So many of us are nostalgic for the steamboating era– Hollywood included! If you’ve ever wondered about the steamboats used in films like Show Boat, Dixie, and Maverick, we have just what you’re looking for! Here are some of the most significant river-going vessels of American motion picture history. Stay tuned for more in part two of this blog series!

Cotton Blossom

Cotton Blossom was originally built by MGM for use in 1951’s “Show Boat,” starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Howard Keel. It cost a reported $125,000 to construct, and it was the largest prop ever built for a motion picture at the time. During filming, a fire broke out from the boiler costing $67,000 to repair. “Show Boat,” the story of a riverboat captain’s daughter falling in love with a charming gambler, was filmed partially on the Mississippi River near Natchez and partially on a fake lake set in Culver City, Calif. It became one of the year’s highest grossing films.

In 1953, Cotton Blossom played the part of the Chattahoochee Queen in Columbia Pictures’ musical comedy called “Cruisin’ Down the River.” The film stars Dick Haymes as Beaurefard Clemment, a New York night club singer who turns a broken-down Georgia showboat into a nightclub.

Warner Bros. rented Cotton Blossom in 1956, renaming it Vicksburg for a flick entitled “Santiago” starring Alan Ladd and Rossana Podestà as star-crossed lovers in revolutionary Cuba.

MGM put the prop steamboat to work again in 1964 as the Donnie Dixon for a Civil War ear farce called “Advance to the Rear.”

Texas oilman Lamar Hunt purchased Cotton Blossom from MGM in 1973 for $15,000. She lived out her final years as an attraction in his theme park “Worlds of fun” in Kansas City.

Port of Stockton


The Port of Stockton, an original paddle wheel steamboat, was used as a platform to film a scene in Universal’s “Heaven on Earth” in 1931. In the film, Lew Ayres plays a young man raised on a Mississippi River steamboat who discovers that the man he has always believed to be his father was, in fact, his real father’s killer.

Years later, the Port of Stockton was remodeled to play the Pride of Paducah in a 1935 film starring Will Rogers called “Steamboat Round the Bend.”

Coincidentally, Port of Stockton’s paddle wheel is now residing here in the Northwest at The History Museum in Hood River down by the Waterfront. Small world, huh?

General John Newton

Built in 1899, the 175-foot long paddlewheeler General John Newton served as a maritime courthouse and was visited by at least four U.S. presidents. In 1955 it appeared in a Warner Brother’s film called “Pete Kelly’s Blues.” The University of Minnesota purchased the boat from the U.S. Army Corps in 1958 for $1. The university renamed it the Minnesota Centennial Showboat in celebration of the state’s 100th year. It anchored on the nearby Mississippi River and opened with a production of “Under the Gaslight.”


In 1994, the sternwheel tugboat Portland (the last remaining of its kind in the U.S.) starred in a widely known film called “Maverick.” In it, Bret Maverick, played by Mel Gibson, pulls a number of schemes trying to fund his place in a riverboat poker tournament. He faces several comic mishaps, including the charms of a woman thief, played by Jodie Foster.

Portland steamboat used in filming "Maverick"

Portland gets all dressed up to shoot “Maverick” in 1994.

Dubbed the Lauren Belle in the film, Portland was used in numerous locations along the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Washington. It was heavily decorated to resemble a Mississippi style gambling boat, including the addition of two decorative chimneys. The decorations were removed after filming wrapped and the boat was returned to the Oregon Maritime Museum in Portland. Visit their site and check out the upcoming opportunities to cruise on this historical vessel!

Feeling nostalgic? Contact USA River Cruises to plan a cruise aboard one of our historical paddle wheel steamboats!