The St. Paul Yacht Club

The St. Paul Yacht Club

Inspired by the location of this year’s Rendezvous, the August Program issue of The BoatHouse focused on the Mississippi River. Thus began the “Porthole To The Past” as a regular feature. In the October issue, the story of the award-winning Nellie Bly, a houseboat with a 60 year history on the river held the spotlight in “The Porthole.” We continue on the river this month with The Story of the St. Paul Yacht Club. This prestigious organization has a rich history of boating on the Mississippi; some of the highlights are reprinted here with their permission.

The St. Paul Yacht Club

Born 86 years ago out of the needs of a few motorboating enthusiasts, and incorporated in 1919, the yacht club and its members have served their city well. The story of the organization’s first 50 years was told in a special 1962 edition of the club’s newsletter, The Anchor and Line. That complete issue was reprinted and made a part of the 75th anniversary publication. 

As the second decade of the 20th century approached, the Mississippi River was of less importance to St. Paul than at any time before or since. River traffic was at a minimum. In addition, pollution made the river especially offensive to the eyes and nose. For a number of years, club activities gravitated south to cleaner waters, mostly to the St. Croix River. With the completion of St. Paul’s sewage treatment plant in 1939 however, a resurgence in river use became noticeable. The membership roster of the St. Paul Yacht Club boomed accordingly.

During those earlier years, Carl Engman seems to stand out above most of the others as the most unselfish and self-dedicated yachtsman on the entire river. Another important figure was Al Johnson, remembered today for his “beat-up old pipe and usually an equally bedraggled hat, and an almost constant twinkle in his eyes.” The St. Paul Yacht Club played an important part in shaping its community by offering an access to the recreational water playgrounds of three rivers, the Mississippi, the Minnesota, and the St. Croix. The club membership was always without ethnic bias, or social distinction. A spirit of camaraderie and teamwork prevailed, typical of a yachting clan. Together these members, with the aid of the city, help establish a safe and beautiful harbor for the enjoyment of thousands of inland-sailors in a growing recreational boat market that has been phenomenal”.

Gordon 0. Miller, known by young and old as “Gordy,” contributed much to the story of the St. Paul Yacht Club and serves very well as the major link between the old-timers of the first 50 years and the newer members of the third quarter of this century. He started his river life in 1937 (coming from a farm near Faribault) as a pilot for the old Central Barge Line. About 1946 he took over the Dingle Boat Works, then located on the site of today’s printing plant for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch in Northport Industrial Park adjoining downtown St. Paul’s Holman Airport. There he quartered his towing company, Twin City Barge and Towing. In 1953, driven out by too many floods, he sold the firm and opened a marina and boatyard under the Wabasha Street bridge where he also turned out houseboats and hulls and battled against the big flood of 1965.

A member of the St. Paul Yacht Club since 1942, later honored with a life membership, “Gordy” Miller belonged to the organization longer than any other member. Like Al Johnson, Gordy soon became dock master for the club. Over the years he carried on the tradition of Carl Engman as a dedicated and selfless “Dean of rivermen on the St. Paul waterfront”. On January 20, 1970, the Millers’ houseboat, which also served as office for the St. Paul Yacht Club, was extensively damaged by fire. Miller and his wife, Muriel, immediately restored the structure and opened it as a restaurant. Today it’s the popular and modernized “No Wake Cafe” which beckons the denizens of the workaday world who come down from their skyscraper offices across the river to relax, enjoy refreshments, light lunches, dinners and interesting folklore. This floating restaurant is an important and welcome service provided by the club to the public — a service found in few marinas on the river system in this area. As the late Muriel Miller once said: “You look out the window and you see the river floating by so smoothly. It’s good medicine.”

In September 1979, the yacht club purchased Gordy’s operation at the lower harbor — the shoreline docks, restaurant, shop boat, service vehicles and various other marine equipment. Gordy himself, by far the most popular river rat on the St. Paul waterfront, still going strong at the age of 82, could usually be found somewhere around the basin, still doing what he enjoyed most — helping people.

The year 1962 saw considerable excavation work being done at the upper end of Harriet Island: the construction of a seawall and an ambitious development program aimed at a possible site of a new marina for the St. Paul Yacht Club. During the same year, apparently without sufficient investigation, the club purchased an old barge on which members eagerly planned to build a floating clubhouse. When finally inspected, it was certified unseaworthy due to heavy rusting. The obviously crestfallen club members were forthwith forced to cancel all construction plans made with Swager Brothers of Stillwater. As later recorded, it was three long anxious years before the yacht club had a home.

During those years, too, the Minnesota Centennial Showboat (“The nicest thing that’s happened to the Twin Cities in years,” according to St. Paul columnist Don O’Grady,) tied up at the yacht club docks for two weeks each summer. The showboat’s Captain Whiting, a Minnesota University Professor of Theatre Arts, presented theatrical melodramas to sellout crowds — a colorful sight reminiscent of the 1850s, when showboats were perhaps the major attraction along the waterfronts and levees of Midwestern river cities.
The biggest event of 1962, the 50th anniversary celebration, took place on July 29. Included among the many festivities was a fifty-boat parade, one for each year, which followed the decorated flagship from the High Bridge to just below St. Paul’s downtown airport.
When 1965 rolled around however, the Mississippi River had no intention of flowing “so smoothly,” as Muriel Miller had put it. Nor was the “medicine” that Old Man River dished out that April at all beneficial. Disaster loomed when record winter snowfalls and a spring cold snap followed by torrential rains conspired to produce unbelievable inundations — the greatest recorded high water in Midwest history along the Mississippi, Minnesota, and St. Croix rivers and their tributaries. In St. Paul, the curious lined the bridges over the river and the heights along Kellogg Boulevard above it. Crowds stared in disbelief at a familiar river gone completely mad. The Mississippi at St. Paul crested at a record 26.01 foot level beating out the 1952 flood record crest of 22-02 feet. St. Paul’s mayor George Vavolis declared a state of emergency and President Lyndon B. Johnson traveled to the region to view the devastation. Lowland flooding was a grim sight. All of Harriet Island was under water except for the approaching road off Wabasha Street. That was lined with boats hastily pulled to safety from the raging torrent.

The St. Paul Yacht Club also faced disaster. The local newspaper quoted Don O’Grady as stating that if its historic headquarters, once a day-nursery for Dr. Ohage’s bathing establishment, got loose, the old frame building would be washed downstream into the club’s docks and slips and on into the Navy Island bridge and Gordy Miller’s marina. Even the railway bridge might be threatened. According to Clophus Bulleigh, then commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, those reports were not exactly correct. Bulleigh recollected that the dynamiting of the clubhouse was ordered on April 13, 1965 not to protect the bridges but to safeguard a sandbag dike surrounding the Swift meat packing plant in South St. Paul.
With the first dynamite blast, only the roof of the endangered structure was blown off. With the next two explosions, the clubhouse caught fire — not part of the original plan. The result, although devastating for members to watch, was cataclysmic, an awe-inspiring finale for the venerable building providing spectators and photographers with an exciting show. As the clubhouse burned toward the water, it began to float. Shortly, accompanied by clouds of steam, it sank. The excitement was over and a tug was called in to tie additional cables to the docks to save them.

Along with the first response team which included men from the Minneapolis and St. Paul fire departments, were most all of the Yacht Club members The entire yacht club membership probably should be named here for the heroic three day effort rescuing boats from a watery grave. It is a miracle that only two boats were lost. “There is no longer a light at the St. Paul Yacht Club”, reported Don O’Grady. 

After the disastrous flood of 1965, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers undertook long-term flood control measures to protect St. Paul from future inundations. This project was completed in July of 1967. In 1962, the Corps had dredged a small boat harbor north of the lower marina, ostensibly for the use of the St. Paul Yacht Club. For some unknown reason, it appeared to have remained unused until the club was given permission after the flood of 1965 to take possession of the harbor “temporarily”. The Yacht Club affectionately refers to this extended marina as The Upper Harbor and currently has slips built and owned by the yacht club which accommodates 93 boats. It was during the 1960s, too, when the city planners started looking acquisitively at what they called the islands “nice open space that really wasn’t doing much of anything for anybody.” There followed 20 years of rumors, elaborate ideas touted in newspaper headlines, projected ten-year plans, multimillion dollar motel-boatel architectural drawings, even suggestions that Harriet be made an island again! — all concerned with the need for a suitable waterfront plan. Dramatic changes were proposed. Some of the ideas seemed to run headlong against the restrictive use clauses written into the will of Dr. Justus Ohage, later resolved through mutual negotiations. A new plan successfully evolved with extensive citizen participation, including the St. Paul Yacht Club, under the leadership of Mayor George Latimer to promote the development of the riverfront as a community resource.

In 1968 the yacht club wanted to build a clubhouse on land where the old headquarters had been. This idea however, was vetoed by the city which feared that such a plan might be in violation of the Ohage will. Finally, that same year, a happy solution was found in the form of a one-time excursion boat, “The General, located in Dubuque, Iowa. The 64 foot steel-hulled, 200 passenger boat had been used as a day cruiser by Galena Excursions until 1965. Club members quickly voted unanimously to purchase it for $27,500 raised through pledges by members. In mid-October 1968, “The General” was towed up to St. Paul and delighted yacht club members greeted it ecstatically. “She’s dirty, she’s rugged, she’s ours,” they rejoiced. “With some hard work, the club will have the most unique craft on the Upper Mississippi.” Today, “The General” still serves well as the St. Paul Yacht Club’s unique clubhouse.

Now 86 years old, The St. Paul Yacht Club, through its many and varied activities, has always attracted favorable attention from the press. An article in St. Paul’s Downtowner newspaper in 1987 stated that, “Today the club continues with a new dedication in its service to the city.” The reporter called the club a “unique organization” since it provides safe and efficient boating services and facilities to the public on the same priority basis as to its members. Under contract with the city, the club offers boat slips, winter boat storage, fuel and marine supplies, sanitary facilities, emergency assistance to boaters, and a pleasant floating restaurant open to the public.

In a letter to the Division of Parks and Recreation for the city of St. Paul dated October 18, 1984, then commodore, Howard Dahlgren stated that prior to the acquisition of the Miller Marina in 1979, the St. Paul Yacht Club kept a relatively low profile; community involvement was not stressed. However, all that changed and although the organization is still a “family club” as it was once designated by Commodore Philip F. Cormican, it now dedicates a principal portion of its time and energies to civic involvement. According to Dahlgren, the club does what it can to support and maintain a close working relationship with the City of St. Paul, principally through its Parks and Recreation staff. A fair share of these efforts have been related to St. Paul’s Riverfront Days, later known as “Riverfest.” Other efforts include a “non-boat” going by the name of “The City Of St. Paul.” It is a handsome land-bound boat built in 1984 by club members on the base of an historic 1959 Ramsey County Bookmobile donated to the City of St. Paul by the St. Paul Suburban Bus Company. It is, according to the designer, Howard Dahlgren, “complete with paddle wheel, stacks, pilot house and the traditional paraphernalia unique to the sternwheel boats that once came to St. Paul by the hundreds”. It is used in area parades which include the St. Paul Winter Carnival, the Minneapolis Aquatennial, Grand Avenue’s Grand Old Days, Fort Road Parade as well as other parades. 

“The City ol St. Paul” float on July 25, 1987 marked one of the highlights of the year with the official opening celebration and dedication of the handsome new High Bridge, a spirited beginning for the new structure which promised to match and surpass the exciting demise of the old landmark bridge that three years before was declared unsafe and exploded into the river.
The U.S. Coast Guard and auxiliary, and the Ramsey County Boat Patrol also operate out of the yacht club basin. Space for visiting boats is reserved at a 200-yard long main dock built by the Corps of Engineers in 1950 and owned by the City of St. Paul. Nearby is located the dock for St. Paul’s popular sightseeing paddlewheelers, the “Jonathan Padleford” and the “Josiah Snelling” which offer scheduled steamboat excursions along the Mississippi. Each day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, passengers on these riverboats are treated to an urbanscape in a river environment, an environment including a handsome skyline, beautiful sunsets, duck families, diving terns, nesting swallows, and even an occasional American Bald Eagle hesitating in it’s flight to land on his favorite cottonwood tree to watch the fish jumping. This environment makes the St. Paul Yacht Club unique and provides everyday rewards to members of the 86 year old yacht club.

The St. Paul Yacht Club looks forward to an era of continued support to the city and a joint effort to provide safe, affordable and enjoyable boating to the area citizens and its members.