The only time the Wilkie’s hull has been in the river was in 1965, when the river came up to find it.
For more than 100 years, river boats at the levee were parked in the river, not on the bank beside it. Then in 1956, for $2,500, the Winona County Historical Society acquired the James R. Pearson, the last wooden-hulled steamboat still working the river.
The Pearson, built in Moline, Ill., in 1898, was a plain-looking sternwheeled work boat that earned its keep pushing strings of barges up and down the river. Ninety-six feet long with a 24-foot beam, the Pearson drew four feet of water. Its 18-foot paddle wheel was turned by twin 200 horse steam engines fed by a pair of hand-stoked coal boilers.
Plans were made to beach the boat and refurbish it as riverside museum, but funds were scarce. Dr. Louis Younger, historical society president, contacted Leighton Wilkie, a Chicago-area industrialist whose boyhood home was in Winona.
He succeeded in sparking Wilkie’s interest.
“We have pleasant recollections of the old steamboating days,” he wrote Younger, “these excursions which were memorable occasions of our boyhood.”
But the expatriate millionaire had memories of a different kind of steamboat than the work-a-day craft parked on the riverside.
“My brother asked if the boat has a calliope and if it does not it was his thought that it might be an attractive feature to add,” he wrote in 1957.
Hauling sand and gravel up and down the river, the Pearson had little need of a calliope. By the time the Wilkies were done with it, it had one.
It also had a second deck, white gingerbread woodwork and a pair of crowned smokestacks that never appeared on the Pearson.
“We want to make it a gem,” Wilkie said at the 1959 dedication.
Along with the new decorations, the Pearson got a new name: the Julius C. Wilkie.
Julius C. Wilkie was Leighton’s father, a machinist who, from 1914 to 1926, operated a repair and machine shop on Third Street in Winona
When he was 18, Leighton invented a device for straightening and aligning automobile connecting rods, and began selling them to repair shops out of the back of his car. He moved to the Twin Cities as a young man, and in 1933 perfected the metal band saw, which would form the basis of the Wilkie family fortune.
The Julius C. Wilkie was a centerpiece at the Winona levee through the early 1960s. In 1965, rising flood waters surrounded the beached boat and holes were chopped in its wooden hull to let the water in so it wouldn’t float away.
Ten years later, the historical significance of the original boat was recognized when the Wilkie was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This recognition led, in 1980, to a $20,000 grant. The money would be used to refurbish the boat and return it to its original design.
Wilkie’s response was furious. The old Pearson was a “very ugly unromantic tugboat” Leighton Wilkie wrote.
“A decision to accept this preposterous proposal means the magnificent Winona steamboat museum would be dismantled and would be left as a one deck, ugly tugboat. This decision would be completely unacceptable to the Wilkie Brothers Foundation,” he continued, in a letter threatening to cut off all financial support and take back virtually everything the Wilkies had donated that could be packed up and moved if the restoration moved forward.
As it turned out, the issue never came to a head.
In 1980, construction was under way for the Winona permanent dike, and the Wilkie was in the way. The boat was carefully moved — along with its contents — 200 feet west. To make the move, telephone and electric lines were disconnected and, since the boat would be unused, were not reconnected. This disabled the Wilkie’s fire alarm and fire-suppression systems. As a result, the fire that began smoldering sometime March 11, 1981, went unnoticed until 12:31 a.m. March 12.
By then it was too late.
Arson was immediately suspected and a $5,000 reward posted before the ashes were completely cool, but fire investigators ruled the fire accidental and of undetermined origin.
There was overwhelming public sentiment to rebuild, and shortly into the fund-raiser, the Wilkies offered a $200,000 matching grant and plenty of advice on how the boat should look and how it should be used.
The offer was accepted, and, on July 3, 1982, Leighton Wilkie stood on the steps of the rebuilt Wilkie to dedicate the replica steamer.
The boat-shaped building would outlive its primary benefactors — but just barely.
Only six years after its completion, Mayor Earl Laufenburger acknowledged the boat’s roof had leaked “from day one.” A Wilkie board member acknowledged the boat’s wood already was rotting — a situation he called “embarrassing.”
Leighton Wilkie died Dec. 13, 1993, at the age of 93. His widow, Adele Mearns Wilkie, died June 12, 2002, at her home in Santa Barbara, Calif.
The city deemed the structure unsafe in June 2006 and closed it to the public. The city council voted to raze the boat in early 2008, and on July 9 the Wilkie redux was reduced to kindling and hauled away.
Jerome Christenson is deputy editor at the Winona Daily News, which means he does just about anything that needs doing whenever somebody needs to do it. You’ll see his name attached to a regular column, historical features, news stories and other accounts of odd happenings around town and around the area. His phone number is 507-453-3522 — leave a message if he’s not around — or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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