The Emerson was a sternwheel paddleboat built as the Moline at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1880. The 140-foot-long, twenty-six-foot-wide vessel was owned by Dimock, Gould & Co. of Moline, Illinois, and worked along the upper Missouri River.
In the summer of 1900, the Kansas City Navigation Company acquired the Moline and converted the vessel into an excursion boat. Captain Ralph Emerson and a partner bought the steamboat in 1907 and renamed it the Emerson in February 1908, using the vessel to tow “Emerson’s Floating Palace,” a traveling entertainment venue. One newspaper noted that “Captain Emerson’s new purchase, the steamer Moline, is the most powerful and biggest steamboat towing a showboat.”
The Emerson towed the palace along several waterways for performances of music, plays, and other acts at riverfront towns. A Paducah, Kentucky, newspaper wrote after a visit from Emerson’s Floating Palace that “everybody was astounded at the mysterious act of the Hindoo troop [sic]. They swallowed swords and Victorina swallowed a gun barrel, which was discharged while it was down his throat.” The palace was at Caruthersville, Missouri, on September 28, 1908, and a local paper wrote that “it was better than most river shows and was considerate enough not to seat negroes with the whites, which was greatly appreciated by our people.”
Five days later, the Emerson was steaming down the Mississippi River when it struck a sandbar near Osceola and swung about, hitting a “mattress” used to prevent riverbank erosion “sideways and turned turtle, sinking in sixty feet of water.” One person—different accounts say an actor, the calliope player, or simply a “member of the traveling troupe”—was drowned in the accident.
The wreckage of the Emerson blocked the channel of the Mississippi, but by October 12 the snag boat H. G. Wright “removed part of the wreck of the steamer Emerson” and reopened the waterway. The steamboat was a total loss “and the theater [was] damaged to the extent of several thousand dollars.”
For additional information:
“Bigger and Better than Ever.” Paducah, Kentucky, News-Democrat, June 23, 1908, p. 1.
“Floating Theater Sinks; One Drowns.” Muscatine (Iowa) News-Tribune, October 8, 1908, p. 6.
“Local and General Notes.” Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Press, October 12, 1908, p. 7.
“Local and Personal.” Caruthersville, Missouri, Pemiscot Press, October 2, 1908, p. 2.
“Old Steamer Moline Is Towing Show Boat.” Moline, Illinois, Dispatch, March 9, 1908, p. 2.
“Steamer Emerson Sinks.” Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal, October 4, 1908, p. 4.
“Steamer Is Total Loss.” Vicksburg (Mississippi) Herald, October 4, 1908, p. 1.
“Steamer Moline in Davy Jones’ Locker.” (Moline, Illinois) Dispatch, October 13, 1908, p. 5.
Way, Frederick, Jr. Way’s Packet Directory. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1983.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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