In 1924 the US Lighthouse Service commissioned the construction of a Mississippi steam boat. Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works won the contract and began construction at a cost of $372,000. The boat was built in a shipyard downriver from St. Louis. She was 200 feet long and 64 feet wide, and drew 9 feet of water. When complete, she underwent trials on Lake Keokuk, Iowa. From there she proceeded to New Orleans. The boat was named the Willow and she joined the Lighthouse Service on 4 October 1927.
The Willow was assigned to the 15th Lighthouse District in Memphis and she aided navigation along the Mississippi between New Orleans and St. Louis, spending her winter months in New Orleans.
With her 9 foot draught, there are many places along the river where the Willow simply could not go. The US Army Corps of Engineers tried to maintain a 9 foot channel in the Mississippi, but the Willow’s movements were restricted, and she was accompanied by a 38 foot support vessel that could get to the places Willow could not. Despite this, she was widely referred to as ‘the pride of the Lighthouse Service’. She was such a beautiful boat that some mistakenly took her to be a private yacht, rather than a working government boat.
In 1939 the Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard and Willow was designated a Coast Guard cutter, carrying on the same role along the Mississippi between New Orleans and St. Louis throughout World War Two.
On 15 December 1944 Willow collided with USS LST-841 and both ships were badly damaged. The cost of repairs and continued maintenance were considered to be too high, so the Willow was decommissioned on 1 March 1945.
The first view we got of the USS Willow was over the protective sea wall was we motored west towards the entrance to the marina at Benalmádena on the Costa del Sol. After taking on fuel and paying our marina fees we slowly motored through the marina to our allocated berth, passing the Willow berthed on the outer edge of the marina. We were immediately struck by her New Orleans grandeur, her column-supported wooden decks reminding us of Showboat and Huckleberry Finn.
Benalmádena is a gaudy, high-rise blighted tourist resort with lurid statues of Neptune and sea nymphs adorning the marina complex and larger-than-life fibreglass polar bears and Yeti advertising bars and restaurants offering the usual holiday resort fare of burgers, pizzas and beer.
During our few days in Benalmádena, we walked around to the outer harbour to get a closer look at the Willow and we did a little online research to learn more about her. So how did this beautiful elegant steamboat end up here, in package-holiday central, with razor wire around her decks and looking sadly neglected?
After her decommissioning in 1945 her machinery was removed and she was turned overto the US Army Corps of Engineers who used her as a Quarters Boat. She served as a mess and berth for Corps of Engineers labourers, including German prisoners of war.
In 1962 she was sold to a Paducah, Kentucky businessman who planned to transform her into a floating restaurant and hotel, but this plan did not materialise. She remained unused and tied up at Paducah until 1965, when she was sold to the WS Young Construction Company and towed to New Orleans.
In September 1965, while berthed at LaPlace, Louisiana, Hurricane Betsy beached Willow high on the levee. There she was abandoned to the hands of vandals until she was rescued by the US Marshall in New Orleans. She was sold at auction to a relative of the owners of Young Construction who then sold her, yet again, in 1970, to Belezian Industries. They bought her as an investment and moved her to Florida, hoping to repair her and quickly sell her on. One prospective buyer planned to operate her as a lobster factory in British Honduras. After $18,000 worth of work repairing 45 feet of her bow, this deal fell through.
In 1972 she was sold to a British company, Themes International.
In 1989 she was transported across the Atlantic on a semi-submersible to Southampton on the south coast of England. From there she was taken to Antwerp, Belgium, for refurbishment. While she was in Antwerp, Themes International went out of business, and she remained in Antwerp until 1995, when she was bought once again and transported back to Birkenhead in the UK.
From there, in 1996, she made the journey to her final – or latest – destination, Benalmádena in Mediterranean Spain. For two years she operated as a floating bar and restaurant under the name Mississippi Willow. Afternoon cruises were offered and she opened up as a restaurant each evening. It appears that she closed for business sometime around 1998 as the owners could not afford the rather considerable mooring costs of such a large vessel. Her lower decks are now surrounded by metal and razor wire, and she lies empty and abandoned on the outer wall of Benalmádena.
We were sad to see a vessel once in the service of safe navigation along one of the world’s great waterways now reduced to a has-been tourist attraction on the other side of the world. But perhaps her fate could have been worse. Her collision in 1944 could have sunk her. Had she not been auctioned on from the levee at LaPlace she could have finally succumbed to the ravages of nature and vandals. All along the way she has been abandoned due to poor management, bad investment, and owners going out of business. But yet she carries on. She’s still afloat. The razor wire protects her from vandals. Maybe someday someone will see the Willow‘s potential and help restore her to her former glory.
PS. In October 2015 I received the following email from a Bill Huthmacher in the United States:
Saw your post about the sidewheeler Willow. My great uncle, Harry Hines, was one of her Captains and piloted her on the Mississippi for the Corps of Engineers, as a lighthouse tender. Off and on, I have been putting together a history of her for years. It looks like the time you are missing may be when she was in the UK on the river Thames as a restaurant. I found she was in Benalmadena several years ago, but figured she would have been scrapped by now. I think it is humorous that she was advertised as a former showboat. Thanks for the update!