Steamboats are embedded in the history of the La Crosse area. However, a passion for those vessels continues to bring that history to life. Producer Breann Schossow tells us more.
Mike Vogel has worked on the paddlewheeler, the La Crosse Queen, on and off for more than 30 years. The La Crosse Queen offers narrated boat tours rich in area river history between May and October. And on this day, he’s our captain, about to lead us on a tour of the Mississippi River.
The La Crosse Queen is a replica of the grand river boats that once traveled these waters — minus the steam power. She’s white and trimmed with red. A blue awning sits on her top deck to shade sightseers. And at the stern, a bright red split sternwheel propels the boat through the water.
Despite growing up in the area, I’d never actually been on a working riverboat like this one before. But cruising the plucky paddlewheeler is far from the only way to learn about river history in the area.
Vogel pointed me in the direction of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Murphy Library. It boasts a huge collection of steamboat and river related photographs with the UW-La Crosse Historic Steamboat Photographs. Paul Beck, a special collections librarian, estimates there are 40-50,000 photographs.
“We probably have the largest collection in the country, if not the world of steamboats and related photographs,” said Beck. “There are only a couple other libraries that might rival us. And they’re also here in the U.S.”
Beck said the collection started out with a focus on the upper Mississippi River area, but has expanded to include other parts of the U.S. and even other countries.
The images aren’t just of steamboats. They memorialize river life from the towns to the crews to the passengers.
“There’s something magical about them,” Beck said about the photographs. “Once you get one photo, you can’t stop. You know, 40,000 isn’t even enough. We want more.”
Back on the La Crosse Queen, Vogel’s giving lessons in area river history. He said during the peak riverboat years, La Crosse had up to 200 boats a month pass through her ports.
“That made it one of the busiest on the Mississippi River,” he told the group.
The tour is almost at an end and we’re approaching the La Crosse Queen’s home, Riverside Park. Besides serving as the location of various festivals and a museum with — of course — artifacts from a sunken steamboat, Riverside Park has a surprise. I learned about it from George Italiano with the La Crosse County Historical Society.
“We built our Riverside Park in the early 1900s,” Italiano said. “But underneath that is actually three steamboats and a barge.”
I was shocked. I’ve been to Riverside Park countless times. There are there are boats and a barge under that? Wow.
“It’s been so nice to see the big steamboats come in because it gives us a reminder of the past,” he said.
Community members here work hard to keep the proud river history of this port city alive. When I look at the love the La Crosse area has for steamboats and for the river, it’s not just about nostalgia. It’s about a passion for history that seems to grow and grow.
(This story was updated October 15, 2020.)
SONG: “The Julia Belle Swain” by John Hartford