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    -  -  -  -  -      Proud Mary      -  -  -  -  -   


The MARY ELIZABETH was once referred to as the “Queen Mother of Memphis Towboats” for her service
in the Memphis Harbor during the middle of the 20th century. Here’s how the story unfolds:

  The ship who became the inspiration for the "Proud Mary" was built in 1905 for the Lower Hudson Steamboat Company of New York. Originally named the Sarah A. Jenks and later, the  OSSINING, she was used to transport convicted prisoners from New York City jails, up the Hudson River to the infamous Sing-Sing State Prison in Ossining, New York – thus explaining the true origin of the expression, “up the river”!

  She was moved south in 1911, after being sold to the St. Tammany Steamship Company of Covington, Louisiana. The OSSINING spent the next four years being operated as a Ferry Boat over the 630 square mile Lake Ponchartrain.

  Then in 1915 she was sold to Lyon Bros. of Greenville, Mississippi and used to run U.S. Mail from Greenville, upriver to Luna Landing, Arkansas. During this time, she was also converted from steam power to diesel power, which gave the OSSINING the distinction of being the first diesel power Ferry Boat on the Mississippi River.

  After a dozen years, she was sold in 1928 to Warner & Tamble Inc. of Memphis, Tennessee. At this time she was refitted and remodeled into a Tow Boat, and rechristened to it's more familiar name, the MARY ELIZABETH, in honor of a family member of the new  Memphis owner.

  During her decades of service in Memphis, the MARY ELIZABETH was responsible for numerous duties. When the Harrahan Bridge burned in 1928, blocking all vehicle traffic for months until the roadway could be replaced, it was the Mary Elizabeth that ferried all commerce across the Mississippi River to Arkansas. She also transported over 3,000 head of cattle to river islands during the Dust Bowl era drought of 1934; performed salvage and rescue work during the big flood on the Wolf River in 1935; and worked throughout the area in rescue and levee work during the great flood of 1937. In 1939, she installed the first radio-telephone communication lines along the Wolf River and the Memphis Harbor. At this time, she also became the first Tow Boat on the Mississippi River to be equipped with a ship-to-shore radio.

  In 1973, the MARY ELIZABETH was sold to Murphy Marine Service Inc. of Memphis. Murphy Marine ran her for a total of five years and then pulled her out of service.

  1979 was to be the hardest year for the MARY ELIZABETH. Sold to a scrap dealer, George Perkins of Memphis, the MARY ELIZABETH was destined to be stripped and gutted. She had the first and second deck mid-ship house (The main superstructure located at the center of the ship.) removed and her engine pulled out. She was then stripped of all equipment, towed away and beached off the Lossahatchie River just above Memphis – only to rust from the merciless beating by the weather over the following seven years.

  Hope of resurrection came in 1986 when the MARY ELIZABETH was sold to Proud Mary Restoration Inc. The hope grew as the first signs of restoration were seen in January, 1987. However, it was not to be. In 1988, during the all-time low of the river gage in Memphis (-10.7 in the second week of July), the MARY ELIZABETH began breaking up on the bank of the river and was hauled away for scrap........ once and for all.

  During the 1960s, at the height of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era in Memphis, a deck hand on the MARY ELIZABETH wrote and composed a song he entitled,  “Proud Mary”. The song describes his feelings and experiences, his life and times aboard his ship, the MARY ELIZABETH. The song was published and recorded by John Fogerty of Creedance Clearwater Revival, and was also performed by other artists such as George Jones and Johnny Paycheck, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and pop diva, Tina Tuner. Tina Turner’s  upbeat rendition was more in the early 1980s style of music and entitled “Rollin’ On The River”. The tune has become one of the most popular and enduring songs of our age and has been placed #155 on Rolling Stone's 2004 list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

  Many people that listen to the lyrics of the song, come away with the impression that the PROUD MARY was steamboat pushed by sternwheel paddles – those “big wheels keep on turning . . .” Well I'm sorry, but you'd be wrong. In the riverboat vocabulary for tow boats, the word “wheels” often refers to the propellers under the boat that are turned by the engines. Another term is “screws” due to the propellers usually looking like oversized screws and while rotating to propel the vessel, they resemble a screw being turned. So in reality, the “big wheels that keep on turning” are under the tow boat, under water and out of sight, not the big paddlewheels seen behind a steamboat!

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  In 1993 my old friend, the late Capt. Jake Meanley (1948-2000) told me that in the 1970s when he was piloting ships  for the MEMPHIS QUEEN LINE excursion company, he quite often used the MARY ELIZABETH through a lease agreement from Murphy Marine. She was used to push the MEMPHIS SHOWBOAT (barge) on countless moonlight river cruises. We can only guess at how many times that the bands were asked to play Proud Mary.

  In the 1980s, while I was General Manager of Mud Island, a company by the name of Mid-South Concerts had a lease agreement to produce concerts in the 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre on the island each Summer. In August of  1986, John Fogerty decided to tour the country again. This time he performed as John Fogerty, a solo artist without the band members of Creedance Clearwater Revival. Previously, CCR and John had experienced a hard break-up with John even being sued and ordered to not sing the CCR songs, as he sounded too much like himself (!?). That was quite bitter for him and the impasse lasted quite a few years.

  The Centerfield Tour originated in the Summer of 1986 with the kick-off concert at the Mud Island Amphitheatre in Memphis on August 27. To start a tour, a band normally plays at least one last “full dress rehearsal”, and this one occurred on the night before where I was blessed to be one of less than twenty fortunate sons in the audience that evening. Upon the completion of the dress rehearsal, I gave an exclusive guided tour for the group through the Mississippi River Museum as a courtesy (some times the GM gets the tough jobs, too!).

  While visiting with John, he told me that “Proud Mary” indeed was one of his favorite songs, and one of the reasons why he was determined to return to concert tours again was that so many people told him that the tune was now more popularly known as the upbeat 1980s version of “Rollin’ On The River” by Tina Turner, rather than as raw, gutsy sound of “Proud Mary” by John Fogerty of the 1960s. Now, that was also some kind of motivation for John.

  To this day, I love the title song from “Centerfield” (“Put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play . . .”). And, I even have a very cherished gift commemorating the concert, a Centerfield baseball cap autographed by John Fogerty.


  Today, the only remembrance of the PROUD MARY in Memphis is a beautiful color portrait in the main dining room of The Butcher Shop restaurant at 101 South Front Street in Downtown Memphis on Historic Cotton Row. The setting of the portrait is a calm day on the water of the Wolf River Harbor with the MARY ELIZABETH and the G.H. TAMBLE tied off side-to-side with a still reflection to the tow vessels in the water – an absolutely gorgeous painting. And probably 99.99% of the patrons who sit in this wonderful restaurant do not know the “rest of the story” of the history of those two junky looking harbor tow boats reflecting on that brown water with all those scrap trees and mud in the background!


“Cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis . . .”


Next “Detour”
Coming Soon

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