ST. LOUIS — The Mississippi River has lost one of its storied navigators. Capt. William “Bill” Streckfus died last week after a long career traversing the river from New Orleans to St. Louis and beyond. He was 87.
Streckfus was the president of Streckfus Steamers Corp. in the 1960s and ’70s, and the captain of the popular Admiral during its 1960s heyday through its move onshore in 1979. He later worked for the National Museum of Transportation and the Casino Queen in East St. Louis.
“We grew up on the Admiral,” said daughter Lisa Streckfus, a steamboat captain herself. Lisa and her brother William Streckfus Jr., also a captain, both started working with their father on the Admiral when they were 9- and 10-years-old. They did everything from small jobs to piloting the ship themselves.
“The Admiral was our playground,” Lisa Streckfus said. “I wouldn’t say we took it for granted, but it was just normal for us.”
Bill Streckfus was born and reared in New Orleans, the grandson of St. Louis riverboat Capt. John “The Commodore” Streckfus, founder of Streckfus Steamer Corp. He began working on the family’s boats at the age of 5.
Following service in the Korean War, he became the master of the riverboat President in New Orleans. He came to St. Louis in 1960 to become master of the Admiral, the world’s largest excursion riverboat at the time. The Admiral was St. Louis’ biggest attraction before the Gateway Arch, sporting five decks, a unique art-deco style and an eye-catching silver paint job.
Streckfus was responsible for the popularity of the Admiral, according to his son.
“He is the one that made the Admiral less formal and turned it into an entertainment venue,” he said. “Before him, you needed a tie just to enter the ballroom. He added a disco and rock acts and made the Admiral a destination on the riverfront.”
The Admiral was permanently docked in 1979 because of structural issues in its 1907 hull. Streckfus was its last captain before it became a riverfront casino, and was scrapped in 2011.
“Everybody loved him,” Lisa Streckfus said. “He was a disciplinarian, coming from a German family, but a good man, and that’s what makes a good captain.”
He was also responsible for the construction and popularity of “T-Class” vessels, smaller 100-200 person boats made for 1-2 hour sightseeing tours.
“He told the (Streckfus Steamer) board that he believed in these boats, but they didn’t want to build them,” his son said. “He threatened to quit and start his own company to build them, and that’s the only reason they existed at all, because the company didn’t want to lose him.”
Four of the smaller boats were built — the Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Samuel Clemens — and they were a success, William Streckfus said.
Streckfus retired for the first time in 1979 following the docking of the Admiral, but couldn’t be kept from the riverboat business for long. He oversaw the National Museum of Transportation for 13 years before being drawn back to the Mississippi.
In 1993 he piloted the Casino Queen to East St. Louis and worked on the vessel overseeing marine operations until his third and final retirement in 2001. His son worked alongside him as captain of the Casino Queen.
He had a love for horses and fox hunting, Lisa said. The family would often travel on horseback between their home in Ladue and St. Louis Country Club to watch polo games.
“If he wasn’t on the water, he was on horseback,” she said.
Growing up on the Admiral led Lisa and William Streckfus to become steamboat captains — Lisa of the Delta Queen in New Orleans and William of the Casino Queen. Lisa moved to a job with Norwegian Cruise Lines in the 2000s. William retired from boating to become a middle school math teacher in 1999, seeing a downturn of the riverboat industry on the horizon.
In addition to his children Lisa, of Miami, Florida, and William, of Orange County, California, Streckfus is survived by his wife of 62 years, Betty; a daughter, Sharon Streckfus Lazzaro of Chesterfield; and four grandchildren.
A memorial gathering is set for 3-7 p.m. Tuesday at Schrader Funeral Home, 14960 Manchester Road in Ballwin.
“We’re so proud of him and what he did for St. Louis riverboating,” William said, “but it’s just so sad to see the industry slowly go away.”