Closed to the public since Jan. 4, 2017
Lowell's 40-year-old Showboat Demolished, A Sad and Bitter Sweet
After months of discussion and preparation, Lowell’s iconic showboat was finally torn down on Thursday, Feb. 28. The demolition, completed by a crew of workers from Earthworm Dozing and Excavating, a Lowell-based company, began just after 9 am and left only what is frozen to the Flat River until spring.
The demolition, completed by a crew of workers from Earthworm Dozing and Excavating, a Lowell-based company, began just after 9 am and left only what is frozen to the Flat River until spring. "I think it's going good, I don't think we'll have a problem,” said Earthworm Dozing and Excavating owner Dave Gonyon during a break halfway through the destruction. "We got the scary part, the top level, done already. We didn't want to damage the paddle wheel or the fence. We're trying to keep the fence intact! We're just taking the boat down to the deck today. Once the river and everything melts, we'll pump the water out, float it over to the boat launch, drag it on shore, cut it up and haul it away. It's got pontoons and steel framing, so nothing is going to go quickly that day, but that's okay, we'll be fine.” The demolition was attended by a small crowd of Lowellians and city leaders, plus camera crews from several local television stations. "It's a bittersweet day, for sure,” said Lowell city manager Michael Burns. "We're working on it [a new showboat]. Maybe we'll have something by December, or next spring. We're working on that right now.”
"I think it's just bittersweet,” said Liz Baker, executive director of the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. "While it's so sad to see this boat go, we have a new boat coming. We're rebirthing. We're repurposing. In the long run, while it's sad to watch this happen today, we know there's another one coming to replace it.” "It's sad in a way, it's an era gone by, but I'm happy because we're going to have something new in its place for the community,” said Carolyn Jane Blough, widow of the showboat's 1979 builder, Ivan Blough. "The showboat is one of the things that brought our community together, and I think it helps keep us together.” Many of the nicer-looking chunks of the showboat were salvaged and will be sold or auctioned at a later date to raise some the funds necessary to build a new showboat. The rest was chomped up by a machine, plopped into a dump truck and hauled to a landfill, load after load.
"[This part] is just like a giant claw game,” Gonyon said. "I'm going to keep the claw out in front of me, munch it up as small as I can, put it in the truck and get it out of here. The smaller the pieces, the more we can haul away at one time. We've had four truck loads go already, and there are at least four more to go, maybe more. Then we've got clean-up, we want everything to look nice when we're done.”
The Lowell Showboat has been closed to the public since Jan. 4, 2017 when safety became an issue after it was determined the boat was unsafe for humans. The "Rebuild the Lowell Showboat” committee has been working to get rid of the old showboat and replace it with a shiny new model. It is currently estimated that a new Lowell Showboat will be in place by mid-2020. The showboat project received a $1.3 million grant from the State of Michigan in December 2018 and a $1 million grant in August 2017. This Lowell Showboat was the fifth vessel since the original debuted in 1932. It was designed by Jim Hall and built by Ivan K. Blough in 1979 after a tornado destroyed the 1967-1978 example. The showboat was 89 feet long and was kept afloat by six barges supplied by the Army Corps of Engineers. Its original construction costs were $66,000. It had cosmetic repairs over the years, but no major renovations.
Celebrities who have performed on the Lowell Showboat over the years include Louis Armstrong, Bob Newhart, Dinah Shore, Milton Berle, Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Ray Stevens, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Reed, Pearl Bailey, the Fifth Dimension, Tammy Wynette, Lawrence Welk, Emmylou Harris, B.J. Thomas, the Smothers Brothers, Ricky Skaggs, Utopia, REO Speedwagon, Blue Öyster Cult, the Oak Ridge Boys, Marillion, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Loretta Lynn. The Lowell Showboat was a particular favorite event for President Gerald R. Ford, who attended every performance from 1948 until 1973, the year before he became president. There was a talent contest every year, and many amateur entertainers from the Lowell area were also able to perform on the Showboat.
From 1932 to 1997, showboat performances included a minstrel show consisting of a chorus, an interlocutor and endmen. Until Armstrong performed in 1967, the shows included white people in blackface. According to an unproven legend, Armstrong was responsible for the cessation of blackface in Lowell when he refused to appear here unless the practice was permanently ended. Until August 2017, the showboat was named the "Robert E. Lee." These facts and legends have resulted in accusations of institutional racism over the years. The showboat is currently the main focus of a fascinating exhibit called "West Michigan Minstrel Show: A History of Blackface” at the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, 87 Monroe Center St NW, Grand Rapids.
"I saw a lot of the shows,” Blough said. "There have been a number of them that I liked, such as Dinah Shore. One of the earliest ones was Doris Day. She was really nice and very personable. She talked to all the kids when they were putting the show together on Sunday night at rehearsal. She always had time for all the kids who came down and watched. She was a great lady.”