Riverboat owner to float restaurant idea on river here

In her decades of gliding on America's rivers, The Becky Thatcher, a 220-foot sternwheeler, has seen the best of banjo-strumming days. But she's also been to the bottom -- literally.

Today, the historic riverboat is scheduled to be loosed from its moorings on the Muskingum River in Marietta, Ohio, and towed to a new home off Neville Island.

But even her owner, Jeffrey Levin, 55, of Nashville, acknowledges that the old girl comes to Pittsburgh as a faded lady, jilted by former beaus in Marietta, who have effectively evicted her.

Mr. Levin is hoping for a fresh start for The Becky Thatcher, returning it to its recent status as a riverside bar and restaurant.

"I'd like to bring it back up to its grandeur," Mr. Levin said yesterday. "Actually, in 2005, I had it looking great. But it looks a little run down now, and in need of a paint job. But, potentially, a restaurant could be up and running within a week."

The Becky Thatcher was originally built in 1926 in Jeffersonville, Ind., as The Mississippi (III) by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for inspecting and surveying along rivers. Despite being a workboat, it was outfitted with comfortable accommodations for 65 passengers.

The boat was retired in 1961 and in 1963 was sold to Mark Twain Enterprises, which set it up as a restaurant and museum in Hannibal, Mo. In the late 1960s, it was towed to St. Louis, where it was renamed The Becky Thatcher and extensively restored. The boilers and engines were removed.

Since then, the boat has been used as a floating dinner theater and a restaurant and bar. In 1975, it was purchased by a group of citizens in Marietta, Ohio, as part of that town's bicentennial celebration. Moored along Front Street on the Muskingum River, the first production performed aboard it by the Mid-Ohio Valley Players in 1976 was "Showboat."

The National Park Service entered the boat into the National Register of Historic Places in October 1983.

Then things started to fall apart. In 1984, The Becky Thatcher incurred heavy damage to its hull and sank during a spring flood. It was raised and repaired for the 1985 theater season.

But the boat, riverfront and landings have deteriorated, said Mr. Levin, a real estate developer who bought it as a pet project in 2005.

Despite his best efforts, he said, it has sat vacant since 2006.

The Marietta City Council has asked Mr. Levin to pay thousands of dollars in back rent and this year began eviction proceedings. Mr. Levin said the city can't claim damages because there is no lease, and he expects the lawsuits to be dropped once he moves the boat.

"Frankly, Marietta's just too small a city to support it," he said. "Pittsburgh could be perfect."

Mr. Levin said he hadn't considered Pittsburgh as an alternate home for the boat because he wasn't familiar with the city.

"I looked at Pittsburgh for the first time about a month ago, and I absolutely fell in love with the city. I think it's an incredible place for The Becky," he said.

Mr. Levin said the boat's mooring along Neville Island will be temporary because the site is not suitable for public access. His intention is to tie the boat up, fix it up, then find a permanent location to moor it.

"We're looking for a location, and we'd like to lease out the top two floors back to a restaurant and a bar again," he said, looking ahead to the 30-hour trip up the Ohio River. "And, ideally, the bottom floor, which was the dinner theater, still has a large stage. It would work for dinner theater or a live music venue.

"I'd like to see something that goes with the historic nature of the boat. To me, it would be a perfect venue for a songwriter's club, like they have in Nashville, where songwriters get together and they write and play acoustic shows."

Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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