Salvaging the remains of the Sprague

The Sprague in 1971, photo courtesy MDAH

Last week, Marty Kittrell ran a series of photos on his beautiful photo blog of the remains of the once-great steam towboat Sprague, which plied the Mississippi and ended up as a theater on the banks of the river in Vicksburg after WWII. The series began last Monday with “State of the Sprague” and continued all week.

The enormous boat was listed on the National Register in April 1977, but a fire had already damaged a large section of the boat and it had been beached in the Yazoo Diversion Canal. In retrospect, it seems the National Register listing may have been wishful thinking because it doesn’t sound like there was much left of the boat itself except the wheel and the hull. By the early 1980s, all restoration efforts had been exhausted and the Corps of Engineers dynamited the remains and removed the pieces from the Canal. There they still sit, waiting through neglect and further attempts at salvage over the years for a transportation museum that always seems to be in the works in Vicksburg.

Anyway, Marty Kittrell’s posts got me interested in the Sprague, which I hadn’t known much about before, and the maritime history of the Mississippi River–I certainly had no idea that steamboats were operating into WWII, and I didn’t ever think about towboats being steamboats. I thought I would add to his appeal for help with the evocative remains by publishing [most of] the text of the National Register nomination for the Sprague, written back in 1977.

Statement of Significance

The largest and most powerful steam towboat ever constructed, the Sprague is also significant for its role in the development of commerce and transportation during the first quarter of the twentieth century. It remains today a symbol of the great era of river trade in the United States.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the towing of barges had begun to show great promise for the transporting of bulk commodities. Coal to fuel industry was moved downstream from the vast fields along the Monongehela River in Pennsylvania. . . .

On December 4, 1901, the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works launched the Sprague, which was christened in honor of Paul Sprague, marine construction superintendent of her owner, the [Monongehela River Consolidated Coal and Coke] Combine. Because the tremendous length of the Sprague precluded passage of Keokuk Lock with the sternwheel in place, the boat was towed to St. Louis, where the wheel was fitted in June 1902. After suffering a collision on an ill-fated maiden run to Cairo, Illinois, in September of the same year, the Sprague was taken to Pittsburgh for considerable alteration to strengthen her structure and improve the signal system. The Sprague left Pittsburg in March 1903, with twenty-five loads, picked up twenty-six more at Sand Island, and left for New Orleans on what would be her first completed run. After returning to Pittsburg for still more alteration, the Sprague set her first record in May 1904, by pushing 53,200 tons of coal. In February, 1907, she broke her own record and set the world record with a sixty-unit, 67,307-ton tow covering an area of eight acres and measuring 1,125 feet by 312 feet.

Ironically, the Sprague may hold records for tows lost as well as those successfully carried. In 1904 a tow of empties was lost on the falls at Louisville when the steamer blew a cylinder head. The next year, 1,200,00 bushels of coal, or approximately 34,200 tons were lost. Then, after a long period free of accidents, the Sprague demolished thirty-five barges containing approximately 53,200 tons of coal, when her tow struck a stone dike at Island 30 above Osceola, Arkansas. This wreck formed another island in the Mississippi for a time.

Because of the terrific losses from wrecks and competition from the railroad, the Combine abandoned the towing business in 1916. The Sprague was sold to the Aluminum Ore Company of St. Louis, which used the towboat to push bauxite from Bauxippi [yes, that's spelled right!], Arkansas, north and return with general cargo south. Aluminum Ore Company sold the Sprague to Standard Oil Company in 1925 to tow crude oil to the refineries at Baton Rouge.

The Sprague is well remembered for the humanitarian service she rendered during the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, by transporting about 20,000 refugees on empty barges from inundated Greenville to the safety of Vicksburg’s hills, where the Red Cross has established a “tent city.” . . .

During World War II the Sprague was used continuously for the transporting of oil, but the close of the war ended the steam era and ushered in a new diesel era for river transportation. The more efficient diesel towboat required only one-third the crew of a steamer, and the Sprague, now almost half a century old, was found obsolete and no longer economical. After a decommissioning service at Memphis on March 5, 1948, the proud old steamer, which had traveled a distance equal to forty times around the equator, set out on a final run to Baton Rouge with a tow of empty barges.

A reprieve came in time from the concerned citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi, a town which also owes its parentage to the river. A committee arranged to purchase the Sprague from Standard Oil Company for the sum of ten dollars, and the old sternwheeler was given a new home on the waterfront of Vicksburg, where it would serve as the setting for the annual melodrama of the Vicksburg Little Theater performances, but also for a river museum, a meetingplace, and the home of the Vicksburg Yacht Club. She provided the setting for the movie “Showboat” and became a major attraction when she was towed to Pittsburgh for that city’s bicentennial celebration.

Tragedy struck the Sprague on the night of April 15, 1974, when fire destroyed most of the boat’s superstructure. After surviving forty-seven years of towing cargos as different as coal and Model-T Fords, and suffering collisions, groundings, and explosion, the Sprague now rests, ingloriously beached on the backs of the Yazoo Diversion Canal. Many of Vicksburg’s concerned citizens are once again trying to save this symbol of the golden river era through legislative appropriations and contributions toward a restoration.

Description

When the Sprague left St. Louis after being fitted with her sternwheel in 1902, she was 318 feet long, with a deck of 275 feet, a beam of 61 feet, and a 63-inch diameter by 12-foot stroke tamdam compound condensing engines. The pittman was 30 inches wide, 24 inches deep, and 50 feet long. Originally, the sternwheel was 40 feet in diameter, but it was soon cut to 38 feet to increase her RPM from nine to eleven. The immense pilot wheel was 13.5 feet in diameter.

Over the years, the Sprague has always been painted white, although different colors have been used for trim. Under the ownership of the Monongehela Coke and Coal Company her trim was painted as follows: hull, red; paddlewheel, red with white ironwork; roof, black; pilothouse nameboards, black with gold letters; stern bulkhead, white with a large black sign lettered in white; hog chains and braces, white; chimney stacks, pipes, and other ironwork, black; pilothouse interior, light green.



Categories: Demolition/Abandonment, Lost Mississippi, National Register, Vicksburg

34 replies

  1. I had no idea that anything remained of the Sprague! They need to get that museum going- wasn’t it supposed to be ib the old railroad station downtown? Instead of building casinos, Vicksburg might build upon its proud connection with the great river.

  2. Thanks for sharing the link to the other site too. You’d think that someone could find a better home for the remains other than a grassy field.

  3. I lived in Pgh as a child. In 1958 I was 12. My Dad and Mom took our family of 6 in to see the Sprague. It was a very special day for all of us. It became a very fond memory.

    We were told during the tour she was also known as
    “The Big Mama.””

    A truly impressive piece of work.

  4. I am a retired towboat Captain
    I operated pushboats,and towboats for 43 years.
    The 1st time i was on a riverboat was in 1955. I was 12 years young.
    We was on a school tour in vicksburg miss. I Remember Going downtown Vicksburg On the schoolbus. We went down a hill,and at the bottom of the hill was the river
    the Sprague was sitting.
    We all boarded the huge paddlewheel boat.
    The tour guide took us all over the boat. It was the most beautiful thing i had ever
    seen.They told us the history of the boat. It was unbelieveable how huge this boat.
    Ihave seen the remains of it since it burned.

  5. I have a framed and laminated “packet” from the Sprague, but am not really sure what it is. If anyone might have a clue or can shed some light on it, please feel free to email me at: jonathankubala at gmail dot com , and I’d be happy to send you a picture.

    Thanks!

  6. I have a picture of the sprague big mama and a certificate of the sprague .i don’t know what to do whither it .

    • My Great Grandfather, Captain Peter Sprague (not “Paul” Sprague as the statement of significance indicates) oversaw the building of the Sprague. I also have a picture – a family heirloom. My suggestion is to find a descendant or a musuem that will greatly appreciate the pieces of history that you have or have copies made for them. I am trying to find other descendants of Captain Sprague (christian name is William Peter Sprague 1828 to 1900). I am decended from one of his daughters.

      There is a web site that has a recording of Big Mamma’s whitsle.

      My understnading is that there is not much lef of this incredible paddle wheeler. the peices should be salvaged and properly displayed. i wish I could have seen it prior to the fire.

      Kathy Mac Neill, California

      • Kathy, I am researching Peter Sprague and his wife Agnes Barr. My ancestor was Johann Barr, her father. I have been unable to find the marriages of their children, except for Maggie Ruffley… can you help? Elaine Oswald, Allegheny County, PA

        • Elaine, Peter Sprague was the brother of William Sprague, who was the grandfather of my grandfather Lee Sprague. I grew up in Penn Hills, an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh. My grandmother Edna Sprague, took my brother and me to see the model of the Sprague at the Carnegie Museum when we were kids. I visited the Sprague as a Boy Scout during her visit to Pittsburgh for the Bicentennial in 1958. My scoutmaster gave me large measured drawings of the Sprague that were used to construct a scale model. I am doing geneological research on the Sprague Family and would welcome any help that you could provide. Thank you!
          Bob Malcomson

          • Bob,
            Who was William Sprague’s father? I have hit a dead end on that side of our family.
            Also I do have family photos of Peter and Agnes Sprague, but they are currently framed. I would need to have them removed for scanning.

          • Bob, I would gladly share all I have…my concentration was on Peter…I know he had a brother Wm.,but never followed through on that side. There is a “Sprague Project” which my partner (who also has some Spragues, but not clearly related) has researched. It seems NO ONE has been able to get any further back than Peter and Wm.

        • Elaine, I wish I had checked back sooner to this web page. Yes
          Anes Barr (born Dec 28, 1830) was Peter Sprague’s wife. Ada Lavina was one of their daughters and my great grandmother. She married John Alexander Mc Cracken, and they only had one daughter ( Mary Elizabeth). Mary married Colin Oliver MacNeill, and also only had one child, my father John Mac Neill.

          We know little about the Sprague family. There were 6 children of Peter and Agnes? Ella B., Milo, Alexander, Mary, Ada Lavinia, and Amanda. I gathered that there was a Maggie Ruffly as i have my grandmother’s birthday book and several old family books with names in them. A Mollie Norris is also in the birthday book – not sure if that is a relative or a friend.

          Let me know if you find any more info. I do not have any info on Agnes, or Peter’s family.

          • I do have much info….and many blanks…according to the gen. report…Agnes was my “2nd great grandaunt”
            Agnes was the daughter of Scottish immigrants…Johann Bar and Mary Dreighon. If you would like to share further…address is Boswaldatconsolidateddotnet…also have postings on Ancestry…. Hope to hear from you. Elaine

            • Hi Elaine,
              How great to hear back from you. I would love to share more info. I tackle the family history sporatically, but I was up late last night looking through old books. Mollie Norris appears to be a friend of the family, and not a relative.

              I will do some scanning and send you info as I pull it together. Some of my information is from the Sprague side and some from the Mc Cracken side. it was all thrown into a trunk together and never explained.

              I found an old census record that Places Peter Sprague (age 23) and Agnes (age 20) together and living with a younger sister (Anne) and younger brother (William) of Peter?

              Kathy Mac Neill
              kmac1635@earthlink.net

      • The National Mississippi River Museum, Dubuque, Iowa on the site of the former Dubuque Boat and Boiler works, Birthplace of the Sprauge would surely be interested. I have contacts with currator if you are interested

      • Hi Ms. Mac Neill,

        We were looking through the internet on information on the Sprague, very interesting on all the photos available to view. My husbands’ Grandfather (Jack Terrell) has a mirror that came out of one of the restrooms on the Sprague in 1948 prior to it being decommissioned. One of his uncles worked on the Sprague in the late 1930’s up until WWII and he was asked to take something that he appreciated from the ship.

        He wanted us to email you and let you know he had a piece of history he is very fond of as well.

    • I am very interested in what you have. My father worked for Standard Oil (now Exxon-Mobile) and he was assigned to the Sprague when it made it’s journery up the Mississippi to repair the wooden paddle(s) when they hit logs and broke. I would like to hand down all information I can get on the Sprague to my five children who were born after my father died. Of course, my eleven grandchildren would benefit also.

      I am hoping others will respond to this message with any help to give me.
      Posted by Gloria Smith,
      glosmith335@bellsouth.net

  7. I was wondering who was the captain(s) and pilot(s) of the sprague during its life.

    • I think Norris Storey worked for Standard Oil as the Capt of the Sprague.

    • Captain Rubin Ruiz was the Captain of The Sprague during the last years of her life as a working riverboat. Rubin retirned from Standard Oil and would always tell us(his grandchildern) stories about The Sprague.

    • The Sprague is part of my family history. Capt. Peter Sprague was my grandfather’s great uncle. My mother has a few books and a postcard of The Sprague. Because they were part of the family, whenever it came to Pittsburgh, they all got to visit and go on it for free. Unfortunately ,I was only 4 when she burned down. I never had a chance to see her in person. They used to have a scale model of The Sprague in the museum in Pittsburgh. If you have any pictures, could you email them to me please. steve.walters1004@gmail.com

      • I just wanted to mention that our small high school from Utica Mississippi held my senior prom on the Sprague in 1971. I was sorry to hear several years later that it had burned. The Sprague holds a special memory for me.
        Dave Dodson, (Milwaukee, Wi_)

  8. The Salvage Market in The Flea Market building in Flowood has a framed print of the Sprague. I thought they had something else as well. Don’t know how much they want for it. I think the print is something like 14″ x 30″ or maybe smaller. Pretty good size but not huge.

  9. I remember the “Showboat”when I was little my mom was part of the Little Theater group on the Sprague and they performed This is Gold in Them Ther Hills. She was a stand in for the drunk lady. My brother ran the spot light and I sold peanuts which we threw at the villian. I have pictues of the cast that I am in the process of scanning and preserving. We had so much fun going there on Friday and Saturday nights.

  10. I do wish God Speed to have this Beautiful Paddle wheel boat restored.
    This boat is named after a relative of mine. My parents have a copy or photo of this boat
    on the Ohio River.
    Sincerely ,
    Jennifer Sprague Schroth

  11. I saw the Sprague probably in 1958 being towed up the Ohio River just South of. Marietta Ohio. I remember her paddle wheel being partly dismantled at the time. She was huge.

  12. I have a set of Sprague blueprints– I got to visit the Paddleboat in the 60’s I

    • Hello there. Peter Sprague was my grandfather’s great uncle. My mother has been collecting information about “Big Momma” for years and is now passing them down to me. What are you going to do with the blueprints ? I would be interested in seeing them. I have always been interested in The Sprague ever since I was little.

  13. As a child I spent many afternoons in the mid to late 60s on the Sprague. I would often sneak into those areas that were officially off-limits to tourists. I absolutely love exploring the entire boat. As a child and as a teenager I probably threw an entire bushel of peanuts at the Villian in the Gold in the Hills play. It was one of those places where I could escape and be anything I wanted to be during a time in my childhood that was very stressful due to a very nasty divorce. I was a senior in high school when I learned that big mama had burned.
    Several years ago my mom gave me a framed limited edition print of the Sprague and a bolt from the ships pilot wheel that she uhhhhh……….found.
    Like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, I guess you could say the Sprague is my Rosebud.
    Randy Dunlap
    Flora Mississippi. ashmat2710@msn.com

  14. My grandfather L. Bailey was the captain of the Sprague after Stranded Oil bought the boat. He was more than likely the captain at the time of the great flood of 27. Before the Sprague he was the Captain of the Wanderer 2. He was born in 1872.

  15. The Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi has a permanent exhibit dedicated to The beloved Big Mama. The current curator there, Bubba Bolm as well as the former curator who now works part time – noted historian Gordon Cotten, are usually there and know many stories about the Sprague. There are also photographs of all the portraits of the various captains of the Sprague, painted by acclaimed Mississippi artist & Vicksburg native Caroline R. Compton. This might be a good place to donate any small artifacts anyone might have from the Sprague.

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