Join Padelford Riverboats and Don Shelby as Mark Twain as they embark on a cruise up the mighty Mississippi River. Learn about the history that surrounds this great water way and how it helped shape St. Paul and the surrounding area.
“It is strange how little has been written about the Upper Mississippi. The river below St. Louis has been described time and again, and it is the least interesting part. One can sit on the pilot-house for a few hours and watch the low shores, the ungainly trees and the democratic buzzards, and then one might as well go to bed. One has seen everything there is to see. Along the Upper Mississippi River every hour brings something new. There are crowd of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods, villages – everything one could desire to amuse children. Few people ever think of going there. Dickens, Corbett, Mother Trollope and the other discriminating English people who ‘wrote up’ the country before 1842 had hardly an idea that such a stretch of river scenery existed. Their successors have followed in their footsteps, and as we form our opinions of our country from what other people say of us, of course we ignore the finest part of the Mississippi River”
- Mark Twain, Interview in Chicago Tribune, July 9th 1886
When did you first learn about the Mississippi River? Was it through images painted in your mind by Mark Twain’s writing; or learning about the great rivers of the world in a geography lesson; perhaps it was in a history class as you studied its significance in the settling of the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Memphis or New Orleans. If you grew up in the area, maybe it was earlier than that. In a canoe trip with your parents or splashing across the head waters in Norther Minnesota at Lake Itasca. The Mississippi River has shaped the lives and histories of the many people who have depended upon it for survival, transportation, and inspiration. Today you get to experience the Mighty Mississippi as more than a squiggly blue line on a map of the United States, our journey will make it come alive as you cruise the river that has inspired the likes of Mark Twain all the way to Johnny Cash; that the Mdewakanton Dakota believe to be their place of origin; the river that brought Europeans to what is now the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul; the river that is still enjoyed by many as a place of recreation, is a flyway for 292 species of bird including the bald eagle and is used to transport 60% of the grain exported by the United States. The Mississippi River has been a source of life for generations.
The high sandstone bluffs to the port side, or left, of the boat house many caves. Those caves we originally dug to mine silica sand, which was used in making glass. It was later discovered the cool, damp, and dark atmosphere inside the caves was ideal for growing mushrooms, which were grown there for nearly a century before the city of St. Paul sealed them off for safety reasons.
In addition to growing mushrooms, would you believe that a key ingredient of a condiment that can be found in many of your refrigerators had its origin in those caves? In the 1930’s an agriculture researcher from the University of Minnesota used the caves to perfect Roquefort cheese after determining that the climate of the caves mirrored the caves used to produce cheese in France. Unfortunately controversy arose in 1935 when a member of the French Government strongly objected to the name Roquefort, stating that “There is only one Roquefort cheese and it is made in France.” The United States Department had an agreement with France prohibiting the use of that name, and as a result the researchers agreed to call their version “blue cheese.” That’s right, Saint Paul was once the Blue Cheese Capitol of the world!
For those bootleggers onboard, you may be interested to know that some of the caves along the bluffs had a much more lurid past than the University’s Roquefort caves… Once known as Castle Royale, what are today known as the Wabasha Street Caves once served as a speakeasy for some of the most notorious gangsters of the 1930’s including John Dillinger, Ma Barker and her gang, “Machine Gun” Kelly and “Baby Face” Nelson.
Believe it or not, in contrast to today’s laid back demeanor of Minnesota’s capitol city, it may be hard to believe that St. Paul was once a “Gangsters Paradise.” Through an under the table agreement known as the O’Connor System, with the St. Paul Police Department and it’s then chief John O’Connor, gangsters knew they were safe in St. Paul by way of a mutually beneficial agreement that allowed them to stay in the city without police interference as long as they kept their criminal activity outside city limits, paid the obligatory bribes and kept the police informed when they were in town.
According to Alvin “Creepy” Karpis it was a city of importance to the criminal underworld in the early 1930’s. He wrote, “Of all the Midwest cities the one I knew best was St. Paul, and it was a crooks’ haven. Every criminal of any importance in the 1930s made his home at one time or another in St. Paul. If you were looking for a guy you hadn’t seen for a few months, you usually thought of two places – prison or St. Paul”
Padelford Riverboats was founded by Captain William Bowell in 1969. Captain Bowell was an instrumental figure in reintroducing the residents and visitors of St. Paul to the Mississippi and we’ll get to know more about him in just a bit, but ahead of us is one of his favorite landmarks along the river. The Omaha Swing Bridge has a legend of it’s own, let’s hear it from the Cap himself:
“Ahead of us is the railroad swing bridge. This bridge was built in 1915. When the bridge was first built, it was perfectly symmetrical. In other words, it looked the same on the left as it does now on the right. During the course of its construction, there was an old character, dressed in bib overalls, smoking a corncob pipe with Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco. He’d come down every day to the site with a folded chair in a thermos of coffee. If one could look closely, they might have detected a little twinkle in his eye. He watched the bridge being built for almost a year until the day finally came to hold a grand opening. All the important railroad officials were on hand. To a loud cheer, the big red ribbon was cut, and the signal was given to open the bridge. At this point, the old character pulled a corn cob pipe out of his mouth strolled up to the cabinet officials and hollered to the bridge tender, “don’t you dare open that bridge”. Of course, everyone looked at him in astonishment and asked, “Why?”, So he explained, “well, if you open the bridge, it will swing over my property. And I say, you can’t do that”. Sure enough, a surveyor confirmed that the bridge would indeed swing over the old man’s property. So the railroad people went back to him to resolve the situation. They assumed that his price had increased every day during construction. But as the story goes, the old man looked them straight in the eye and said, “No, sorry gentlemen. The price hasn’t gone up a penny”. Now, the railroad officials were truly confused. So he explained, “I’m an old steamboat man who was put out of a job by the railroad and I wouldn’t sell my land to you for any price”. And he stood firm. As a result, they had to cut off a giant piece of the bridge on the left and balance it with a huge block of concrete to shorten the swing.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a true story. Well, most of it, anyway.
Believe it or not, the early beginnings of what was to become St. Paul were in this very area. Look over to your right and you’ll see some barge mooring cells in the river. As we pass them, you might see a ravine that bends back into the hill. Centuries ago there was a natural cave at the end of the ravine called Fountain Cave. Explorers would stop at Fountain Cave to fill their canteens with cool artesian water that flowed from its mouth. In the 1830’s the cave had a very strange occupant. He was a rather disheveled fellow with one squinty, pig like eye. He was referred to as “Pig’s Eye” Parrant. He was a bootlegger who made his living selling liquor, illegally, to the soldiers at Fort Snelling. In 1838 the commandant of Fort Snelling ordered all of the settlers who were squatting on the Fort’s land to move. Many refused to leave. As a result, the commandant moved in with his soldiers and forced 150 families out of their huts. Their homes were burned, and the group gravitated down river to the natural landing near Pig’s Eye’s cave. They formed a small community and referred to it as Pig’s Eye.
Three years later in 1841, a young Jesuit priest by the name of Father Lucien Galtier built a small log chapel about a mile down river, about where Robert Street meets the river today and named it the chapel of St. Paul. He urged the members to refer to the area as St. Paul. So, it was right there by that ravine on the right that St. Paul began, and it really was once called Pig’s Eye.
How did you get to Harriet Island today? Did you drive your car, take a bike or ride public transportation? In the 19th century rivers were the interstate highway system for the United States as the only available transportation at the time was by foot, horse or boat. The very reason St. Paul and most other river cities came to exist can be traced to your present mode of transportation, a river boat. The first steamboat to arrive in the area was the Virginia, which reached Fort Snelling in 1823. This arrival signaled a new era: under the power of the steam engine, these new boats would transport people and goods upstream much more efficiently than previous river transportation. In 1844 St. Paul recorded 41 steamboat arrivals, by 1849 that number had more than doubled to 95 arrivals and by 1857 more than 1,000 steamboat arrivals were reported. This improved form of transportation allowed for a dramatic increase in the number of settlers in the area. From 1847 to 1860 thousands of settlers arrived by steamboat in St. Paul and the population swelled from 1,500 in 1850 to more than 15,000 in 1865. The overall population in Minnesota had increased from 6,077 in 1850 to more than 172,000 in 1860.
Did you know that the average lifespan of a steamboat in the 19th century was about the same as the average career length of a running back in the NFL? Hundreds of steamboats were traveling the river every day but the average life of a steamboat in the 1800’s was only about three years. There were several reasons for the short life span. Steamboats at that time had wooden hulls and would often hit rocks or deadheads that would pierce the hull and sink the boats, or sparks from the smokestack flew back on to the boat and set it on fire. But of all the reasons for the sudden demise of the steamboat, the biggest factor was that the steam boat boilers themselves which were very hazardous and would explode frequently.
Steam boating was very competitive. Captains often raced their boats to the next port in hope of getting the preferred cargo. It wasn’t unusual that a captain seeing another boat coming up behind him would grab the speaking tube to the boiler room and yell to the men down there “Fire up! We’ve got a race coming on.” If he didn’t get enough steam, he might call the cabin boy and say “Son, go down to the ship’s store, get a keg of lard and roll it to the boiler room. Tell the boys to throw it on the fire. Give me more steam!!!”
Well, many times, the repeated demands by the captain would exasperate the men working in the boiler room to the point where they would put a keg of nails or some other heavy object on the steam safety valve to hold it down. Sometimes the technique would win the race, but often it would cause an explosion and blow the captain, the crew and the boat to Kingdom Come. After the Civil War the steamboat was replaced by another innovation – the steam engine train, and steamboats were almost forgotten.
You may be surprised to know that we have been traveling in the middle of a national park. That’s right. You’re in the midst of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Designated as a national park in 1988, it is a 72 miles river park which stretches from the towns of David in Ramsay, Minnesota, to just downstream of Hastings. The river changes character more within this park than it does anywhere else along its entire length. Entering the park as a modest sized prairie river, it plunges over St. Anthony falls, the river’s only true waterfall, and through a deep wooded gorge. Its only true gorge emerging in St. Paul as a large floodplain river before flowing downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. This area is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including perhaps its most notable inhabitants, the bald eagle.
While the Mississippi River was a valuable resource to early European explorers and settlers, it is important to remember the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers played a significant role in the lives of the Native Americans who made their home in these lands long before Europeans arrived and pushed them out. Prior to the arrival of those early explorers, the primary inhabitants on the area were the Dakota, also known as the Sioux, and the Ojibwe, also known as the Chippewa or the Anishinaabe peoples. The Mississippi River and its surrounding valley was fundamental to the daily lives of the Dakota as the local shopping center is to most suburban families. It was where they hunted, planted crops, gathered plants, fished, swan, prayed and their highway for transportation and trading goods.
To your left you will see the mouth of the Minnesota River as its waters join the Mississippi. Between the two bodies of water lie an island of land that is known today as Pike Island. To the Mdewakanton Sioux Community it has deep historic and spiritual meaning. They called the joining of the two rivers Bdote Minisota, meaning “where two waters come together.” For some, it was their place of origin, as significant to their spirituality as the Garden of Eden is in the Old Testament.
If you look to your left, all the land you see became a part of the United States when President Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, announced on July 4th, 1803. With the completion of this deal, the United States had bought the western half of the Mississippi River watershed from France. Once the deal was completed Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out west to explore the newly acquired territory and Lt. Zebulon Pike up the Mississippi River. Pike’s commanding officer, General James Wilkinson, ordered him to discover the Mississippi’s source and make alliances with the Chippewa and Dakota. His goals were to stop intertribal fighting, asses the fur trade, observe the weather, and secure the best sites for military posts. While Zebulon Pike was exploring, he met a French-Canadian fur trader by the name Jean Baptiste Faribault who was repairing his canoe on Pike Island. In 1826 Faribault’s son-in-law started the American Fur Trading Company about three-quarters of a mile up the Minnesota River at what is now Mendota. A small community developed around the trading post. Trappers brought their furs down the Minnesota River to the trading company. There they were loaded onto keel boats and later onto steamboats and taken to ports all over the world. The Minnesota River was once one of the great fur trade routes of the country.
On September 21, 1805, Lt. Zebulon Pike landed his boats on the big island at the confluence of the two rivers, that now bears his name, and determined the high bluffs overlooking the river would make the ideal location for a military fort.
Fourteen years after Zebulon Pike first chose the site for the fort, the first contingent of soldiers arrived to commence work under the command of Lt. Colonel Henry Leavenworth. Unfortunately, Leavenworth chose to continue up the Minnesota River and located his campsite a quarter of a mile above the island on low ground. He called it Cantonment New Hope. The first winter in the camp was extremely severe, as anyone who has lived in Minnesota during the winter can attest to. As a result of mismanagement, poor food, and illness, 40 of the soldiers died.
Leavenworth was relieved of his command in the spring and was replaced by Colonel Josiah Snelling, who wisely chose to begin construction on the fort at the original site. Originally called Fort St. Anthony, Snelling’s men began construction in 1820 and completed it in 1824. General Winfield Scott, Commanding General of the Army, came from the East to inspect the fort. He was so impressed by the job that Snelling had done that he recommended to Congress that they rename the fort, Fort Snelling.
While we have spent most of our cruise reconnection with the natural rhythms of the Mississippi River, it may be surprising to you to know that we have not left the city limits of St. Paul. With an estimated population of nearly 300,000 Saint Paul is the second most populous city in Minnesota. It serves as the capital of the state and is home to the Minnesota Wild, the Saint Paul Saints and the newest professional franchise, Minnesota United Professional Soccer. Along with Minneapolis and their suburbs, St. Paul forms the metropolitan area known as the Twin Cities, which is the 16th most populous metro area with about 3.5 million residents.
Earlier we discussed that Saint Paul along with many other river cities came to exist because steamboats made it easier to transport people and goods along the river. But you may wonder why exactly is Saint Paul located here? And what about Minneapolis? The answer to those questions is, the Mississippi River. The city of Saint Paul formed because it was the furthest point riverboats could safely navigate the river in the 1800’s thus serving as an important transportation hub for the region. Minneapolis developed around St. Anthony Falls because it served as a source of waterpower for lumber milling and later flour milling. At one time Minneapolis produced more flour than any other city in the world.
Among some of St. Paul’s notable attractions are the Como Zoo, the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, the Fitzgerald Theater (home to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion) the Cathedral of Saint Paul and the Minnesota History center. While our favorite season is probably summer this is truly a city for all season and bustles with special events year-round celebrating culture, music and food. We even find a reason to celebrate when the temperatures dip below freezing, with the 10-day Saint Paul Winter Carnival, which began in 1886. Outside of downtown, Saint Paul is made up of many different neighborhoods that each have a local flair that reflects the many different cultures that make up the diverse heritage of this beautiful city. Saint Paul is truly a unique city with something to offer to everyone!
The year was 1934. In the midst of the Great Depression a 13-year-old boy, along with some of his 11 siblings, enticed the crowds at Harriet Island with the savory smell of popcorn; it’s scent wafting through the air, beckoning to the passerby as they enjoyed a day of activities at Harriet Island. In those days Harriet Island WAS an Island and served as a place to escape life’s woes for the residents of Saint Paul with many amenities including picnic grounds, bandstands, beaches and playgrounds. Earning from those 5 cent bags of popcorn would go to feed a large family that was always stretched a bit too thin financially. It was this same ‘something from nothing’ entrepreneurial spirit that would eventually lead that boy back to Harriet Island more than 30 years later and earn him the moniker of Cap, a well-known character within the river community and within the Twin Cities area and amongst the greater riverboating community throughout the country. Throughout his life Captain William D. Bowell was never one to back away from adventure. As a child he had, on more than one occasion, hitched rides in an attempt to explore the country, including an extended trip with one of his brothers to the 1933 Chicago’s World Fair. In World War II he was a paratrooper with the 507th Parachute Infantry jumping into France behind enemy lines on D-Day. After the war Cap made his living in a number of entrepreneurial adventures before he eventually returned to Harriet Island and began Padelford Riverboats, when he built the company’s namesake, the Jonathan Padelford in 1969. Captain Bowell was known as a driving force behind the revitalization of the Mississippi Riverfront in Saint Paul and helped usher in an era of people in the Saint Paul community embracing this beautiful resource, that we all enjoy today.
More than 45 years later that same zeal for St. Paul and the Mississippi River is alive and well aboard our three vessels. We have the pleasure of introducing millions of people to the Mississippi River, creating countless memories along the way. We invite you back to continue your connection with the river, whether it be celebrating a special occasion on our Sunset Dinner Cruise or a night out with friends on our Beer and Bacon Cruise. (No longer available, but check out our Margaritas on the Mississippi Cruise)
“When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in them, for the reason that I have known them before – I met them on the river.
- Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi