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.
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.