The Mississippi River has a rich and colorful
history filled with stories of settlements, businesses, traders,
trappers, loggers, and gambling. Regardless of the story, all have
one commonality - boats - both commercial and personal. The focus of
this month’s “Porthole To The Past” is “The Nellie Bly,” a
houseboat with a wonderful history on the river. Original and still
owner, Marjorie Gray Vogel of Red Wing, Minnesota graciously
responded to my request for as much information about this unique
boat as possible. The Nellie Bly was entered in our 23rd Rendezvous
on the Mississippi in August. Within a week of the show, an
oversized envelope was delivered Priority Mail with all kinds of
information, pictures and the story, hand-written by Marjorie, that
follows. This was far more than I could have hoped for and I am
grateful to Marjorie and son John for sharing their story of this
family treasure with us. -- Editor
The houseboat was commissioned by Stanley G. Gray of
Edina to be built by local craftsmen in Red Wing. Mr. Gray owned a
houseboat during the 1930’s at Mendota on the Minnesota River
named “Chief Shakopee” Those experiences convinced him to
commission a larger craft.
In the spring of 1936, after eight or nine weeks of construction, a
42 foot houseboat was launched and christened. The craft was
equipped with a Red Wing Thorobred Hiawatha 100 hp inboard motor by
Tom Collishan, Red Wing Motor Co.
In June of that year, Mr. Gray turned over
ownership to his daughter Marjorie and son-in-law, Arnold Vogel as a
wedding present. The newly-weds used the “Nellie Bly” for their
first home and they honeymooned for two seasons in and around the
environs of the Mississippi River at Red Wing until the fall of
1937. After purchasing a home in Red Wing, the Vogels continued to
dock the Nellie Bly in the lower bay harbor where it can be found
today. Since 1938, it has been used as a home away from home by all
members of the growing family: Stanley, Mary, George, and John. The
original owner, Marjorie, at 86 years of age, continues to use the
Marjorie acted as hostess for visitors to the
“Nellie Bly” at the 23rd Annual Bob Speltz Land-O-Lakes Antique
and Classic Boat Rendezvous held at Treasure Island Marina in Red
Wing in August of this year. A total of 825 people toured the
interior of the antique wooden river houseboat during the three-day
event. The pilot, John W. Vogel of Minnetonka welcomed all aboard.
Minor maintenance and interior design changes have
occurred over the past 50 years on the 62 year old boat, yet the
original boat has remained basically intact. With the engine located
forward in the wheelhouse, a 32 foot shaft carries to the stern an
arrangement providing better aft storage. A major decision was
reached in 1995 to replace the original Georgian Cypress wooden hull
with a hull of steel. This allowed welders to also extend the aft
deck by three feet.
Under John Vogel’s supervision, the restoration included complete
paint and varnish treatment inside and out. At that time, it was
expedient to replace the original Thorobred Hiawatha 100 hp engine
with a 160 hp Mercruiser. The original 60 year old motor is now part
of the celebrated display of antique and classic inboard engines
shown throughout the Midwest on a yearly basis at various boat shows
by their owner, Harry Munson of Red Wing.
The handsome wheel was fabricated by Frank Strom
of Red Wing from four fruit trees grown in his back yard: apple,
plum, cherry and pear. Probably the family-oriented interior
arrangement interested the most visitors with emphasis on adequate
storage, cross ventilation, sleeping accommodations for six,
custom-made louvered folding doors, galley cabinet convenience, and
food preparation area. The interior includes two bunks, two davobeds,
one double bed, wrought iron and crystal lighting fixtures, walnut
paneling, storage stack for sleeping bags, linen, toys and clothing,
a round oak table and four chairs. The dressing area includes
built-in cabinets, full length closet, sink, head, and a small
- On display during the Rendezvous were artifacts
and photographs relating to the early days of boating on the
- The pilot license issued to A.F. Vogel, August
by U.S. Dept. Of Commerce, Bureau of Navigation and
- The original guest book and log entries from
- Construction plans by architect Fred Carlsen of
- The 1936 concept sketch by Marjorie Gray.
- The Manhattan unit galley stove, oven and
broiler, coffee pot and original china setting in galley.
- Progress photographs of maintenance and
replacements during 50 years 1948-1998.
- Ring buoy, flags, horns, the commemorative
“Nellie Bly” pressed glass platter, and bell.
Proudly shown now is the 1998 framed award and the
Judge’s Award Trophy.”
Incorporated in this article are answers to the many specific
questions posed by the visitors during the Rendezvous..
How far has the Nellie Bly traveled?
Destinations included head of navigation in Minneapolis, the upper
St. Croix River, and a Jaycee Convention in Winona. Around Red Wing
we would drop anchor in the back channel, head of Lake Pepin; in
cuts one, two, three and four; Little River; Sturgeon Lake; off
Barney Seiz Point, and in the lock/dam flowage channel.
After 1974, we acquired 600 feet of beach up river from Red Wing
which we now use as our base of activity. A generator is housed
there and provides the electricity for the Nellie Bly. No longer is
there a pair of stern davits and a dinghy. Instead we use a 17 foot
Whaler as a taxi between the harbor and the Nellie Bly.
Communication is by cell phones, not marine radio.
Storage in Winter?
Since 1996, the houseboat is pulled in October and stored by Marine
Specialties of Red Wing until launch time in May when the boat is
docked in Vogel Harbor for another season cruising the Mississippi
at 1200 rpm.
- A college friend dropped by in his aquaplane
and tied onto the Nellie Bly two days in Lake Pepin.
- Locking through during World War II and being
interrogated and searched because of foreign speaking guests.
- A week-long 25th Anniversary 1961 celebration
tied up to the stern of the University of Minnesota Centennial
Showboat. Guests attended the performance then climbed over the
big red paddle wheel to the Nellie Bly for a midnight buffet
supper each evening.
The Nellie Bly has participated in many public
- The 1941 Aquatennial Boat Parade in Minneapolis
- The 1939 Mississippi River Pageant
- Flotilla #7, Division No. 1, 9th Naval District
- July 1942 United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
Patrol from Barney Point to Friedrich’s Point in Lake Pepin.
Nine on board the “Nellie Bly”
- Annual River City Days in August at Red Wing
Celebration of Yacht Club, Founders’ Day 1953, the 50th
- Bridge Benefits
- Annual Yacht Club picnic and rendezvous
Signed in were Merle Potter, Ambassador Eugenie Anderson,
“Butzie” Maetzold, Ray Black, Mrs. August Andresen, Nat Mazumdar,
Dr. Alexander P. Anderson, Art Pharmer, Dick Gray, Chester Simmons,
Hjalmar Hjermstad, and the Minnesota Bankers’ Regionsl members.
“Nellie Bly” - The Name
Out of the blue, we decided on “Nellie Bly.” Somehow or other it
sounded like a horse, a pet, or perhaps a toy, like a boat. So the
boat was named on impulse.
So who was “Nellie Bly” and how did that name
come into our minds? It was not until later that we received clues
from friends or strangers who sent clippings to us. Actually,
“Nellie Bly” was an assumed name for an American who became the
most famous woman newspaper reporter of her time.
The daughter of a Pennsylvania judge, born
Elizabeth Cochrane, she, at the age of 18, challenged an editor’s
editorial in the Pittsburgh dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good
For.” In 1885, her unsigned letter intrigued editor Madden and he
placed an ad asking “the gentleman who wrote a letter criticizing
our editorial” to get in touch with him.
His amazement and later consternation confronted a
dainty, slender lady as she stood before him. She was five feet
inches in high buttoned shoes. Madden offered her a job. She was to
start as a reporter, but Madden claimed she must write under an
assumed man’s name. She refused.
During the impasse about the name, an office boy
strolled by the open door whistling a popular tune by Pittsburgh
hometown composer, Stephen Foster. The song “Nelly Bly” and the
catchy tune settled the matter. Using a woman’s prerogative,
Elizabeth Cochrane changed the spelling and became Nellie Bly, the
newspaper woman reporter. She became a legend in the reporting