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Padelford Riverboats

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Padelford Riverboats
Founded1969; 51 years ago (1969)
FounderWilliam Bowell

The Padelford Riverboat Company is the sole provider of river boat cruises on the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities area. Established in 1969 with a single vessel, the company now maintains 5 vessels, and provides both public and private cruises.

The Padelford Riverboat Company is based at Harriet Island in Downtown St. Paul. The company was founded in 1969 by William Bowell - a World War II decorated veteran - at a time when the Mississippi River was neglected and under-utilized. The activities in Bowell and the Padelford helped build relationships between the people and the river, and spurred enormous positive change in the riverfront.[1]


Founder William Bowell grew up close to the river, helping his father's small business on Harriet Island. He served in World War II, then enrolled at Macalester College after the war. His lifelong dream was to pilot a boat on the Mississippi River.[2] He was a curator for the Minnesota Historical Society and later a businessman, but returned to the river in 1969 to start the Padelford Riverboat business. His lifelong collection of books about the river, along with historic photographs, books, blueprints, original documents, and other reference materials are stored in the Captain William D. Bowell, Jr. River Library, housed in the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa.[1]

After initially purchasing the single namesake vessel - the Jonathan Padelford - Bowell continued to expand the boat inventory. He also expanded the original boat itself - cutting it in half and adding a 20-foot section at midship. The eventual fleet included 3 coast-guard rated boats and 5 vessels total.

The Padelford launched its cruises mainly from Harriet Island, but has also operated from Boom Island in Minneapolis during the late 80's and 90's.[3]

The Padelford company partnered with the University of Minnesota to bring back their flagship vessel, the Minnesota Centennial Showboat. Originally operated by the University itself, the refurbished vessel arrived back at Harriet Island on April 17, 2002. It had its final performance in 2016.

In 2006, the three co-owners sold one of their boats, the Harriet Bishop, to buy a new overnight cruiser to replace the Viking Explorer, which was sold in 1998. But before they could get their hands on one, the economy tanked and that extra cash ended up providing the necessary resources for the company to remain in operation during the recession.[4]

Mississippi Riverfront Resurgence[edit]

In the early part of the century, industrialization and farming activities caused the Mississippi to become very polluted. Not only was the MNRRA region named and identified, but regular recreational activity of all kinds increased starting in that period.[5]

When Bowell launched the Padelford, there were no cruise lines operating in that stretch of the River - the closest was in Iowa. The locks and dams had recently been built and the river was used mainly for industrial shipping. Bowell went against that grain and provided access to the river on a recreational basis, including also a dose of regional history in each excursion.

The 1970s were a period of increased interest and concern for the Mississippi River, and since then the health of the river has improved significantly.


The Jonathan Padelford is a nearly-authentic Mark Twain-era sternwheeler riverboat that was built in 1969 at Dubuque Boat and Boiler Co., Dubuque, IA. Two years after completion the Padelford was taken to a shipyard in Lemont, IL where it was cut in two and a 20-foot section was added at midship. The lengthening increased capacity and made the overall length 125 feet with a 24-foot beam. The name Jonathan Padelford is that of the founder's 10th great-maternal grandfather and territorial pioneer who came to Minnesota in 1856.[3]

In 1988 the 300-passenger sidewheeler Anson Northrup was added. Built in Jennings, LA the Northrup started in service with public excursions on Father’s Day, June 19, 1988.

In 1990 a car/truck ferry vessel was acquired, renamed the Betsey Northrup and converted to a two deck, 300-passenger party barge. The main deck was enclosed while the second deck was left open but was covered for maximum sightseeing.

One of the boats, the Viking Explorer, could accommodate 48 overnight passengers on cruises that ranged as far as Florida.

Another boat was named after Harriet Bishop, the American educator, writer, suffragist, and temperance activist who Harriet Island was also named for.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Divine, Mary (November 12, 2015). "Padelford founder William Bowell was 'champion of St. Paul'". St. Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  2. Olson, Dan (April 21, 2011). "Bill Bowell, legendary St. Paul riverboat captain, dies at 90'". MPRNews. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  3. 3.0 3.1 ""Padelford Packet Boat Co. passengers relax with history"". Post-Bulletin. May 20, 1995. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  4. Woltman, Nick (November 7, 2015). ""How a Mississippi River cruise line managed to stay afloat"". St. Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  5. Mega, Thomas B. (Summer 1990). ""The Mississippi at St. Paul – Playground on the City's Doorstep"" (PDF). Ramsey County History. Vol. 25 no. 2. Ramsey County Historical Society. pp. 17–18. Retrieved March 3, 2018.

External links[edit]

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