In the ’30’s, they danced on a Cooper River barge – Tracking History

In this 1955 photo, workmen remove portions of a sunken barge.

By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor

Over the years, Admiral Wilson Boulevard has been home to many attractions—some good and some not so good.

Among the good ones were the first drive-in theater, which was in Pennsauken; the famous Whoopie Coaster, a wooden thrill ride that automobiles could drive onto for 25 cents; and Roy Steele’s log cabin and dance barge.

The Whoopie Coaster will be the subject of a future column, and we have written about the drive-in theater. However, we have never written about the dance barge, and there have been several requests for something about it.

The log cabin and dance barge were the brainchild of Steele, a former Camden basketball great. He was a member of the Camden Skeeters basketball club of the Eastern League and helped bring the league’s championship game to Camden. He started playing in 1903 and retired in 1922, after the league’s demise.

When he died in 1946, at age 59, a Courier-Post editorial said, “Roy Steele was the toast of the town back in the years from 1912 to 1922.”

Log-cabin dream

After his basketball career ended, Steele wanted to realize his longtime dream of owning and living in a log cabin. The one he built was made of cedar logs from the woods of Pemberton Township. It was constructed on Admiral Wilson Boulevard at 18th Street during the early 1930s.

An illuminated sign that carried his name was the only advertisement of his business venture—a barge cafe in the Cooper River.

According to Courier-Post stories, the barge was called the Margaret E. Bunting, and it had been used to transport coal to the South from Camden and Philadelphia. Steele found it in the Delaware River, at the foot of 29th Street in Camden.

After having it moved to the Cooper River, Steele spent thousands to renovate it. The 180-foot barge had a dance floor that was 32 feet by 24 feet. Its bridge served as a bar that, according to research, sold 3.2 percent beer.

The barge could hold approximately 400 patrons, and it was linked by walkway to Steele’s log cabin, which also had a bar.

Frank Brown, 91, said he played drums in an eight-piece band on the dance barge when he was 15. He says the open-air barge had a canvas cover, held up by pipes with dropcloths draped over the sides, that kept patrons dry during inclement weather.

Sudden storm

Brown, a Collingswood High School graduate who lives in the Westmont section of Haddon Township, remembers a time when a storm came up. He said it had winds so strong that it bent the pipes and created a sail effect.

“It (the storm) shorted out all of the lights and things were hectic for a minute,” said Brown, who said he only played drums on the barge for a couple of weekends.

Brown contacted us after he read an inquiry in the Courier-Post seeking information about Steele’s dance barge.

Florence Jaggard of Haddon Township, Steele’s step-grand-daughter, told us via email that she is 79 years old and does not remember seeing the “ship,” as she called it.

“But I heard many stories about it,” she said. “This man was far ahead of his time!” she pointed out.” It was a great idea.”

Steele’s granddaughter, Judy Steele Owens of Paoli, Pa., says her grandfather died before she was born.

“I knew of the floating bar but (have) no details,” she said via email. “My grandfather was really known for his basketball skills.”

Grandson Bruce R. Steele of Marco Island, Fla., also sent an email. He was born in 1937 and doesn’t have many memories of the boat—other than that of the ruins that were pointed out to him when he drove past it on the boulevard.

“My grandfather was, of course, a tremendous basketball player back in the ’20s, and there was a picture in the Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, Mass., of his team,” he said.

“My father, Bruce K. Steele, was an all-state football and baseball player at Collingswood High School and later was a championship golfer at Riverton Country Club.”

Too Young to Dance

Shirley Grinnan of Mount Laurel and Walter Moore of Haddon Township both called to say they recalled the barge but were too young to go dancing on it.

“When I was a little girl, I always said I was going to go dancing on it; but when I became old enough, it was no longer there,” Grinnan, 80, said.

Moore, 79, said he remembered it always being lit up with all kinds of string lights. “I believe it burnt down,” he says.

Reports say the barge eventually sank, and others recall it catching fire, but its remains were visible for years along the boulevard.

Bruce Steele says his father owned Steele’s, a bar on Carmen Street in Camden for many years, which his father had inherited from Roy Steele.

The former basketball star owned two bars in Somers Point — Steele’s Ship Bar and the Bala Inn. He was living in Somers Point at the time of his death.

“Roy Steele not only brought fame to himself but to Camden, the town that adopted him 34 years ago,” the Courier-Post concluded in its 1946 editorial.


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