This is a Freedomland publicity photo taken during the 1960 opening season. Michael R. Virgintino Collection.
The sternwheel of one of the boats at Freedomland taken during the 1960 opening season. Michael R. Virgintino Collection.
This is a 1960 opening season Freedomland publicity photo with one of the sternwheelers in the distance and a replica New York Harbor Tugboat in the foreground. The sternwheelers, tugboats and even Indian War Canoes shared the same waterway at Freedomland. Michael R. Virgintino Collection.
The Sternwheelers At Freedomland
By Mike Virgintino
Freedomland U.S.A. was a 1960-1964 theme park located on marshland in The Bronx now occupied by the Co-op City residential complex and a shopping plaza. The complete story about Freedomland from its conception to demise can be found in this writer's book, Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History (Theme Park Press).
"From Chicago, the queen city of the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Cruise takes you round FREEDOMLAND's man-made waterways. You sail through all five of the lakes, on one of two 110-foot, 400-passenger sternwheelers. The last sternwheel steamers to be built in the United States, they were specially constructed for FREEDOMLAND by Todd Shipyards. There'll be music and singing as you sail; each boat carries a band featuring a calliope, and you can join in the community singing with words and music that one of America's top composers has written for FREEDOMLAND."
~ Freedomland's 1960 Complete Official Guide with Maps
The American and The Canadian sternwheelers at Freedomland were designed by Gene Angel (boat) and Earl Hart (ornamentation). These men had designed and built the sternwheeler used in the MGM musical Showboat and other films.
The Freedomland sternwheelers were identical and arrived at the park as empty hulls from The Todd Shipyards Corporation's Hoboken Division in New Jersey. The ornamentation was added to the shells at the park. Confusion still reigns about the propulsion of these boats. Some stories indicated that the boats did not have modern engines and were considered floating barges with paddlewheels that provided the propulsion. Other stories indicated that each boat had a Mercedes motor. The boats likely used fuel that was heated in a boiler, turning water into steam to drive two pistons that turned the paddlewheels. The long-reported story that the boats operated on a track located under the water actually is a reference to a guide rail in the man-made lake bottom that directed the boats and supported docking.
Total budget for the design, manufacture, transportation and installation of both sternwheelers at Freedomland was about $400,000.
Fate Of The Canadian
Raymond Schmitt was a local business owner who owned the Johnsonville Village land in East Haddam that once had been a thriving mill community. He and his wife planned to convert the property into a tourist attraction. They purchased and moved vintage buildings from throughout New England to Johnsonville. The structures included a Victorian stable and chapel. When Freedomland closed, they purchased and moved The Canadian to the millpond.
A Connecticut newspaper during the mid-1960s reported that the Schmitts bought The American, and this may have been the original source of the error that led to the misidentification of the two Freedomland sternwheelers for many years. Additional information in the article was accurate—specifically, the boat was towed up the Connecticut River and then carried by truck to the community of Moodus, a village in East Haddam, and placed in the Johnsonville millpond. The boat was situated near the shore for about 30 years.
Another article about Johnsonville Village in the December 30, 1982 issue of the Hartford Courant featured photographs of the boat with the "Canadian" name between the smokestacks as it had appeared at Freedomland. This article, though, did contain some misinformation about the boat—that it was built during 1954 (actually 1959) and that it was purchased during the early 1970s (actually 1966). Due to the lack of maintenance, the boat, according to the article, continued to deteriorate at Johnsonville Village. An additional article from the Hartford Courant on September 8, 1983 featured a different photograph of The Canadian. The name of the boat still could be seen between the smokestacks. Then, it was gone! During February 2005, the boat, reportedly, was moved across the pond to the side with access to the road. The boat was carted away after it was sawed or chopped into pieces.
Remembering The Canadian
While gone, The Canadian is remembered on Riverboat Dave's Paddlewheel Site. (http://www.riverboatdaves.com/riverboats/c.html) Among the listing of boats is the picture of a model of The Canadian. Accompanying information identifies the boat and mentions that it was located at Freedomland. The listing identifies the owner of the model as Ray Harrington. He references the boat as Eugene, providing more confusion and mystery about the life of The Canadian Freedomland sternwheeler.
"I purchased the Eugene at an auction in Connecticut at a place called Johnsonville," wrote Ray. "The owner, Ray Schmit[t], died of cancer a couple of years ago and then the whole place went up for auction. Schmit[t] had a lot of money and his goal was to rebuild an old village on his property. And he did. Everything from original houses and buildings that he moved, carriages, furniture, sleds, etc. Everything you could think that would be in a town back in the late 1800's. He also purchased a sternwheeler from what use[d] to be Freedomland, an amusement park in New York back in the 60's. He had the vessel floated up from New York, up the Connecticut River, and then moved over about 4 miles of land . . . "
The listing on this riverboat website is the only known reference that The Canadian may have been renamed Eugene. No evidence has been located that a new name had been assigned to the boat. The mystery continues to surround the removal and fate of The Canadian.
Fate Of The American
No mystery surrounds the fate of The American. It was damaged at the end of 2018 in Greenwich, Connecticut, harbor and sent to a nearby scrapyard. Unfortunately, it lived a long part of its post-Freedomland life under the wrong identity as many people had thought for years that this boat originally was The Canadian at Freedomland. The confusion can be traced to the mid-1960s media report cited earlier that incorrectly linked The American to Raymond Schmitt of Johnsonville Village.
After Freedomland closed, The American had been renamed the Mark Twain and docked at the Showboat Hotel (later the Greenwich Harbor Inn) in Greenwich. When the boat was resold a number of years later, is was renamed again and became known as The Showboat.
The Showboat was moved to a dock on the Port Chester, New York, side of the Byrum River across from Greenwich and served the area as a private party boat. During this time, the owner searched for another more permanent location for the boat. When a new home could not be located, The Showboat was sold to a Korean restaurant business. As the boat was hoisted onto a large ship for transport to Korea, the hull collapsed and destroyed the once beautiful Freedomland sternwheeler.
More history at Freedomland USA on Facebook - click here.