Dredge Mitchell on trials at Marietta Manufacturing Company, December 5, 1934. (MMC photo, David Smith collection)
Old Boat Column

U.S. Dredge William S. Mitchell

The October 6, 1934, issue of The Waterways Journal carried a story on Page 5 headlined: “Huge Dredge Mitchell Launched in 11 Seconds.” The article stated that the dredge, named William S. Mitchell, weighed more than 1,470 tons, making it the heaviest craft ever launched by the builders, the Marietta Manufacturing Company of Point Pleasant, W.Va. Some 1,500 people witnessed the event.

This was the fourth and final steam sidewheel dredge built for the U.S. Engineers’ Kansas City District. Design changes made it some 63 tons heavier than the William M. Black, which had been launched on September 1.

The Mitchell, named after the late William S. Mitchell, a civilian engineer from St. Louis, had a steel hull 277 by 50 feet, with an overall width of 84 feet. The Marietta tandem compound engines were 20’s, 40’s – with a 7-foot stroke. The 34-inch dredge pump was driven by a vertical triple-expansion engine of 1,600 hp. Engineers officials present for the launch were Lt. O.E. Walsh; C.T. Tonkin, mechanical supervisor for the Kansas City District; and James J. Hurd, assistant superintendent of the Gasconade, Mo., area. 

Once in service, the dredge Mitchell served the Kansas City District for more than four decades. It was the last of the four sidewheelers in service and performed its final work on the Missouri River in 1979. Retired that year, it first went to the Market Area Development Corporation, and then to a Capt. Dick Linn, with the intention of having it on display in the Kansas City area.

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During a flood event in 1993, the big dredge broke free from its moorings in the mouth of the Kansas (Kaw) River. It floated downstream stern-first, coming in contact with the four bridges in the Kansas City reach of the Missouri. 

At the Hannibal swing bridge, the stern of the Mitchell crashed into the fixed shore span on the right bank, crushing portions of the cabin and causing the dredge to top into the open draw span. Now floating bow-down, the Mitchell floated through the channel span of the ASB Bridge. The lift span had been opened, but the tall smokestacks of the dredge did not clear and were knocked down as it passed under the bridge. The massive vessel was finally stopped by a towboat just below the bridges and secured to the bank.

After this event, the William S. Mitchell was taken out of the Missouri River, tied up at Wood River, Ill., on the Upper Mississippi and advertised for sale. It was ultimately sold to BB Riverboats of Cincinnati and arrived there August 21, 1995. BB, headed by Capt. Alan Berstein, converted the dredge into a haunted house venue known as the USS Nightmare. The Nightmare has been open over the Halloween season at Newport, Ky., across from Cincinnati, since 1998, and it has been wildly popular with the public.

As the USS Nightmare at Newport, Ky. (Photo courtesy of BB Riverboats)
As the USS Nightmare at Newport, Ky. (Photo courtesy of BB Riverboats)

Capt. William F. Judd, retired marine surveyor from New Richmond, Ohio, did all the survey work on the Mitchell for BB Riverboats, and he says that despite the wild ride through the Kansas City bridges, the hull was in remarkable shape, and all compartments were dry. This would seem to lend credence to the Marietta Manufacturing Company motto: “Made Mechanically Correct.”

Capt. Judd also mentioned that the old dredge was  quite “spooky” the first time he boarded it in 1995, before it was officially a haunted house. He said that everything aboard the vessel was in place; from galley utensils to tools hanging in place in the machinery spaces. Even the beds were made. It was as if the crew had stepped off and would return any moment. It seems somewhat ironic that the Mitchell was launched in October 1934 and continues in service all these years later as an October attraction.

NOTE: In speaking with Capt. Bill Judd, he referenced the Old Boat column of September 12 regarding the City of Pittsburg disaster. Capt. Judd had an uncle, Maurice Judd of Moscow, Ohio, who, along with close friend Andrew Shriver, had been mates on the boat at the time of the fire. The owners reportedly made no arrangements for them to get home afterward, and they had to find their own way home. Maurice Judd was later working aboard the Greene Line packet Henry M. Stanley when it struck a dredge in fog at the head of Gallipolis Island and sank on September 3, 1907. At some point after this he left the river and bought a grocery store at Bethel, Ohio, near New Richmond.

Caption for top photo: Dredge Mitchell on trials at Marietta Manufacturing Company, December 5, 1934. (MMC photo, David Smith collection)