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Big Mama’ only a relic in hours

Bertha Kolb stands beside the remnants of the Sprague near City Front.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[4/15/04]Thirty years later, just thinking about the Sprague brings tears to Bertha Kolb’s eyes.

On April 15, 1974, Kolb and her late husband, Charles Kolb, had just finished their roles as Mr. and Mrs. VanDerLop in the second act of “Gold In The Hills” and had gone home. They had brought their costumes from backstage of the stately sternwheeler’s small theater because they needed cleaning. It was a lucky break because their costumes were the only ones not destroyed in the fire that broke out and spread during the stillness of the night.

The huge steam-powered towboat was, in a matter of hours, reduced to a relic. The blaze itself remains a mystery. Around 8 or 9 that evening, fire kindled in the forward part of the Sprague’s cabin and eventually gutted the boat from the top of the Texas deck to the main deck.

Not only was much of the largest steam towboat ever built destroyed, but also a huge collection of photographs and boat models in a riverboat museum and most of the collection of period costumes used by the Dixie Showboat Players to put on the melodrama “Gold In The Hills” in Vicksburg’s budding tourism industry.

A phone call awakened the Kolbs, and they went to the scene where the flames had drawn an audience all their own.

“I was just stunned,” Bertha Kolb said. “I was awestruck with the magnificent boat that we had enjoyed so much, here it was burning.”

The hull of the Sprague was completed in 1901 at the Iowa Iron Works in Dubuque. The cabins were completed by the middle of 1902, and the nearly complete boat was moved to St. Louis, where the 40-foot propulsion wheel was attached. The move was necessary because the locks on the Upper Mississippi River were not large enough to accommodate the full 318-foot length of the boat known as “Big Mama.”

The boat pushed barges on the Lower Mississippi River for the Monongahela River Consolidated Coal and Coke Co. for many years before being sold to the Esso Corp. of Baton Rouge to move petroleum barges on the Mississippi.

The shift to diesel power had begun, and the boat was laid up for a time before World War II. But it was reactivated during the war, again to move petroleum, and earned a second nickname, “The Oil Pipeline That Runs North and South On The Mississippi.”

During its lifespan, the Sprague set records on the number of coal barges moved at one time. That tow carried 67,307 tons of coal and measured 1,125 feet long and 312 feet wide.

It also had the record for the largest tow lost. That wreck resulted in 16 barges demolished, 29 sunk and the loss of 53,200 tons of coal.

The boat also had a lifesaving role, forging its way through the breach in the Mississippi River levee during the 1927 flood to rescue hundreds of people from their flooded homes and towns and carrying them to dry land.

In 1948, the Sprague was officially retired and the City of Vicksburg acquired the Sprague from the Standard Oil Corp. Many thought it was a silly expense to moor the old boat at City Front, but it gave visitors a chance to see a working river boat from an era receding into history.

The boilers were removed from the forward part of the main deck to make room for the theater for “Gold In The Hills” performances. In the years before the fire, an upscale restaurant opened on the second deck.

After the fire, a group of citizens, including Gary and Susie Leneck, owners of the restaurant, Bertha and Charles Kolb and many others, formed the Save Our Sprague committee to raise funds and promote interest in restoring the boat. The hull was largely intact, as was most of the steel superstructure.

However, those efforts were unsuccessful and, after many fits and starts at restoration, the Sprague was eventually removed from the Yazoo Diversion Canal in pieces.

Shortly after the fire, the steamboat was moved to a flat area just east of the fill area of the E.W. Haining Industrial Center to prevent the hull from breaking up. Steamboats of the Sprague’s day relied on what are called hog chains to give the hull stability. Since the fire had destroyed the hog chains, there was a real danger of the hull fracturing, a fear that came true some years later when the hulk was again returned to the Yazoo Diversion Canal in preparation for restoration efforts that never materialized.

The end came in July 1979 when the hull finally cracked due to flexing caused by the wakes from passing boats. Attempts were made, first by river salvors Patton-Tully Transportation Co. and then by a group of house movers hired by the state, but the hull finally had to be cut to pieces with explosives and removed from the canal.

Once the most powerful steamboat on the river, the rusting hulk of the Sprague was declared a hazard to navigation.

Even then, the S.O.S. committee still tried to get something done. However, the project sort of died, especially after it became mired in politics.

There was much discussion at the time about whether money from a bill the Mississippi Legislature had passed several years before the fire could be used for the project. The hitch became $500,000, which was to be raised locally from private donations to match the state’s $1 million, because the donations never rose to that level.

There are a few artifacts remaining with the largest being one of the steering rudders, which was removed when the boat was stripped of its boilers, and the rusting framework of the propulsion wheel. The rudder and some smaller parts are on a lot near City Front, and Vicksburg officials have plans to include them in a development of the area into an art park, a steamboat playground and the old Levee Street Depot.

The most recent action taken by city officials was to delay a vote to re-advertise for bids on the park development.

This followed opening of bids on the project with the lowest coming at $3.9 million.

The city also owns another “celebrity” boat. The deed to the diesel-powered MV Mississippi, retired flagship of the Corps of Engineers, was accepted about 10 years ago. The boat has been parked since not far from where the Sprague rotted. Plans are to include it in the new park at City Front.