The Strange, Strange Tale of the U.S.S. Inaugural

An old warship meets its most formidable enemy — the Mississippi River.

On July 3, 1968, a tugboat pushed the 184-foot Inaugural to its new home on the St. Louis riverfront. The warship's engines no longer worked, but the vessel was otherwise in decent shape.

"It was virtually untouched since the war," recalls O'Brien, now a 70-year-old retiree living in Frontenac. "The ship logs were still inside. So were all the spare parts."

O'Brien doesn't remember how much the Inaugural cost him, but newspaper clips from the time report that he paid around $250,000 to purchase, paint and lug the ship up the Mississippi. More than a few onlookers considered the ocean-going gunboat to be out of place in St. Louis, but O'Brien figured that plenty of Midwest landlubbers would pay $1 to tour a genuine Navy warship. He was right.

Over the next ten years, thousands of vacationers, schoolchildren and military buffs climbed the Inaugural's gangplanks, explored its cabins and eyed make-believe kamikazes through its gun sights. By the late 1970s, though, O'Brien had had enough. Maintenance costs were skyrocketing, and keeping the boat anchored against the ever-fluctuating river had proved a far greater headache than he'd anticipated.

O'Brien found a buyer in show-business promoter Frank Pierson, who owned the American Theatre (now the Roberts Orpheum Theater) and the Goldenrod Showboat, a paddle-wheel excursion boat that played host to musicals and dinnertime dramas.

The Inaugural seems not to have been a business boon for Pierson, who died in 1988. According to newspaper accounts, at the time of his death, Pierson was being investigated for passing bad checks. His will left just $2,391 to his wife and children. Creditors claimed that he had owed $850,000.

Missing from Pierson's estate was the Inaugural. According to St. Louis Port Authority documents, Floyd Warmann had taken over the mooring lease for the Inaugural in 1984. A politically connected businessman who now sits as a member of the St. Louis County Police Board, Warmann had already begun expanding the tourist attraction by the time Pierson died. (Warmann did not return calls requesting comment for this story.)

Adjacent to the Inaugural's port side, Warmann tied a floating Burger King restaurant fashioned to look like a nineteenth-century steamboat. Onto that he installed a heliport barge from which sightseers could embark on air tours of the river. A third barge housed a Taco Bell restaurant. Warmann called his flotilla the "The Spirit of the River" and operated the entertainment complex under a company called St. Louis Concessions.

The Spirit of the River enjoyed initial success, but Warmann soon had trouble keeping his other business interests afloat. In 1992 the oil company that he inherited from his father, Warmann Oil Co., filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, one of his banks was suing him to collect $1.7 million in defaulted debt. Another claimed that Warmann had reneged on a $500,000 loan.

In need of cash, Warmann saw his $3,000 riverfront lease with the city as a remedy that might pay off in spades. Riverboat gaming was making its first inroads into Missouri in the early 1990s, and Warmann knew that if he could convince City Hall to change his lease, a casino company would pay dearly for his mooring rights.

His plan almost backfired in January 1993 when one of his strongest champions, Anthony Ribaudo, a state representative running for mayor of St. Louis, denied — then admitted to — owning shares in Warmann's St. Louis Concessions.

The scandal cost Ribaudo the mayor's race, but the lure of casino dollars proved no deterrent to the Board of Aldermen. In June 1993, the board approved a measure changing Warmann's mooring lease to allow for a gambling boat.

The deal would pay the city $16 million for allowing Argosy Gaming Co. the rights to set up a casino. Warmann would receive $33.5 million in Argosy stock for selling his lease to the gaming operator.

Neither the city nor Warmann ever saw the bulk of the promised riches. The lease agreement still required approval from then-Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. — who, only months before, had won a nasty election against Warmann's compatriot and business partner Ribaudo. Moreover, Bosley reiterated on several occasions his disapproval of adding more gaming boats to the downtown riverfront.

Far away, a much larger problem was brewing. Throughout the spring of 1993, cataclysmic rain punished the upper Midwest, flooding the fields and tributaries that drain into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. By late June, the runoff converged at the rivers' confluence north of St. Louis. For weeks the water kept rising, setting new flood records with each passing day.

On August 1, with the water halfway up the stairs to the Arch, the river crested at 49.58 feet. At 10:45 p.m. that night, a park ranger, responding to the sound of an explosion on the Spirit of the River, arrived in time to witness the entire complex — the U.S.S. Inaugural, the Burger King, the Taco Bell and the heliport — float into the darkness.

Moments later, the flotilla slammed into the Poplar Street Bridge. The force of the collision ripped away the upper decks of the Burger King restaurant and left the bridge's steel superstructure dented and scarred.

Separated by the impact, the component parts of the Spirit of the River spun downriver. The Coast Guard issued an urgent "breakaway" call, requiring all able-bodied ships to assist in the rescue. Moments later, the heliport smacked into the Illinois shore, and the Taco Bell vanished beneath the churning, black water.

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