THE GATEWAY CLIPPER FLEET STORY
A symbol of Pittsburgh’s river renaissance, the Gateway Clipper Fleet has grown from a one boat, 100 passenger operation to the five boat, 2,500 passenger fleet of today. Sailing from the Southern Bank of the Monongahela River at Historic Station Square, the Gateway Clipper Fleet sails all year and offers a wide variety of dining, sightseeing, and entertainment cruises.
The clean, blue waters are framed by lush foliage and award-winning architecture that make our city one of the most scenic in the United States. However, for the first half of the 20th century, the three rivers were not a pretty sight. Pittsburgh, the “Steel City”, was known for producing tons of steel year after year. While Pittsburgh’s steel industry played a pivotal role in the development of the United States, it also played a role in polluting our rivers. The once beautiful rivers were now filthy. Something had to be done to restore the three rivers to their natural beauty.
The 1950s focused new attention on our polluted rivers. In 1955, John E. Connelly was appointed treasurer of ALCOSAN. It was the purpose of this agency to cleanse the polluted rivers and make them an attractive part of Pittsburgh.
John Connelly was a man of vision. He saw the potential of the rivers. “These rivers are the lifeblood of the city,” Mr. Connelly said. The three rivers had finally found their champion.
Mr. Connelly realized what the three rivers needed was an excursion boat to show off our revitalized city and rivers. He enlisted his nephew, Captain Jack Goessling, to help him search for the perfect boat. Captain Jack found a boat in Erie, Pennsylvania – a fishing boat named the “Bridget Ann”. Excited about the prospect of purchasing this boat in Erie, Connelly jumped in the car with Goessling in such a hurry that he forgot to bring money or even a check! Mr. Connelly and the owner haggled over the price of the vessel. At a stalemate in negotiations, John Connelly suggested a coin toss to decide the price. John Connelly lost. He agreed to pay the asking price, gave the man all the money he had in his pocket – $50- for a down payment, and left Erie a boat owner.
Now came the true task – getting a riverboat from Lake Erie to Pittsburgh. The trip from Erie would take four weeks of sailing day and night. Goessling began the journey in April, 1958, sailing over 2,200 miles from Lake Erie to the Detroit River, across Lake St. Clair to Lake Huron, through the Straits of Mackinak to the Illinois River and then to the mighty Mississippi, and, finally, the last leg – sailing downstream to the Ohio River and then all the way up river to the Port of Pittsburgh on May 16, 1958. On May 17, 1958 the “Gateway Clipper” sailed from the Monongahela Wharf with the local YMCA aboard the first chartered pleasure cruise on the three rivers.
The “Gateway Clipper” was a success from start. It sailed for four months that maiden season and toured the three rivers with over 25,000 passengers. It became known as the city’s official sightseeing boat.
In 1959, two more 100 passenger boats were added – “Gateway Clipper II” and the “Good Ship Lollipop”. Through the years more than 20 boats have been members of the fleet – not only did the fleet grow, but so did its popularity.
Today, the Gateway Clipper Fleet is located at Historic Station Square having moved there in 1982. Under the leadership of Terry Wirginis, Mr. Connelly’s grandson, the Gateway Clipper Fleet is ready for the future. “The reason we have been so successful is that we keep changing, adapting and adding cruises to keep up with the needs of our customers,” said Wirginis, Gateway Clipper Fleet President.
Presently, the Fleet is comprised of five boats and has a total capacity of 2,500 passengers. In 1987, Mr. Wirginis and family christened the largest boat ever to sail with the Fleet. This behemoth – a 277 foot, 1,000 passenger vessel designed by Mr. Wirginis, sailed from Pensacola, Florida, where it was built, to Pittsburgh without a name. A “Name the Boat’ contest was held and the name chosen out of 27,000 entries is a name now known to all Pittsburghers – the “Majestic”. Joining the flagship “Majestic” are the 600 passenger “Empress”, 400 passenger “Duchess” and “Princess” and 150 passenger “Countess” All the riverboats of the Fleet hail back to the the quaint old riverboats that sailed the rivers in days gone by.
What started as one boat sailing the three rivers offering sightseeing tours has turned into a diversified operation offering dozens of different types of cruises. Employing 70 full-time employees and over 300 seasonal employees, the Clipper Fleet sails all year long offering cruises that appeal to the young and old.
“As far as we know, The Gateway Clipper Fleet is the largest inland riverboat fleet in the nation today, says Wirginis. We are a model for the excursion boat industry. Boat owners in many other cities look to us for guidance and knowledge.”
The Gateway Clipper Fleet has always been an important part of the “Pittsburgh Experience”. We have been a key element in many city and county celebrations that showcase our beautiful river city. Our riverboats and crew have celebrated with the entire region after our Steelers, Pirates and Penguins won World Championships, entertained world leaders that visited our city, and even danced with mascots during the 1994 & 2006 All-Star Games!
The Gateway Clipper Fleet is the number one non sports attraction in the City of Pittsburgh. Over the last 51 years, over 25 million passengers have sailed the three rivers and beyond on one of the Fleet’s riverboats.
What does the future hold for the Gateway Clipper Fleet? “Our growth potential is only limited by our own creativity. I think our future is filled with incredible promise and potential”, said Wirginis.