The retired steam towboat Wenonah at St. Louis with the Goldenrod Showboat. (Keith Norrington collection)
Old Boat Column

The Wenonah Wheel Mystery

With the demise by fire of the Goldenrod Showboat in late 2017, an unsolved question remains concerning the big pilotwheel that was long displayed in the lobby area of the famous floating theater. When removed from the derelict showboat, along with numerous other artifacts destined for a proposed river museum, it was noted that the wheel is of the double-circle variety and is not the pilotwheel of the steamer Wenonah, which long served as the towboat for the Goldenrod and Hollywood Showboats, both operated by the Menke family. (The Old Boat Column showcased Capt. Bill Menke in the WJ’s March 8 issue.)

Capt. J.W. Menke with the pilotwheel of the Wenonah aboard the Goldenrod Showboat at St. Louis. (Keith Norrington collection)
Capt. J.W. Menke with the pilotwheel of the Wenonah aboard the Goldenrod Showboat at St. Louis. (Keith Norrington collection)

The towboat Wenonah was built in 1907 at Rumsey, Ky., as the Little Clyde, owned by the Joyce-Watkins Tie Company. Constructed on a wooden hull that measured 98 by 20 by 4.5 feet, the vessel did towing work on the Green River and was chartered for a time to tow French’s New Sensation Showboat. 

The Arrow Transportation Company chartered the boat and ran it on the Tennessee River from Sheffield to Riverton, moving barges of pig iron, from 1923 to 1927. In early 1927, the owners sold the towboat to John Klein, who subsequently sold the sternwheeler to Miller Construction Company of Bowling Green, Ky. Capt. James Speck was master of the boat during its tenure on the Green River.

Later sold to Capt. J.W. Menke, the Wenonah finished its career towing showboats, tying up permanently with the Goldenrod at the St. Louis levee in the autumn of 1937. Over the next decade, the faithful old steamboat, which served as additional living quarters for crew/troupe members and to furnish steam for heating and lights, became increasingly dilapidated and leaky.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

After removing the calliope, whistle, pilotwheel, roof bell and various other items, Capt. Menke had the venerable boat towed to the East St. Louis side of the river on February 5, 1951, and burned to scrap. The whistle is now in the collection of the Missouri Historical Society and was displayed for decades in the River Room until that gallery was closed in the 1980s, and it was placed into storage.

According to photographic evidence, the single-circle pilotwheel of the Wenonah was exhibited in the entrance of the Goldenrod at least through the late 1950s, when it was replaced with the double-circle wheel of unknown origin.

It is surmised by this writer that Capt. Menke most likely sold the wheel in the early 1960s, perhaps after the showboat fire of June 1, 1962, to the Winona County Historical Society for display at the Julius C. Wilkie Steamboat Museum (the former towboat James P. Pearson) at Winona, Minn. The beached riverboat burned in 1981, and many museum artifacts were lost. However, according to newspaper accounts, some relics were said to be in storage at the time of the blaze due to renovation work going on aboard the Wilkie. It is unknown at this time if the wheel survived and possibly still exists. Thus, the mystery remains; when did Menke sell the pilotwheel; is it extant and from whence did the larger replacement wheel come? Inquiring minds await!

Editor’s note: For questions or suggestions regarding the Old Boat Column, Keith Norrington may be contacted by e-mail at