For more than a half century, the ferry named City of Baton Rouge daily crossed the Mississippi River from its downtown landing to Port Allen and back. Then, shortly after the Interstate 10 bridge opened, the City of Baton Rouge was gone.
But not forgotten.
The venerable steamboat, without its engines or paddle wheel but not without purpose, turns 100 this year, and its owners are throwing a party — in Iowa.
That’s where the City of Baton Rouge has been since 1987, serving as a dock boat on the Mississippi River in LeClaire, Iowa. Passengers boarding and leaving the Twilight riverboat have passed through the City of Baton Rouge, perhaps not knowing its history.
That will change on May 28.
Kevin and Carrie Stier, who own the City of Baton Rouge and the Twilight, will honor the former ferry boat with speeches, tours, a rechristening and a new plaque that details its history.
The City of Baton Rouge looks as it did during its sailing life except for the paddle wheel and pilot house, which was torn off by a storm in 1980. Its owners thought about replacing the pilot house for this celebration but decided against it.
“We really wanted to put her back up there, if for nothing else than for posterity,” Carrie Stier said. “But … we’d be attaching a new structure to 100-year-old timbers. That would take much more engineering than we really wanted to get into for this purpose, unfortunately. It would look really cool, but I don’t know that it would be worth it at this point.”
The City of Baton Rouge was built in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and launched on Aug. 12, 1916, and it began its ferry work in Baton Rouge early the next year. With a catamaran hull and a single paddlewheel, it could carry 500 passengers and 21 automobiles, and it operated by itself until being joined by the larger Louisiana in 1924 and the Thomas Pickles in the 1930s.
During their heyday in the 1930s, the ferries ran once every 15 minutes and cost a quarter for every car and driver and a nickel for each passenger.
Because people only paid for the ferry at the Baton Rouge landing, it was common that children in Port Allen would hop on the ferry, ride to Baton Rouge, stay on the boat and catch the return trip to the west bank.
After 1940 — the year the Huey P. Long Bridge opened along U.S. 190 — it was just the City of Baton Rouge and the Louisiana.
Even with the bridge, the ferry got plenty of work because of its convenience to Baton Rouge’s and Port Allen’s downtowns and for the pleasure of the ride itself. Part of the experience was George H. West, the self-styled “Messiah of Jesus,” who stood on the shore wearing flowing white robes and a white headpiece, holding a white cross and inviting people to be baptized in the Mississippi River. “Come down in the water and be saved” was his familiar refrain.
When the I-10 bridge, formally named the Horace Wilkinson Bridge, opened in 1968, it doomed the ferry market, and the Louisiana was sold to the state and was used as a ferry in Plaquemines Parish, where it is now a maintenance barge. Dennis Trone bought the City of Baton Rouge, moved it to Dubuque, Iowa, stripping its engine, paddlewheel and other equipment for a new steamboat, the Julia Belle Swain.
The City of Baton Rouge was converted to a wharf boat for his excursion boat company in Peoria, Illinois. That was where the storm destroyed the pilot house.
In 1987, Trone moved the City of Baton Rouge, Julia Belle Swain and Twilight to its current home in Iowa.
Kevin and Carrie Stier bought the boats when Trone retired, sold the Julia Belle Swain to a company in Wisconsin and gave the City of Baton Rouge its current duty. In addition to being a floating dock for the Twilight, the City of Baton Rouge has lodging for the Twilight’s crew and stores equipment.
Most of that is off limits to passengers, but that will change for the celebration, which will also honor the memory of Harry Alsman, a LeClaire man who welcomed passengers and kept the City of Baton Rouge looking its best until his death last year.
“We always used to call him Captain Harry,” Carrie Stier said. “Even though the Baton Rouge didn’t run and even, technically, he wasn’t a licensed captain, we gave him that title anyway. He was the last captain, as far as we’re concerned, of the Baton Rouge.”
Whether captains or passengers, people have come and gone, but the City of Baton Rouge remains.