With all our attention nervously focused on the river these days, I thought I'd lighten the mood by telling the story of the Kate Adams. It's not a happy story, but compared to what happened to her, it will lessen our own troubles, you see.
The Kate Adams — actually the third riverboat with that name here — was built in Pittsburgh in 1898. The big sidewheeler was 240 feet long, with a pair of tall smokestacks, three grand decks, and a main cabin stretching more than 175 feet, that was lighted with newfangled electric chandeliers. When the foundry cast her great bell, the new boat's captain dumped 2,000 silver dollars into the mold to give it a more "silvery" tune. Workers along the river swore they could recognize that distinctive clang 14 miles away. Or so they said. I'd give it 12 miles, tops.
Some 2,000 people greeted the Lovin' Kate, as the boat came to be known, when she first arrived here to join the Memphis and Arkansas River Packet Company. The Kate ferried cotton, cargo, and passengers up and down the river and became so popular that one day — so the story goes — a Sunday School teacher asked a student, "Who was the first man?" The boy quickly replied, "Adam." And when asked who was the first woman, the boy thought it over a bit and said, "Uh — Kate Adams?"
Do you believe this story? No, neither do I. How do such silly tales get started?
New railroads, fast trucks, and improved highways began to cut into river traffic, however, and in the 1920s the Kate was shuffled off to work other routes on the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In 1926, though, she returned south to "star" in a silent movie being filmed here, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Most of the movie was shot in Natchez, and the Kate came back to Memphis when filming was over. She was was tied up on the riverfront at the foot of Monroe on the night of January 8, 1927, when flames began crackling from one of her lower decks.
In a matter of hours the big wooden boat was burned to ashes, leaving nothing in the water but the smoldering steel hull. A reporter of that time lamented, "Sole survivor of the elegance, the beauty, and the romance of a hundred years in the history of the western waters, the steamer Kate Adams, third of her illustrious line, has cleared the Memphis landing for all time." Investigators never found a cause for the blaze.
The boat's owner salvaged the bare hull and adapted it as a barge, but that plan also ended in disaster. Overloaded with 4,000 bales of cotton, the vessel sank here during a tremendous storm in 1931. Crews with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tugged the remains down the river near President's Island, and let it sink there, where it remains today. I can show you the ruins, for a nickel.
One part of the old Lovin' Kate has survived. Her famous bell, recovered after the fire, now sits on display at the entrance to the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Or at least it did the last time I visited.