Sunday, June 05, 2005

Looking for a ghost steamer on a Sunday afternoon...

Actually, I've been looking for this boat for a few years now. It's a small piece of oral folklore, one which appears to be in danger of being lost forever, if my efforts at gathering details is any indication. A 19th century steamboat on the upper Mississippi River, the Camden Bridge near the home of my youth in Minneapolis, ghostly sightings under the bridge. The truth is out there; like Mulder, I intend to find it.

It started a couple years back, when I was invited to be one of the featured performers for the Iowa Storytelling Festival in Clear Lake, Iowa. Part of the festival was a "Ghost Boat" telling on Friday night. Sitting in the dark on a hot July night, we took turns telling ghost stories. I'd heard this bit of a story about another steamboat, and sought to track down the details, hoping to flesh it into a story for telling that night.

Not so easy. I'd first heard of this steamboat in the unlikeliest of quarters---all night talk radio in Minneapolis when I was an insomniac high schooler circa 1971 0r 72. Friday night during a full moon was the best night. The most, shall we say, "interesting" callers made their calls on those nights. The ones who were this close to finding the formula for making gold, if they could just get the exact width of light on earth. It always left my dad and me laughing or scratching our heads. There was one regular who was worth staying up late to hear. He went by the name of the "Old Prospector," and he liked to dig for old bottles. While digging for old medicine show artifacts, he seemed to accumulate the most interesting local stories as well. One has captured my imagination, even if not a stronghold on my memory centers.

There was a steamboat, probably during the 19th century, that made some kind of regular run. Dad seems to remember St. Cloud as being part of the story. Something terrible happened one night, as often did with boats run by steam boilers. There was a fire or explosion. We remember something about a little boy dying, and his mother looking for him. Maybe she waited in Camden to see him. We aren't sure. What both Dad and I remember was that a key part of the Old Prospector's story involved sitting under the Camden Bridge at midnight on some significant night. If one did so, they might see the ghost steamer as it passed under the bridge. Maybe it had to do this until the woman was reunited with her son, that part is also sketchy.

Fast forward to my festival engagement. I contacted a society for the paranormal. No response. I contacted the editor of the Camden Neighborhood weekly newspaper. She had not heard the story, but placed a bit in her paper seeking memories from area old-timers. No one came forward. Too bad. I'd offered to do a program for a community group if I could get the material I needed for my story.

I did plenty of internet searching. I've learned many interesting things about the steamboats that plied the river, but not a bit about my foggy memory. I'm looking again. I'm going to be telling on another boat this summer, a real live steamboat, the Julia Belle Swain. I'd love to get the little bits to add authenticity to my ghosting. Yes, I could make stuff up. Still, it's far more satisfying to share the real story. There's just something so eerily satisfying about the words, "the way I heard it happened was...." Beyond that, it could be my small part to help save a legacy of oral folklore from north Minneapolis that would become yet another lost memory for the ages, along with the brickyards and lumber mills that once thrived in that locale.

If perhaps you, dear reader, were also a Twin Cities insomniac and heard this story, please share your remembrances with me. Once you do, clear your calendar for the August 27 brunch cruise on the Julia Belle to hear the "truth." I know it's out there.


At 1:44 AM, Blogger King Boreas said...

so all I could find was YOU!


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