Future of Iconic Newport Beach Paddle-Wheeler May Be Sunk
For more than 40 years, an unmistakable icon has greeted motorists along East Coast Highway in Newport Beach: a 35-foot-tall, Mississippi-style riverboat held together by I-beams, old-growth lumber and memories of weddings, high school proms and family outings.
The Reuben E. Lee riverboat -- locals disregard its more modern name, the Pride of Newport -- has clung to life for decades past its predicted 20-year lifespan, in part because of the diligence of its current owner and occupant, the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.
But a changing Newport Beach landscape sounds a death knell for the vessel, which wasn’t designed to be navigable. With the museum slated to move to dry land in a new facility replacing the Balboa Fun Zone in December, the Reuben E. Lee also must leave its Newport Bay dock.
“It’s kind of sad, but so many things have changed here,” said Lucille Kuehn, 80, who has lived in town for 50 years. “There is really no sense of history in Newport Beach. They tear things down and put new things in their stead, and they don’t save the old buildings.”
Las Vegas bar owner Keith Buy, 50, spent his college years working the bar in the Reuben E. Lee restaurant, a place he called a near-perfect work environment. It was a place where he and fellow employees could watch the boats rolling by and feed the gulls overhead with chunks of old dinner rolls.
“It’s hard to imagine crossing the bridge and not seeing it there,” he said. “I especially notice it now when I’m down there on occasion. It’d be odd to see nothing there.”
The Newport Harbor Nautical Museum’s lease with the Irvine Co., which owns the dock space and adjacent parking lot, states that when the museum leaves, the boat must also go, said David Muller, the museum’s executive director.
“Which means right now the boat is for sale,” Muller said.
Had it ever been a real boat, the Reuben E. Lee’s fate and future might be brighter. It began life in 1964 as a floating restaurant. When the museum bought the riverboat in 1995 for $1, it essentially converted the space into a floating building. Various rooms hold exhibits, model ships, a gift shop and administrative offices.
A recent Coast Magazine write-up on the boat’s likely eviction from its prominent spot near the Newport Bay bridge prompted calls from several interested parties.
David La Montagne, the museum trustee overseeing the boat’s sale, said he had spoken to more than 50 people about buying the riverboat. But after they understood that that also meant finding the Reuben E. Lee a new resting place, interest waned quickly.
“A hundred-ninety feet of dock space is not an easy thing to come by in California, so that’s the biggest challenge, period,” he said. “It’s not finding buyers. It’s finding buyers with 190 feet.”
La Montagne, who founded Vessel Assist, an auto club of sorts for boaters, remains upbeat about selling the Reuben E. Lee. In addition to his own word-of-mouth efforts, he plans to hire a boat broker and put the vessel up for sale on EBay.
But selling a boat that’s past its prime, even one loaded with nostalgia, isn’t easy. The online auction option didn’t work for the 101-year-old tall ship Argus, which the Boy Scouts listed in May. No one bid on the 92-foot ketch, a Newport Harbor old-timer that needs $1.5 million in repairs.
It’s no longer for sale and is resting comfortably in Long Beach. “Unfortunately, those with emotional connections to the Argus simply didn’t have the money behind those emotions to buy the boat,” said Charlie Abbott, director of a sailing program for the Newport Sea Base youth maritime center.
La Montagne refuses to be dismayed by the Boy Scouts’ Ebay experience because, he said, the Argus and Reuben E. Lee are two very different creatures. Whereas the Argus’ main defect is its lack of seaworthiness, he said, the Reuben E. Lee was never meant for the seas, only as a stationary facility that happens to look like a boat and floats.
But getting it out of the harbor presents a challenge. Because it is not a seafaring vessel, it must be towed, and even then, steps have to be taken to make sure the top-heavy boat doesn’t tip over. That job alone could cost more than $50,000, La Montagne said.
Towing the riverboat could also be difficult because of the barnacles and other creatures that have attached themselves to the boat’s bottom, adding extra weight. Until now, that growth has protected the Reuben E. Lee by creating a barrier between the hull and the harsh saltwater of the bay, according to Marshall Steele, the museum’s facilities manager.
Taking even a seagoing old boat into the waves carries risks. Last month, the 77-year-old glass-bottomed Phoenix putt-putted out of Newport Harbor only to sink off Malibu a few hours later. It was on its way to the Bay Area for conversion into a restaurant.
La Montagne said he would love to see the Reuben E. Lee stay put. He’s talking to three prospective buyers with hopes that the Irvine Co. might reconsider. If that’s a possibility, he has even thought about buying the boat himself.
“If a lease could be rewritten with the Irvine Co., it would be a no-brainer,” he said. The best use would be as a bed and breakfast, La Montagne said.
The Irvine Co. has made clear, however, that it wants to use that real estate for other purposes, though no specific plans have been announced.
“Would we sign another lease for the same thing at that same spot? The answer is that we would not,” said Jennifer Haiger, an Irvine Co. spokeswoman.
Museum officials know there may be no one to save the Reuben E. Lee. In that case, it would be salvaged or sunk.
Salvaging is more likely, partly because it’s more lucrative and probably easier to pull off. Because boat architect Bill Bluroch and John McIntosh, the restaurateur who commissioned it, wanted to closely replicate a Mississippi riverboat, they used authentic materials for its construction. Its skeleton and structure include high-grade steel plates and beams along with sturdy old-growth fir and redwood lumber.
Despite the long odds, La Montagne is holding out for a buyer.
“It needs a savior,” Kuehn agreed.