Saint Paul's Old Man River

Owner of Padelford led way to riverfront revival 25 years ago

Captain William Bowell, owner of the Padelford Packet Boat Company.

Ask Capt. William D. Bowell about the good old days on the Mississippi River and he'll likely tell you they're just around the next bend.

The river, for years viewed by some as little more than a fast-running cesspool, is suddenly being treated like a life-giving natural spring. No one, it seems, can get enough of it.

For the past 25 years, Capt. Bowell and his Padelford Packet Boat Co. on the West Side's Harriet Island across from downtown St. Paul has been the city's riverfront development - a fact he says city officials and neighbors often forget. It must be remembered that Bowell's tiny office has a sign stating "Captain Bligh's Quarters" affixed to it.

This irascible but soft-hearted Old Man River, who once ordered his crew to search a dumpster for a lost Sterling silver wedding knife and admonished his deckhands to not "get my garbage dirty," says he's glad others have come to appreciate what has always been his first love.

"I'm thrilled," he says of all the attention the river has received as of late. "I've been a lone voice on the river for so many years and then all of a sudden . . . they're paying more attention to our operation down here and empathizing with our needs. For many years we were just down here. Nobody paid attention to the fact we were bringing 100- to 130,000 people to the waterfront every year."

One example of the city's past attitude toward Bowell's river operation was in 1993 when "the captain," as he is known on the waterfront, and the St. Paul Fire Department got into a tiff over safety after the floods of that year subsided.

Bowell publicly announced that the Mississippi was once again safe for trips aboard the Jonathan Padelford and Josiah Snelling, noting that he had previously piloted on the even faster-moving Missouri River during high waters.

But the Saint Paul Fire Department thought the announcement was premature, provoking a brief standoff. The department later backed down after Bowell safely ferried media and elected officals aboard a special charter trip on the swollen river, while he entertained them with historic tales of the Mississippi and a few verbal barbs aimed at land-lubbering bureaucrats.

It must be remembered that Bowell's tiny office, which has a sign stating "Captain Bligh's Quarters" affixed to it, has been floating on a Mississsippi River barge for the past quarter century. Bowell likes to point out his previous piloting experience on the fast-moving Missouri River. So who is more qualified to judge whether the river is safe?

Captain William D. Bowell founded the Padelford Packet Boat Co., Inc., in 1969 and expanded the business to include four vessels offering daily sightseeing excursions, dinner cruises, school field trips, and private charters. He was instrumental in starting the National Passenger Vessel Owners Association (now Passenger Vessel Association). From only seven member companies in 1970, PVA has grown to more than 500 companies.

A paratrooper in World War II, Captain Bowell served with the 82nd Airborne Division and was awarded four battle stars and arrowhead, the presidential citation with oak leaf cluster, French and Belgian Croix de Guerres, a bronze star, and a purple heart. On D-Day he jumped behind enemy lines and was involved in extensive hand-to-hand combat.

After graduation from Macalester College in 1949, he acquired his riverboat license. Following a brief foray into the excursion boat business, Captain Bowell became a curator with the Minnesota State Historical Society, then was liaison engineer for Studebaker Corp. (South Bend, IN). Next he served as account executive with Edwards & Deutsch, a major publishing firm in Chicago where he was co-founder of the United Airline Mainliner, Oldsmobile Rocket Circle and Holiday Inns of America magazines. In 1962 he became a partner in United Scientific, Inc., a St. Paul firm specializing in high precision machine parts, plastic injection and compression moulding. He also owned a farm for experimental production of chicken broilers.

Captain Bowell was among the select group of founders of the National Rivers Hall of Fame and he has advised the organization since its founding, even arranging for the gift of the towboat Logsdon to the Hall of Fame. In 2002, Captain Bowell was instrumental in building a new showboat for the enjoyment of the residents and visitors to the Twin Cities.

"I think the future is going to be great. . . The Minneapolis-St. Paul area is a wonderful section of the river. When you go on the Padelford trip and you go up two or three miles on the river, you can't believe you're in the middle of a metropolitan area of a couple million people. The buildings are out of sight and it's all wild. We still have the deer swimming across the river and the blue herons. . . You name it, we've got it."