Sunday, November 2, 2008

Steamboat "Suwanee"

In the early years of our country, man did not travel by road and rail alone, so Ford sought to fill in the missing mode - water travel.
Travel by steamboat had been around since the very end of the 18th century and became a common method of travel well into the 19th and even early into the 20th centuries. These paddleboats have become part of the legend and folklore of early American life and I do not believe there is anyone over the age of ten that is not familiar with these symbols of early American travel. Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" did much to build on the legends.
Thomas Edison, while in Florida, would travel the waterways on a boat named "Suwanee," a 19th century steamer. The boat was sunk, however, and all that Henry Ford could salvage was the engine. The auto-magnet, in 1929, brought the boat's one-time captain, Conrad Menge, to Dearborn to help in the re-building of the boat. Then, in March 1937, Ford dredged a loop of the Rouge River to create a circular Suwanee Lagoon.

The steamboat sat idle much of the time, however, but, gradually, this icon of 19th century Americana gained in popularity and proved to be as much an attraction as anything else in the Village. Soon, it became one of the most popular rides in the Village.
A River Rouge flood nearly destroyed the old boat in 1968. The flood waters seriously damaged the hall and part of the decks. But, in 1969, it underwent reconstruction and, by spring of 1970, was up and running once again.
My memories of riding on "Suwanee" run deep; it was an absolute joy to sit there, listening to the steam chug out of the engine, seeing the smoke blow out of the stacks, watching and enjoying the sound of the paddlewheel churn the waters, and hearing the whistle blow as we moved slowly 'round the lagoon. And with addition of the banjo man performing the old-time songs while on our 'journey' around the lagoon, it was a highlight of visiting the Village.
Probably one of the nicest things about the ride was that it was simple: no Disney-fied robotic characters on the inner island to "make it more interesting." What you got was an opportunity to experience, if only for a short turn, what it was like for our ancestors to move down the Mississippi au-naturale.

Unfortunately, since the summer of 2004, "Suwanee" was idle once again - the powers-that-be had docked it permanently. I have heard numerous reasons why it was no longer running, from cost to insurance to unions (!) to maintenance. Then, during the winter of 2011, the old girl was taken apart, board by board.

The end of Steamboat Suwanee - taken apart in the winter of 2011

I had high hopes that Greenfield Village would bring this old favorite back. But, with it now destroyed, there is certainly no chance of that happening.
Honestly, it broke my heart when I heard - then saw the photos for proof - that Steamboat Suwanee was truly no more.

So long, old girl. Maybe one day...



robert said...

I was the banjo man.

I loved that boat.

Thanks for remembering.

Rob Bourassa

Historical Ken said...

Many thanks, sir, for the musical enjoyment you gave to my family and I while we rode upon this magnificent piece of Americana!

jhlalone said...

A sad day for historians The SCRAPPING of the Suwanee Steam Boat that most of us loved and charished is almost complete. Its a sad thing that The Henry Ford cant seem to understand how to save history and not destroy it yes its not the origional boat but it is still part of history.

Historical Ken said...

I am in full agreement Mr. Lalone!

David The Scrapbook Guy said...

I've been using your blog to identify some of the landmarks in my old GV photos from a school trip in 1983. I was shocked to learn of the scrapping of the "Suwanee." Never got to ride in it, but got some nice photos as it passed by.

Marcy said...

My great grandfather was Captain Conrad Menge. How sad to hear that she is gone. My grandmother took me to Dearborn in 1972 and I was able to take a ride. Years later she took my son on a similar trip. Sadly the Suwanee is just a memory now.

Unknown said...

The Suwanee was not an original riverboat. Ford purchased the engines and built a boat similar to one Edison liked around them. The structure was rebuilt several times over the decades and so it was really in no way truly historic, other than the engines which are now in storage and, since Ford built the boat, so are all of the designs meaning a new Suwanee could theoretically be made.