Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly

The Mississippi River has a rich and colorful history filled with stories of settlements, businesses, traders, trappers, loggers, and gambling. Regardless of the story, all have one commonality – boats – both commercial and personal. The focus of this month’s “Porthole To The Past” is “The Nellie Bly,” a houseboat with a wonderful history on the river. Original and still owner, Marjorie Gray Vogel of Red Wing, Minnesota graciously responded to my request for as much information about this unique boat as possible. The Nellie Bly was entered in our 23rd Rendezvous on the Mississippi in August. Within a week of the show, an oversized envelope was delivered Priority Mail with all kinds of information, pictures and the story, hand-written by Marjorie, that follows. This was far more than I could have hoped for and I am grateful to Marjorie and son John for sharing their story of this family treasure with us. — Editor

The houseboat was commissioned by Stanley G. Gray of Edina to be built by local craftsmen in Red Wing. Mr. Gray owned a houseboat during the 1930’s at Mendota on the Minnesota River named “Chief Shakopee” Those experiences convinced him to commission a larger craft.

In the spring of 1936, after eight or nine weeks of construction, a 42 foot houseboat was launched and christened. The craft was equipped with a Red Wing Thorobred Hiawatha 100 hp inboard motor by Tom Collishan, Red Wing Motor Co.

In June of that year, Mr. Gray turned over ownership to his daughter Marjorie and son-in-law, Arnold Vogel as a wedding present. The newly-weds used the “Nellie Bly” for their first home and they honeymooned for two seasons in and around the environs of the Mississippi River at Red Wing until the fall of 1937. After purchasing a home in Red Wing, the Vogels continued to dock the Nellie Bly in the lower bay harbor where it can be found today. Since 1938, it has been used as a home away from home by all members of the growing family: Stanley, Mary, George, and John. The original owner, Marjorie, at 86 years of age, continues to use the boat.

Marjorie acted as hostess for visitors to the “Nellie Bly” at the 23rd Annual Bob Speltz Land-O-Lakes Antique and Classic Boat Rendezvous held at Treasure Island Marina in Red Wing in August of this year. A total of 825 people toured the interior of the antique wooden river houseboat during the three-day event. The pilot, John W. Vogel of Minnetonka welcomed all aboard.

Minor maintenance and interior design changes have occurred over the past 50 years on the 62 year old boat, yet the original boat has remained basically intact. With the engine located forward in the wheelhouse, a 32 foot shaft carries to the stern an arrangement providing better aft storage. A major decision was reached in 1995 to replace the original Georgian Cypress wooden hull with a hull of steel. This allowed welders to also extend the aft deck by three feet.

Under John Vogel’s supervision, the restoration included complete paint and varnish treatment inside and out. At that time, it was expedient to replace the original Thorobred Hiawatha 100 hp engine with a 160 hp Mercruiser. The original 60 year old motor is now part of the celebrated display of antique and classic inboard engines shown throughout the Midwest on a yearly basis at various boat shows by their owner, Harry Munson of Red Wing.

The handsome wheel was fabricated by Frank Strom of Red Wing from four fruit trees grown in his back yard: apple, plum, cherry and pear. Probably the family-oriented interior arrangement interested the most visitors with emphasis on adequate storage, cross ventilation, sleeping accommodations for six, custom-made louvered folding doors, galley cabinet convenience, and food preparation area. The interior includes two bunks, two davobeds, one double bed, wrought iron and crystal lighting fixtures, walnut paneling, storage stack for sleeping bags, linen, toys and clothing, a round oak table and four chairs. The dressing area includes built-in cabinets, full length closet, sink, head, and a small emergency generator.

  • On display during the Rendezvous were artifacts and photographs relating to the early days of boating on the “Nellie Bly:”
  • The pilot license issued to A.F. Vogel, August 29, 1936
    by U.S. Dept. Of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation and
    Steamboat Inspection.
  • The original guest book and log entries from 1936.
  • Construction plans by architect Fred Carlsen of Minneapolis.
  • The 1936 concept sketch by Marjorie Gray.
  • The Manhattan unit galley stove, oven and broiler, coffee pot and original china setting in galley.
  • Progress photographs of maintenance and replacements during 50 years 1948-1998.
  • Ring buoy, flags, horns, the commemorative “Nellie Bly” pressed glass platter, and bell.

Proudly shown now is the 1998 framed award and the Judge’s Award Trophy.”
Incorporated in this article are answers to the many specific questions posed by the visitors during the Rendezvous..

How far has the Nellie Bly traveled?
Destinations included head of navigation in Minneapolis, the upper St. Croix River, and a Jaycee Convention in Winona. Around Red Wing we would drop anchor in the back channel, head of Lake Pepin; in cuts one, two, three and four; Little River; Sturgeon Lake; off Barney Seiz Point, and in the lock/dam flowage channel.

And now?

After 1974, we acquired 600 feet of beach up river from Red Wing which we now use as our base of activity. A generator is housed there and provides the electricity for the Nellie Bly. No longer is there a pair of stern davits and a dinghy. Instead we use a 17 foot Whaler as a taxi between the harbor and the Nellie Bly. Communication is by cell phones, not marine radio.

Storage in Winter?
Since 1996, the houseboat is pulled in October and stored by Marine Specialties of Red Wing until launch time in May when the boat is docked in Vogel Harbor for another season cruising the Mississippi at 1200 rpm.
Unique Experiences?

  • A college friend dropped by in his aquaplane and tied onto the Nellie Bly two days in Lake Pepin.
  • Locking through during World War II and being interrogated and searched because of foreign speaking guests.
  • A week-long 25th Anniversary 1961 celebration tied up to the stern of the University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat. Guests attended the performance then climbed over the big red paddle wheel to the Nellie Bly for a midnight buffet supper each evening.

The Nellie Bly has participated in many public events:

  • The 1941 Aquatennial Boat Parade in Minneapolis
  • The 1939 Mississippi River Pageant
  • Flotilla #7, Division No. 1, 9th Naval District
  • July 1942 United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Patrol from Barney Point to Friedrich’s Point in Lake Pepin. Nine on board the “Nellie Bly”
  • Annual River City Days in August at Red Wing Celebration of Yacht Club, Founders’ Day 1953, the 50th Reunion
  • Bridge Benefits
  • Annual Yacht Club picnic and rendezvous

Famous Guests?
Signed in were Merle Potter, Ambassador Eugenie Anderson, “Butzie” Maetzold, Ray Black, Mrs. August Andresen, Nat Mazumdar, Dr. Alexander P. Anderson, Art Pharmer, Dick Gray, Chester Simmons, Hjalmar Hjermstad, and the Minnesota Bankers’ Regionsl members.

“Nellie Bly” – The Name

Out of the blue, we decided on “Nellie Bly.” Somehow or other it sounded like a horse, a pet, or perhaps a toy, like a boat. So the boat was named on impulse.

So who was “Nellie Bly” and how did that name come into our minds? It was not until later that we received clues from friends or strangers who sent clippings to us. Actually, “Nellie Bly” was an assumed name for an American who became the most famous woman newspaper reporter of her time.

The daughter of a Pennsylvania judge, born Elizabeth Cochrane, she, at the age of 18, challenged an editor’s editorial in the Pittsburgh dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For.” In 1885, her unsigned letter intrigued editor Madden and he placed an ad asking “the gentleman who wrote a letter criticizing our editorial” to get in touch with him.

His amazement and later consternation confronted a dainty, slender lady as she stood before him. She was five feet inches in high buttoned shoes. Madden offered her a job. She was to start as a reporter, but Madden claimed she must write under an assumed man’s name. She refused.

During the impasse about the name, an office boy strolled by the open door whistling a popular tune by Pittsburgh hometown composer, Stephen Foster. The song “Nelly Bly” and the catchy tune settled the matter. Using a woman’s prerogative, Elizabeth Cochrane changed the spelling and became Nellie Bly, the newspaper woman reporter. She became a legend in the reporting field.