By Gregg Hoffmann
La Crosse Partisan politics were completely left out of the final outcome, but Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, defeated Wisconsin Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle in a steamboat race Wednesday afternoon.
The Governor’s Race at the Grand Excursion was officially called a photo-finish tie, and both heads of their states took home brooms, the traditional trophy for riverboat captains who engage in steamboat races.
But, Pawlenty, riding in the Saint Paul-based Harriet Bishop, actually nosed out Doyle, riding in the La Crosse Queen. In fact, Doyle conceded, but nobody was really keeping score.
Doyle looked to be at a disadvantage before the race even started. The Harriet Bishop stood at least a full deck taller than the La Crosse Queen and definitely seemed to be a bigger maiden all around.
The Wisconsin governor arrived on time, with relatively little fanfare. He spent time shaking hands and talking with the media, his crew of local politicians and other people who accompanied him on the steamboat.
I figure it will be like a Vikings-Packers game, Doyle said at the time. They will start out pretty well, but then they will start arguing among themselves, and you know what the outcome will be.
About 15 minutes later, a boat arrived, and a voice could be heard calling, Gov. Doyle, come out with your hands up. It was Pawlenty, arriving with an entourage in a speedboat.
TV cameras immediately focused on the verbal exchange between the two governors, and later warm handshakes between the two politicians, who earlier in the day announced a joint effort on restoring the river.
Then, it was off to their respective steamboats. The La Crosse Queen got off to a bit of a running start, as its paddlewheel was moving as the cannon went off, signaling the start of the race.
Shortly after the start, oars could be seen, helping the boats paddle. The only problem was that the Minnesota boat’s oars dangled from the second deck and were nowhere near the water.
Despite the inept rowing, the bigger Harriet Bishop had more steam power down the final stretch.
The race was the highlight of a day that saw all five steamboats in the Excursion dock in La Crosse. The Excursion coincides with the annual Riverfest festival. Together, they are drawing thousands to the riverfront.
In fact, the Excursion is drawing big crowds up and down the river. Almost 60,000 people were estimated to greet the boats in Dubuque. On Tuesday, the boats made it to McGregor, Iowa, and Prairie du Chien.
High water on the river has played some havoc with schedules. The Mississippi Queen, the largest of the boats, had to wait a couple days before starting up river, until it could clear a railroad bridge near Hannibal, Missouri.
Some of the smaller boats, like the Julia Belle Swain and Anson Northrup, had to make their way slowly because of currents and debris floating in the river. They did not arrive in Prairie du Chien until evening, but a crowd of more than 5,000 some who were there from morning on waited patiently.
Prairie organizers provided tours of Villa Louis and Fort Crawford, musical entertainment and other attractions to occupy the crowd.
Once the steamboats chugged into Prairie, with calliopes playing and whistles blowing, the crowd cheered loudly and sang river songs along with those on the boats.
The flotilla will make its way into the Twin Cities area this weekend. The Grand Excursion officially ends Monday.