Fire destroys Robert E. Lee boat

By Nancy Cambria, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Mar. 21–UPDATED AT 4 P.M.

The Lt. Robert E. Lee riverboat, once a major restaurant on the bustling St. Louis riverfront that was headed for a rebirth in St. Charles, was destroyed by fire about 3 p.m. today at a repair yard along the Mississippi River at the foot of North Market Street.

Firefighters said they were told that nobody was aboard when the fire broke out, although workers reportedly had been there earlier in the day. First-arriving fire crews found the vessel engulfed in flames, and were delayed by two inoperable hydrants nearby. No injuries were reported.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known. The blaze sent a pall of gray-block smoke high into the air, nortjh of downtown.

The Lee was built in 1969 on the hull of a debris-clearing vessel dating to the 1930s. It opened on the downtown riverfront in 1970, closed in 1993 and reopened and closed a few times before moving to Kimmswick in 2004. It closed there in 2006, and was towed back to St. Louis, where it was sold to Collinsville trucking executive Steve Petroff at auction in late 2008.

Last summer, the St. Charles City Council approved a mooring lease and financial deal for Petroff to bring the vessel there as a Missouri River attraction sometime this spring.

Petroff was at the fire scene today but declined to be interviewed. Optimistic about the deal in an interview last July, Petroff had said then, “The hard obstacles are over.”

The lease called for Petroff’s company to pay for repairs estimated at $100,000 to $250,000, with some of that gradually offset by credits relieving the company of 50 percent of its $1,000 monthly rent.

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