The Ship Cafe (1942-1954)

The Ship Cafe - 1954
The Ship Cafe moored along the north shore of the Monongahela River, near the Point Bridge, in 1954.

In 1942, Bill Gottschalk, known as Captain Bill, opened the Ship Cafe. Billed as Pittsburgh's only floating saloon, it was a two-deck wooden bar and restaurant featuring live entertainment. The second floor was lined with several hotel rooms. Moored along the Allegheny River on the north end of the Sixth Street Bridge at the foot of Federal Street, the Ship Cafe became a popular club and oftentimes drew a rowdy crowd.

The ship formerly belonged to the Army Corps of Engineers and was used as their floating office building and living quarters during their many river projects.

In 1949, Captain Bill moved his floating enterprise to a new mooring along the Monongahela River at Liberty Avenue and Water Street. According to the Captain, "Business was too good. What a headache - fights every night. I just up and decided we'd better move to a quieter location." The Ship Cafe now rested next to the River Shop Boat near the Point.

The Ship Cafe - 1954
The Water Street steps leading down to the Ship Cafe and the Harbor Room.

The move came at a time when the city had begun transforming the Point area from an area crowded with seedy bars and warehouses surrounding the Pennsylvania Railroad freight complex into a state park. For the next five years the Ship Cafe thrived in it's new setting, building up a loyal clientele. The Harbor Room, opened up on August 28, 1953, featuring dining and dancing with no cover charge and no minimum purchase.

Less than a year later, urban progress intervened and forced the popular Ship Cafe to close. The mooring location was in the path of the new Fort Pitt Bridge ramps to the Parkway East. On March 18, 1954, Pittsburgh's Ship Cafe closed it's doors, battened down the hatches, and was towed downstream to a temporary mooring on the Ohio River at Liverpool Street. There it sat while Captain Bill searched for suitable location to reboot the business.

The Ship Cafe - 1954    The Ship Cafe
The Ship Cafe being towed away on March 18, 1954 (left) and listing four months later on July 16.

Tragedy struck when, on July 16, 1954, the ship sprung a leak and began taking on water. Soon it was listing quite noticeably. This was not the first time the ship had taken on water and it was again repaired, but this time the aging vessel had apparently had enough.

Three months later, on October 17, the Ship Cafe broke loose from its mooring during a storm and floated downstream to the Emsworth Dam. It came to rest near the locks and slowly sunk. In the end all that stood above water was the "Ship Cafe" sign. The legendary old saloon was raised and scrapped.

In some ways the Ship Cafe tradition was reborn with the advent of the Gateway Clipper Fleet and the Party Liner, which can be considered Pittsburgh's floating bar and dance hall.

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