10 Abandoned Steamboats, Paddle Steamers & Riverboats of Times Gone By

abandoned-riverboat-ss-columbia (Image: Pops; abandoned steamboat SS Columbia seen on the Detroit River)

The age of steamships and riverboats is one now shrouded in romance. The great old vessels of the Mississippi, the grand Colombian riverboats eulogized by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, even the little paddle-powered boats once found in English seaside towns; all now seem like remnants of a beautiful, bygone era.

Yet not all of these vessels have vanished forever. While most have been broken up, a handful still cling on, turning to rust on the banks of mighty rivers. As this article demonstrates, the ghostly forms of abandoned steamboats, paddle steamers and riverboats, great and small, still haunt the muddy shores of the waterways they once navigated.

Abandoned Paddle Steamer PS Ryde, UK

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ps-ryde-isle-of-wight-3 (Images: Kev69; Paula Bailey; decaying hulk of abandoned paddle steamer PS Ryde)

Originally designed as a cheap way of ferrying passengers from the south coast of England to the Isle of Wight, the PS Ryde wound up having an unexpectedly eventful life. Built in Scotland in 1937, she had hardly made her maiden voyage to Ryde Pier before war broke out and she was requisitioned.

For the next few years, the ship (now known as the HMS Ryde) was defending Britain’s shores against the Nazi threat. First as a minesweeper in the Dover Straits, and then as an anti-aircraft vessel on the Thames Estuary, she avoided destruction many times. Perhaps the most dramatic was during D-Day, when the Ryde ferried Allied troops to Normandy, with orders to run aground if she fell low on coal. Luckily, this eventuality was avoided and the ship lived through the war to return to ferrying duties on the Solent.

Despite this rich history, the abandoned steamboat PS Ryde is today little more than a rusting hulk, decaying in the mud of the River Medina. Despite many efforts to save her, it seems that time has done what Nazi bombs could not, and rendered this proud vessel a sad wreck.

Abandoned Riverboat Mississippi Queen, USA

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abandoned-riverboat-mississippi-queen-6 (Images: “Soup”; abandoned riverboat Mississippi Queen)

In popular culture, riverboats are virtually synonymous with the mighty Mississippi. One of the best-known is likely the Mississippi Queen. The second largest paddle wheel steam riverboat ever built, she’s one of the most-iconic vessels to ever take to an American river.

Interestingly, the Mississippi Queen began life as a nostalgia project. Built between 1973-75, she first took to the river at a time when the grand old riverboats were already a thing of the past. Deliberately designed to mimic those relics of river travel’s glory days, she was less a genuine connection to the era of Huck Finn and more a gentle reminder.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this, the Mississippi Queen became famous for an entire generation of river enthusiasts. At one point, it even seemed like she could have kept on sailing right into the present. Sadly, this was not to be. The vessel was laid up for renovation in 2008 and seemingly forgotten. After a period as a grand, rusting hulk, the abandoned riverboat was eventually scrapped – an ignominious end to the queen of the delta.

Abandoned Towboat Mamie S. Barrett, USA

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derelict-towboat-mamie-s-barrett-10 (Images: Skyler Brownwebsite; the abandoned riverboat Mamie S. Barrett)

An historic steam-powered sternwheel towboat, the Mamie S. Barrett today looks like the very embodiment of the Southern Gothic sensibility. Deliberately run aground and abandoned during flooding in the 1990s, the abandoned steamboat is now a haunting, moss-covered wreck. The sort of place where you could easily set a spooky horror story.

Eerily beautiful as its wrecked form is, it can’t escape an air of tragedy. The Mamie S. Barrett should, by rights, be preserved as a cultural icon. First put to the river in 1921, she was used by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 for his river inspection tour; a claim to fame that should guarantee her a place in the history books.

Sadly, however, commercial viability frequently trumps other considerations. First converted into a restaurant, a theatre and then a casino, the abandoned riverboat has finally settled into its fate of being a lonely wreck.

Abandoned Riverboat ‘Szoke Tisza’, Hungary

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Szoke-Tisza-abandoned-4 (Images: Balázs PapdiFacebook; Szoke Tisza in Szeged, Hungary)

While many of the great riverboats of the past were to be found cruising the mighty Mississippi, it’s worth remembering that other countries have proud riverboat traditions too. Among them is Hungary. With the not-so-blue Danube flowing through its capital city and along the length of its borders, the ancient nation was long defined by the river trade. Among the grand boats to tour the nation’s rivers was the Szoke Tisza.

Long-known as the ‘most Hungarian river’, the Tisza was almost as important as the Danube for trade and navigation. Passing through Szeged, it links the nation to Serbia in the south. It was along here that the Szoke made its living, not so long ago. Locally-famous, the abandoned riverboat is sadly today little more than a wreck. A rusted, listing vessel, deposited on the riverbanks to decay into history.

Abandoned Steamboat SS Columbia (Under Restoration), USA

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abandoned-riverboat-ss-columbia-5 (Images: Pops; the decaying grandeur of the abandoned riverboat SS Columbia)

Unlike some on our list, the SS Columbia is the real deal. One of only two excursion steamships from the turn of the 20th century still in use (more on the other one shortly), the Columbia made her maiden voyage way back in 1902. To put that in perspective, when she first started plying her trade, Mark Twain was still alive and nobody had ever heard of either the Titanic or Charlie Chaplain.

For residents of Detroit, the ship soon became something of a local icon. Primarily employed running the 90-minute route between Michigan and the Canadian Bois Blanc Island, she became a familiar sight near the city’s downtown district. Incredibly, this mighty vessel kept running right up until 1993. Finally moored in Ecorse, Michigan, she then spent over a decade being battered by the harsh northern winters. Over time, SS Columbia deteriorated, until she was little more than a sad, forgotten hulk of her former self.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Since the mid-2000s, the abandoned steamboat Columbia has been the focus of restoration efforts that are slowly returning her to her bygone glory. She even landed a minor role in one of the Transformers films.

Steamboat SS Ste. Claire (Under Restoration), USA

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riverboat-ss-ste.claire-11 (Images: LindaB; the steamboat SS Ste. Claire is undergoing internal restoration work)

The sister ship of the SS Columbia, the SS Ste. Claire doesn’t quite have the same level of historic pedigree, having first taken to the water eight years after her sibling. Nonetheless, her age is still impressive, making her a living link to the twilight years of the Edwardian Era.

Operating out of Detroit, the SS Ste. Claire ran the same route as the Columbia, ferrying passengers from the downtown river into Canadian waters. Like her sister ship, she too became an icon, eventually treading the same waters for a staggering 81 years. Unfortunately, this slice of Michigan history eventually suffered the same fate as her sister Columbia. Taken out of service in 1993, she was shored up unprotected and left to decay in the brutal air.

Thankfully, the once-abandoned steamboat Ste. Claire has been undergoing restoration, and will hopefully ultimately return to the waters. Though the outside is currently neglected, much work has been done on the elegant internal fittings. And with each passing year, she only becomes more historically important.

Abandoned Mississippi Riverboat, USA

abandoned-mississippi-riverboat (Image: Brent ClarkBrent Goes Outside)

Here at Urban Ghosts, we have a tradition of highlighting minor and mysterious abandonments alongside the better-known ones. For us, it’s simply a sign of how our world works; for every bygone old steamer mourned by thousands, there are hundreds more that are less-iconic, but no less beautiful. Such is the case with this forgotten Mississippi riverboat.

Abandoned by the side of the mighty river, the boat is simply one of hundreds of wrecks that line its shores. Rusted, busted-up and overtaken by vegetation, it has likely been forgotten even by its former owners. Yet it remains strangely beautiful to look at. Gazing at its remains, you can feel yourself trying to picture its story: where it came from, when it first launched, who once piloted it down the Big Muddy. It may not be famous, but this small, forgotten boat acts as a reminder of all of those vessels that once sailed the river’s length.

Abandoned Goldenrod Showboat, Illinois River, USA

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abandoned-showboat-goldenrod-6 (Images: Mike MatneyMike Matney Photography; abandoned showboat Goldenrod)

For a brief period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, showboats were an integral part of life in American river towns. Like the musical hall of old, they brought performers from far and wide to entertain crowds. Unlike their cousins over the Atlantic, though, they were mobile, bringing singers and acts to towns otherwise starved for entertainment.

While they fell out of favour with the advent of movie theatres, for a long time they were a symbol of small town life. One of the most-recognizable was the Goldenrod.

First launched in 1909, the Goldenrod was a floating entertainment palace. Home to a large, elaborately decorated theatre, she once journeyed the length of the Mississippi, bringing entertainment to towns up and down the great river. Despite occasional part-sinkings and one terrific fire, she was always patched up, and continued her work right into the 21st century.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever. Run aground in 2001, she was sold on in 2002 when repairs were estimated to be too expensive. Put in private hands, the abandoned riverboat stood as a haunting ruin for over a decade. Finally, in April 2016, this legend of the rivers was scrapped.

Abandoned St Louis Burger King Boat, Illinois River, USA

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abandoned-paddle-steamer-st-louis-burger-king-3 (Images: Danny Higgins; abandoned St Louis Burger King boat/Spirit of the River)

The Great Flood of 1993 played havoc with vessels on the Mississippi. Hundreds of boats broke free of their moorings and drifted off to their premature deaths. Among them was an old minesweeper from World War Two, a heliport… and the Burger King boat you can see in the pictures.

A floating fast food restaurant, the St Louis Burger King boat did exactly what its name suggests. For years it provided a double-whammy hit of riverboat nostalgia and deep-fried grease, allowing punters to relive the good ol’ days while simultaneously expanding their waistlines. Then came the flood of 1993. Torn free of her moorings, the boat floated wildly down the river, eventually crashing against the Poplar Street bridge and wrecking her roof.

Today, the ruined vessel sits in a large marina on the Illinois River, waiting for repairs that may never come.

Wapama (Abandoned Steam Schooner), California, USA

abandoned-steam-schooner-wapama (Image: NoeHill; abandoned steam-powered schooner Wapama before scrapping)

Compared to the other ships in this article, the Wapama is a monster. One of a series of wooden steam schooners originally used in the Pacific lumber trade during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Wapama was the last of its kind until its dismemberment in 2013.

It’s fate is a real shame, as the Wapama was one of the last living links to an industry that once powered the region’s economy. Built in 1915, it hauled great piles of wood across the country alongside 225 other identical vessels. At the time, it must have seemed like these vast ships would last forever; that they would still be plying their trade even after the sun finally burned out and cooled and threw the Earth into perpetual darkness.

In the event, by the 21st century nearly all the ships were gone. For a long time, the Wapama laid up in dock, awaiting eventual restoration. It never came. Instead the ship slowly faded into a dignified shadow of its former self. Eventually it was destroyed, taking with it a slice of American history.

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steam-schooner-wapama-7 (Images: Lowe, Jet (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7); abandoned steamboat Wapama during better days)

Related – 11 Abandoned Ferries, Ocean Liners, Cruise Ships & Hovercraft

 
 


 
 
 

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