Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fourth of July on the Mississippi

Reading about fellow bloggers' Fourth of July memories has inspired me to write about my own.

When I was a kid, Fourth of July was a big deal for my family.  With twelve of us kids, plus Mom and Dad, we didn’t go on long family vacations—driving across the country or traveling up north to a cabin.  But we could always count on excursions on the "Queen Margy," our forty-eight foot blue-and-white house boat.

My dad bought the boat when I was about a year old and named it after my mom.  (My sister with the same name sometimes told her boyfriends that the boat was named after her because she had won a beauty contest when she was a baby.)

For the Fourth of July we'd usually take a long weekend and travel to Colville Park in Red Wing.  This took a lot of planning and preparation.  All your clothes and belongings for 3-4 days had to fit into an Applebaum's grocery bag or one of those flowered plastic totes.  We'd pile into the station wagon with our bags and all the food and take the drive along historic Summit Avenue, down the big Ramsey Hill, through downtown St. Paul to the Mississippi river where our boat was docked.
My dad would fit everyone under 12 with a life jacket—bright orange pillow-like things that strapped around your neck and waist and severely limited your movement.  Then he'd lift each kid by the collar to check that it was properly secured.

From the Twin Cities to Red Wing is an easy half hour drive.  By boat, it would take us a few days.  At slower speeds if you peered out over the back railing, the engines would stir up the Mississippi so it looked like foamy root beer. Sometimes Dad would go fast and then the propellers would shoot out two streams of water that crossed and looked like a wishbone from our Thanksgiving turkey. 

The first night we would sometimes park at Sandpile Island which was a favorite of my Mom and Dad's yacht club members.  The island, I believe, was created by dredging of sand to clear the channel.  I remember earlier on it was more flat but as I got older the mountains of sand rose up from the shore almost as high as the boat itself, and we had to dig our feet in to go up the sandy bank.  Your feet would burn from the scotching sand until you were able to run pell-mell down the bank to cool them off in the river.  We'd collect shells and rocks.  There were also paths through the woods, and, by age 4, everyone knew what poison ivy looked like.

My mom made food for all of us in the small galley kitchen. And somehow we found places for everyone to sleep at night.  There was a set of bunk beds in the back, a sleeper sofa in the wheelhouse where my mom and dad slept, and the kitchen table also folded into a bed that might hold 2 or 3 small sized bodies.  There was also the top deck where you could sleep under the stars if it wasn't a cold or rainy night.  My older siblings slept in the hatch which was the compartment under the wheelhouse.  

To get to Red Wing we had to go through 2 locks.  If there was a barge in front of us, they had priority and it usually took a long time.  If there was no wait, we'd enter the lock, lower the fenders on one side, and hang onto the wall with ropes that the lock masters threw down to us.  Going down, the rope got shorter and tighter in your hands, and the walls would rise up around you so you felt like you were in a huge bathtub. 

When we got to Colville Park, there were a lot of boats tied up at the docks or along the shore.  In the park you could play on the swings and slides, go to the concession stand for everything from ice cream to corn dogs to cotton candy.  There was also a pool - pay once in the morning and you could have in and out privileges the whole day.  

On the evening of the Fourth we'd watch the fireworks from the top deck as they shot them from across the river.  They always amazed me at how spectacular they were. 

My dad sold the boat in the mid-90s because it got to be too much work.  But my family will always have fond memories of the Queen Margy.


  1. Great story! Some of my favorite childhood evenings were on Grandpa Z's boat. Maybe the family green thumb skipped me, but I've definitely got the "river rat" gene.

  2. Oh, we're all river rats, aren't we? I don't think I can go on a vacation unless I'm near some sort of body of water. Thanks for sharing!