee after each rise, utilizing the powerful pumps and hoses it was equipped with for use as a fireboat.
The Wells had extremely fine hull lines and was exceptionally fast, often taking visiting dignitaries on tours of the St. Louis harbor. Owing to its speed, the boat was nicknamed “The Greyhound of the Mississippi,” with greyhounds painted below the pilothouse nameboards. In 1907, as an elegant new riverboat, it took part in the gala steamboat parade down the Mississippi for President Theodore Roosevelt and again in 1909 for President William Howard Taft.
During the Great Depression years, the city administration could not allocate the $51,000 annual expense required to operate the steamboat, and it was listed to be sold at public auction. Commodore Edwin C. Koenig submitted the highest of three bids, offering $6,100. Next in line was the Evansville & Bowling Green Packet Company with a bid of $5,100, followed by the Stiers Brothers Construction Company at $1,000. Koenig remodeled the riverboat into a popular excursion boat, renaming it the City of St. Louis and operating in keen competition with the Streckfus Line. The boat operated for only two seasons under the management of Andrew D. Franz, advertising manager of The Waterways Journal, and Capt. C.H. “Corn Cracker” Smith, who served as master. The last trip made by the Wells was on Labor Day 1934, a round trip between St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve.
Sold in 1942 to the George C. Bolz Dredging Company, the retired riverboat again changed owners in early 1944 when it was purchased by the Allied Oil Company, which dismantled the boat down to the hull for use as a landing boat near Thebes, Ill.
Numerous artifacts, including the pilotwheel, steering levers, running lights, cabin arches, life floats and other relics survive today in river museums and private collections.
Caption for top photo: A vintage postcard view of the St. Louis harbor steamboat Erastus Wells. (Keith Norrington collection)