Kansas brothers repair paddle boat involved in 1978 disaster
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — “The Whippoorwill” was the name of the flat-bottomed boat struck by a small tornado 40 years ago during the deadliest water disaster in Kansas history.
Still, as they prepare to put the massive vessel back in the water after more than a decade in dry dock, current owners Matt and Josh Abramovitz are pondering what to name it. The two brothers are concerned calling the boat “the Whippoorwill” might open up old wounds for others due to its tragic history, Josh Abramovitz said.
“But regardless of what we name it, people will still call it ‘the Whippoorwill,’” he told The Topeka Capital-Journal .
The Abramovitz brothers, who are from Valley Falls in Jefferson County, bought the double-decked replica of an old-fashioned paddle wheel steamboat nearly two years ago. They are working on the boat in an outdoor area at Jefferson County’s Lake Perry Marina, where they hope to get it into the water by July 4.
“It’s a work in progress, but it’s getting there,” Matt Abramovitz said.
The Whippoorwill, which was built in 1965 at Leavenworth, became part of Kansas history just before 7 p.m. on June 17, 1978, when 16 people drowned after a small tornado struck it at Lake Pomona, about 35 miles south of Topeka. About 60 passengers and crew members had boarded the steel-hulled showboat, where guests planned to dine and see a nightly Vassar Playhouse performance of the musical “Dames at Sea.”
Roughly 15 minutes into the cruise, the crew saw a funnel dancing across the water. The skipper turned the 65-foot boat to head for shore, but couldn’t get it out of the way.
The tornado capsized the Whippoorwill about 100 yards offshore in water about 25 feet deep. Many of those who died were trapped beneath the boat when it rolled.
Lawsuits filed by relatives of those who died and survivors of the tragedy brought about settlements totaling nearly $2.5 million.
The Whippoorwill was subsequently repaired. Years later, it was converted into a houseboat and renamed the “Georgia May,” Josh Abramovitz said.
He said the 45-ton paddle boat has been kept on land since roughly 2005, when a fire created holes that caused it to sink in shallow water at a dock.
Josh Abramovitz said they bought the Whippoorwill in July 2016 from Ragen Backstron of Shawnee, who had earlier sold a different boat to Matt Abramovitz.
When Backstron moved to Florida to be near his mother-in-law, who was ill, he thought about selling the Whippoorwill for scrap. But Matt Abramovitz said he “just couldn’t let that happen,” considering the boat’s history.
Even if the Whippoorwill hadn’t been involved in the 1978 tragedy, Josh Ambramovitz said, he would consider it historic simply because it’s driven by a wheel.
He said Backstron offered the boat to Matt Abramovitz at a reasonable price that he “just couldn’t pass up.”
The brothers used a semi-tractor and low-boy trailer to transport the boat from its former location at Edwardsville in Johnson County to its current site.
Matt Abramovitz is 26 years old and a driver for Heartland Trucking, while Josh Abramovitz is 28 and a school bus driver for Valley Falls Unified School District 338.
The brothers have made repairs to the boat that included fixing damage done when beavers chewed on its paddle wheel, Josh Abramovitz said.
Those assisting the brothers have included their parents, Dave and Lisa Abramovitz.
Lisa Abramovitz acknowledged some folks are not as enthusiastic about the paddle boat as her sons are.
“We’ve had people tell us they don’t want to get on the boat, because it’s haunted,” she said.
The brothers hope to start a business called “Perry Paddlers,” through which customers would pay to ride the paddle boat on day cruises on Lake Perry.
But Josh Abramovitz said they haven’t yet met all the guidelines the Army Corps of Engineers requires to earn certification to do that.
“So right now it’s just going to be a casual cruiser,” Dave Abramovitz said.
“A very large casual cruiser,” added Josh Abramovitz.
Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, http://www.cjonline.com