The story of the Mamie S. Barrett
by Stanley Nelson - posted Wednesday, November 28th, 2012 @ 1:31 pm
At Deer Park Lake south of Vidalia, the deteriorating, yet buoyant remains of a 91-year-old towboat have attracted a cult-like following among river historians and Mississippi River boat captains, many of whom travel to Louisiana to get a close up view.
The Mamie S. Barrett, built along the Ohio River early in the 20th century, is a relic of the nation's river history. For seven decades she traveled the waters of the Ohio, the Mississippi and their tributaries until her arrival by chance almost two decades ago at Deer Park Lake, once a bend in the Mighty Mississippi.
The story of her construction and first decades of her life is found in many sources, including a National Registrar for Historic Places (NRHP) application prepared by the Kentucky Heritage Council. The paperwork was filed in January 1983 on behalf of the boat's owners at the time
The Barrett was constructed in 1921 as the flagship vessel for the Barrett Towboat and Barge Line Company.
The steel hulled sternwheeler, operated primarily as a towboat, was built by Howard Shipyards of Jeffersonville, Ind., a town along the Ohio River opposite Louisville, Ky. The boat measures 125 feet in length, is 30 feet wide and has a shallow draft of 4 feet-7 inches. Her "displacement of 428 tons" was "considered superior features for towboats of the period."
Founded in 1834 by 19-year-old James Howard, Howard Shipyards operated as a family business for more than a century before it closed in 1942. During that time, the company constructed more than 3,000 vessels that operated on the Ohio making it "the largest inland shipyard in America," according to the Howard Steamboat Museum.
Built for $145,000, the Mamie S. Barrett was designed to house a crew of 11 officers and 27 men although the crews were believed to have been much smaller. In 1923, the crew included the captain, pilot, two engineers, a mate and a steward.
The Barrett's maiden voyage in 1921 was to Cincinnati in tow of the J.D. Lane.
In 1926, the towboat was sold to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and later transferred to St. Louis on the Mississippi where it was renamed the U.S. Penniman in 1935. Two year earlier, the boat had been converted to run on fuel oil instead of coal.
According to Nixon Adams, in a 2010 article in the Mandeville, La., "Northshore Conifer," the vessel was used by the Corps primarily for river survey work. During the 1927 flood, "she was primarily used in the upper reaches of the Mississippi...
"Herbert Hoover was Secretary of Commerce in 1927, and he parlayed his perceived competent handling of the flood into a monumentally failed presidency. He was all over the river during the emergency, and the Mamie had a history of being used for transporting VIPs.
"In 1942, a special elevator and bathtub were installed on her to accommodate President Franklin Roosevelt's handicap during a Mississippi River inspection trip he made that year. These were still on the vessel when the 2001 marine survey was made (at Deer Park). If for no other reason, it would seem that these artifacts would give the Mamie significant historical significance."
The Penniman was decommissioned by the Corps in 1947 and sold to Volmer Brothers Construction Company of St. Louis. In 1949, the boat was renamed the Piasa by its new owners, Lela and Spece Marshall, and moved, according to the NRHP application, "to a permanent dock at the Harbor Point Yacht Club in West Alton, Missouri. For the next thirty years the Piasa operated as a floating clubhouse, and when observed in 1978 her condition was described as 'well tended.'"
In 1981, the Piasa was towed to Lake Barkley, Ky., where the new owners -- Richard and Kathy Oberle of the Eddy Creek Resort and Marina -- resided on Lake Barkley near the Cumberland River in southwestern Kentucky. There, the name "Mamie S. Barrett" was restored. It operated as a restaurant, ship store and private yacht club.
"Given its long and varied career on the inland river system, the Barrett has experienced numerous modifications since its launching in 1921," the NRHS application reports.
In the late 1980s, the Barrett was sold to a Vicksburg, Miss., couple, John and Mary Betty Hoseman. Their son, Mike Hoseman, in a 2005 message board posting on the Internet, reported that the family took the vessel six miles up the Yazoo where they did restoration work. Later, the Barrett was relocated to the Vicksburg waterfront where, Hoseman wrote, "People lined the waterfront, news cameras, etc...It was a fine moment for a fine gal."
Hoseman said his parents built a "showboat style" restaurant and dinner theatre inside the vessel, "but it was a white elephant. Eventually they realized it had to go, and it was sold without contents to some folks in Natchez in 1989 or 90, maybe 91...It was towed to Vidalia and tied up for a while until I've been told, high water swept her away to her present residence...I last saw the top of her thru the trees in November of 2003 as I steered the Star down near Deerfield Park Cutoff. While sad, it's a fitting place for an old steamboat, resting in the mud of Mississippi river bottom, along side her many cousins likewise returning their iron to the soil..."
Capt. Steve Huffman of the Historic Sternwheeler Preservation Society reports on his website that during the 1993 flood, the Barrett "was intentionally beached" at Deer Park Lake. Around that time, Huffman reports, the Howard Steamboat Museum in Indiana, which showcases the work of the Howard Shipyards, the builder of the Barrett, attempted to acquire and restore the vessel but could not secure the funding.
Huffman also reported that in "1995 the vessel was purchased for use as a casino boat, but this was not to be. Sometime around 1996 the owner had the entire port and starboard gunwales replated with new steel. After this work, the flood of 1997 proved that she still floated. At some point in 1999 the vessel was donated to the town of Rosedale, Mississippi. The town no longer claims the liability of owning the vessel."
Nixon Adams, in his 2010 article in "Northshore Conifer," said it was estimated in 2001 that restoration of the Mamie would cost more than $1 million.
During the great flood of 2011, the Mamie S. Barrett floated above the rising waters, safely fastened to a tree along South Prong Road at Deer Park.