When the SS President rolled (and rocked) on the Mississippi River
In 1941, the President came to New Orleans — but it wasn’t FDR, who was the nation’s commander in chief at the time. It was better. It was the SS President, a sidewheel riverboat that over the next 47 years would become a New Orleans landmark. Built in 1924 as the Cincinnati, it was rechristened the President in 1929. More importantly, it was renovated to become what was billed as the largest excursion boat in the country, featuring a grand ballroom with a bandstand — key features for the countless concerts and moonlight cruises the vessel would host over its four decades as one of New Orleans’ most unique music venues.
In 1985, the President was sold by its longtime owner, the Strekfus Co., and set sail for St. Louis, Mo., splitting its time between the Gateway City and the Crescent City for three years. By 1991, she had been converted into a riverboat casino operating out of Davenport, Iowa. Decommissioned in 2000, she was cut into pieces in 2009 and moved to St. Elmo, Ill., where her new owner hopes to reassemble her one day as a dry-docked entertainment venue.
- Although it began its permanent residency in New Orleans in 1941, the 297-foot President wasn’t exactly a stranger to the city at that time. From 1933 to 1940, it wintered in the city after spending the spring and summer in St. Louis.
- The “SS” before the President’s name indicates it is a steamship. That designation became a misnomer in 1978, however, when she was converted to diesel.
- From the 1950s through the 1970s the house band for the President’s regular excursions was Crawford Ferguson’s Night Owls, but she also frequently hosted touring musical groups, including everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Cheap Trick, U2 to Cyndi Lauper, and Roy Orbison to Gary Numan.
- Local acts were also frequently booked aboard the President, including Allen Toussaint, The Meters and The Producers.
- The 3,000-passenger SS President holds the distinction of hosting the first concert of the first edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. That kickoff cruise occurred on April 22, 1970 — a day before the fest got started in earnest — and featured legendary clarinetist Pete Fountain. For years after, it hosted Jazz Fest concerts every spring.
- For one day in September 1980, the boat was unofficially renamed “The President Reagan” when then-presidential-candidate Ronald Reagan boarded it while visiting the city. A month and a half later, Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter to win the White House.
- Recognized as the last sidewheel excursion steamer plying the Mississippi River, the President was put on the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989. Both designations were revoked in 2011.
- The SS President’s last trip to New Orleans was in 1990, when it arrived at Avondale Shipyard for its $7 million conversion into a floating casino. As part of that conversion, the ship’s cavernous concert hall — the location of so many New Orleans memories — was outfitted with roulette, blackjack and poker tables, as well as slot machines.
It’s a basic fact: One of the few things that people in New Orleans enjoy more than good food and good music is the sharing of that good food and music with others. For nearly a half-century, the riverboat President facilitated that, and in a unique venue that combined locals’ love for celebration with our elemental connection to the river. Although it’s long gone, the President isn’t forgotten. Just ask any local resident of a certain age about it, and listen as the memories come rushing back. For the record, the 2009 disassembly of the SS President was captured on tape for a Season 4 episode of the documentary series “Monster Moves.” It can be viewed online. Fair warning: Watching it might break your heart.