Gary Goldblatt Remembers the Ferry at Grand Tower

Grand Tower, Illinois, was and is a Mississippi River town.  Ma Hale’s was there for many years and finally demised after the flood of 1993.  Tower Rock (island in the river) is still there, as is Devil’s Backbone Park (electric night barge-watching) and the natural-gas pipeline bridge (which is pipe only).

There are not too many ways to cross the Mississippi in Southern Illinois.  South of St. Louis, the only bridges are at Chester (about 40 miles south) and then at Cape Girardeau (100 miles south).  Grand Tower is exactly between Chester and the Cape.

In the early 70’s, there was a small ferry that ran between Grand Tower and Neelys Missouri.   It could hold six cars and was about 150 x 40 feet.  There was no schedule, no tickets, no advance reservations.  You just showed up, waited for them to be ready, and then you paid and loaded.

On one of those 70-degree January Sundays that endear us to Southern Illinois, we all decided to make the pilgrimage to Ma Hales for the all-you-can-eat $2.50 Sunday dinner.  As usual, no one was up until after noon, due to the previous night’s extended activities.

Also as usual, it took time to motivate & organize, so by the time we loaded everyone into two cars (five guys and four girls) there was only a couple hours of daylight left (it was January).

No time for hiking, but we stopped at the scenic overlook (now taken out) on the cliffs overlooking the Mississippi on route 149 west of Murphysboro.  We wanted to do something else outside before sunset and eating.

At the scenic overlook, Bob points the way down route 149.

Down by the river.

We went to the park on the river.  We saw the ferry.  It was on the Grand Tower side.  It was empty, waiting.  Jimbo said “Let’s take a ride on the ferry!”  Jimbo and Chuck went to “negotiate” with the ferry guys.  Jimbo and Chuck reported that we could all ride round trip for ten bucks total.  Dollars and quarters came out, and we moved to the ferry.

Jimbo and Chuck make the arrangments.

Midriver (note gas pipe at top)

The river level was moderate, it was a calm and clear day.  None of us had ever been on a boat in the Mississippi before.    It was great, and it took about 15 minutes to get across.  We disembarked on the Missouri side, and went exploring on foot.  Valerie was wearing a very long dress, but she gamely walked with us.

Lori, Valerie, and Susan.

There wasn’t much to see on the Mo. side, so about 30 minutes later, we were back on the ferry headed towards Ma Hales.  Meanwhile, I’m still thinkin’.  I look at the boat, the water, there’s NOTHING on both shores, no semblance of authority anywhere.  We schmooze the ferry guys and they need money.

The gang on the prowl in Missouri.

I look at the ferry deck, empty except for the 9 of us and the crew.  I visualize nighttime, six kegs, a generator, stereo, party tapes (reel-to-reel, of course) and TWO HUNDRED PEOPLE partying on the river ‘till dawn.

I talked to the ferry crew and told them we might like to bring a “whole bunch” of people for an “outing.”  They gave me a person and phone number to call.

At dinner, everyone said I was crazy and they would never let me do it.  But Ed said we could get the generator and make the stereo work and “you would hear it up and down the river and from one side to the other.”  Susan said people would be trashed, fall off the boat and drown.  I said we would make them sign a release before boarding.  Valerie said we could get party lights for the boat, if we had a generator.  Bob wondered how the fully krausened partiers would get back to C’dale, and I said “we’ll get a bus!”

We already had had several parties where it was “all you can imbibe for a dollar.”  This would be the same, but a little more $, for the boat and maybe the bus.

We found out that the station could pay for the bus.  I called the ferry people.  How many persons could the boat hold if there were no cars?  About 200.  Would they let us have an outing at night?  Sure.  Saturday night?  No problem.  Six hours or so on the river—great!  Would you mind if we played music?  That’s OK.  We might need a generator.  If you bring your own, sure.  Oh, and one more thing—can we bring some beer?  Yes, but we worry about bottles and cans all over the place.  No problem, we’ll bring kegs.  Great.

Then, cringing, I asked for the price.  $200 total.  A buck a person.  We could charge $2 a person, have beer & youknow, and the bus would be free.

This was the wildest party concept I had ever conjured up, and it seemed too good to be true.  This would be my crowning party achievement before I graduated.

We set the date for mid-May (SIU was on quarters then, so everyone stayed until mid-June).  I kept having visions of a pulsing mass of partiers on the lighted ferry with my party tapes blasting and reverberating for miles.

In Mid-April just before cranking up the party marketing juggernaut (including narrowcasted promos to the women’s dorms only), I checked in with ferry central to be sure everything was on track.

They told me the boat had been damaged was in drydock for repairs.  I said “Well, we’re not having our event for a month yet.”    She said “It’s gonna take at least two months to fix, maybe three.”

I was crestfallen, my dream shattered.  I would be departing before the boat would be working.  Summer would make it hard to get 200 people.  The next year it would be semesters, so everyone would leave before mid-May.  We had lost the window of opportunity.

The ferry at Grand Tower did run for a few more years, but now is just a distant memory.  I’ve continued to host parties for forty years, but the biggest, best and most unique party was the one I didn’t have, the one that got away on the Grand Tower ferry.

Ma Hales


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