Posted on Monday, April 4, 2011 by Shawn Dake
An Art Deco masterpiece that created decades of memories and became a landmark on the St. Louis waterfront is about to be scrapped. Depending on water conditions in the Mississippi River, the ADMIRAL riverboat may depart any day now for her final voyage, a 10 hour tow to the Azcon Corporation scrap yard in Alton, Illinois. The ADMIRAL was once the largest passenger vessel on the inland waterways of the United States. It is a tricky process to move a boat of this size when the water level in the river is too high, and water at the destination too low. In early March, work began on cutting off the pilothouse and top deck structure to enable it to pass under bridges, notably the Merchants Bridge. The boat will require 53 feet of vertical clearance which should be sufficient depending at what stage the river is. The secondary problem is having enough water in the Alton Pool where the dismantling will take place. At that point, the level is down five feet due to the Army Corps of Engineers releasing water in anticipation of spring flooding from the nearby Melvin Price Locks and Dam. If the window of opportunity presents itself, the ADMIRAL could leave at any time, or if conditions turn unfavorable it could remain in St. Louis until September.
The ADMIRAL made her maiden excursion from St. Louis in June, 1940. While nearly all other Mississippi River boats before and since have stuck with the traditional expectations of decorative “gingerbread” flourishes and “highfalutin” tall stacks or flutes, this stainless steel mass of five rounded decks disguised even her giant sidewheels. It could not have looked more different, the silver and glass superstructure being relieved only by the name in giant red letters reading ADMIRAL. Riverboats have frequently been rebuilt on the hulls of older vessels and this one was no exception. In 1907, the ALBATROSS was built as a large, 308 foot long, railroad transfer ferry with a steel hull, four boilers and a sidewheel. In 1937, Streckfus Steamers bought the boat as a replacement for their aging but magnificent excursion steamer J S DELUXE.
It took two years between 1938 and 1940 to complete the transformation. Captain Joseph Streckfus floated the concept of building a new boat of radical design, following the introduction of his previous large excursion, all-steel, vessel the PRESIDENT (ex CINCINATTI) in 1934. Highly unusual in marine architecture at the time, both boats were designed by a female, Miss Maizie Krebs. To quote from a company magazine, “Riding the river daily on excursions from St. Louis is a new giant, the $1,000,000 S.S. Admiral, the largest inland steamer ever built in America, as modern as a streamlined airplane and as modernistic as a cocktail lounge. The massive boat, longer than an average city block, was planned from bow to stern, inside and out, by dainty Maizie Krebs. It was a man’s job for a girl.” The designer no doubt received inspiration from Washington State where the KALAKALA had debuted as the first streamlined ferry in 1935.
The ADMIRAL was an amazing vessel. Five decks sat atop her lengthened 374 foot long by 92 foot wide hull. Up to 4,400 passengers could be carried on excursions up and down the Mississippi. Without a doubt, part of her popular appeal was found in the two air conditioned decks which were a real treat during hot Missouri summers. The Blue Salon, done in art deco style supported by huge columns with pink and blue lighting accents was billed as the world’s largest floating ballroom. On the top deck umbrellas, wooden deck chairs and patio-style furniture made for a pleasant place to watch the passing scene. An arcade filled with diversions for the kids could be found on the Main Deck. An advertisement by the company titled “Flashes from the Flagship S.S. Admiral” summed up these amenities with a flourish. “Dancing and romancing in the Blue Salon. Cocktails in the swank Club Admiral. Cool as Maytime in the mountains… Gay ‘brellera’ on the Lido Deck… Ahoy? You’re in for a circus on the Main Deck.” And so it was, over the course of nearly four decades, in times when entertainment was much simpler. By the 1960’s, teen dance cruises had become a staple on weekend nights in addition to the adult only midnight cruises that were popular. During a major refit in 1973-1974 the old steam engines and paddlewheels gave way to new diesel propulsion and propeller drive. But the crowds were dwindling and in 1979 the once popular cruises were a thing of the past. The ADMIRAL’s engines were removed and from then on the old boat would serve in a stationary role. Much of the splendid art deco fittings were stripped. For several years the huge vessel wandered around without power or direction, being sold several times. Finally in 1994, with gambling freshly legalized, she reopened as a casino, most recently under the name “President Casino on the Admiral.” The final owners, Pinnacle Entertainment took over the vessel in 2006.
The casino operation lasted until June, 2010. Revenues had fallen by two-thirds and plans were made to close the casino. The mighty Mississippi River hastened the end by a week as it rose four feet above flood stage, inundating the entrance area. There would be no grand finale for the ADMIRAL. The state stripped the gambling license while workers removed the slot machines and furnishings. In November, the boat was offered on eBay, with a “buy it now” price of $1.5 million. With no qualified buyers and no hope for the future without major refurbishment to the hull, the impressive riverboat was consigned to scrap. As the last chapter of this story progresses, updates and photographs would be most welcome. Another unique element of history and Americana will soon be only memories.
Thanks to Larry Hoskens, Martin Cox