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Historical growth

Posted 3:53 p.m. Friday, June 16, 2023

UWL’s extensive steamboat photo collection grew even more over the past two years with additions from three major collections.

Added works propel the steamboat story at UW-La Crosse

Steamboat photos and memorabilia continue to flow into the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

The university’s Murphy Library Special Collections/Area Research Center holds one of the nation’s largest image collections related to historic steamboats and inland river scenes. There are roughly 40,000 images on site, nearly 30,000 of which can be viewed online. Books, periodicals, ephemera and charts complement the images that comprise the majority of the collection.

“Digitization and collection development are perpetually on-going in Special Collections,” explains David Mindel, digital collections librarian. “Naturally, collections and projects of this size don’t happen overnight.”

Mindel has overseen significant growth of the historic steamboat collection at Murphy Library recently due to several material donations received over the past two years. Those donations are in addition to the generally consistent donations of steamboat-related items regularly brought to the library.

Built on the success of Murphy Library’s previous librarians and archivists, the collection stands out as a central repository for researchers, students and the general public. Those interested can explore topics about La Crosse and the Mississippi River’s history related to commerce, transportation and recreation. Collected materials extend beyond the Midwest, reaching coast to coast.

David Mindel, digital collections librarian at UWL, looks over some of the steamboat materials recently donated to Special Collections. “With all of the recent donations, UW-La Crosse’s designation as one of the top centers for steamboat materials is solidified even more,” says Mindel.

The most recent surge in river-related materials coming into the collection came from the late Dave Thomson of California, who was a major collector of all things steamboats. His collection included not only original historic photos, but also original documents, postcards, books, puzzles, games, music and movies related to steamboats.

After Thomson died in July 2021, his brother, Darryl, contacted Murphy Library Special Collections to see if it could become the new permanent home for his brother’s collection. Archivists agreed and by November that year, boxes began arriving filled with everything from books, pins, CDs and videos, to navigation charts, LPs, photos and documents. By late the next January, 11 boxes of materials were added to the library’s steamboat collection.

These were only the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of Thomson’s collection arrived by moving truck during the summer 2022. As Mindel watched, the true scope of the collection only started to become apparent as the forklift unloaded boxes and crates containing materials valued collectively at more than $60,000.

The next year, Mindel and digitization assistant, Nikki Pegarsch, began processing the Thomson Steamboat Collection. It includes more than 500 books, thousands of photos, postcards and documents, as well as four steamboat models.

While Thomson’s collection was flowing in, Mindel continued corresponding with another steamboat enthusiast, La Crosse native Richard Egan. Egan, who was living in Oregon, had worked with Special Collections as early as 2019 to ensure his well-curated collection of steamboat photos and documents would ultimately be donated to the library.

In early 2022, as his health declined, Egan made Mindel aware of the expedited timeline for his materials to make their way to La Crosse. Egan died while that was in progress. His daughter, Kim, coordinated the shipping of his steamboat materials following his death.

fter steamboat collector and Californian Dave Thomson died in 2021, his collection arrived at UWL’s Murphy Library by moving truck. That’s when the scope of the collection started to become apparent to David Mindel, digital collections librarian, as the forklift unloaded boxes and crates containing materials valued collectively at more than $60,000.

By September, three boxes of Egan’s materials arrived. Archivists soon discovered the amount of research and attention to detail provided while examining the binders of materials, which consisted of hundreds of photos and documents.

Yet, the onslaught of riverboat materials kept flowing. While coordinating the two estate donations, Mindel was approached by Carrie Johnson, executive director of the Winona County Historical Society, regarding its steamboat photo collection. The collection originally arrived at the society in 2007, the product of steamboat enthusiast Ralph DuPae’s lifelong efforts to acquire images of steamboat photos from across the country.

The historic steamboat photo collection housed in Murphy Library already had ties to DuPae with the work he began with former librarian and archivist, Edwin Hill. After 15 years and various personnel changes, Johnson recognized the mutual benefit in reuniting these linked collections.

As the UWL portion of DuPae’s work represented a much larger collection, Johnson decided that her organization would donate its materials to Murphy Library. With approval from the Winona County Historical Society board of directors, Mindel and Pegarsch showed up in Winona with a U-Haul on a cold, wet February morning. Several hours later, the roughly 10,000-image collection arrived at its new home at UWL.

With all the new materials, Mindel and Pegarsch are working on the next phase: digitizing the Thomson and Egan photographs and documents to make them available online.

The photographs from Winona will take additional time to sort, organize and identify duplicated items. Eventually, the archivists hope to add the images to the current online Historic Steamboat Collection and incorporate them among the other steamboat images previously housed in Special Collections.

“With all of the recent donations, UW-La Crosse’s designation as one of the top centers for steamboat materials is solidified even more,” says Mindel, while also noting his appreciation to the collectors and those who donated the materials on their behalf.

See online steamboat archives.

To learn more about the collection, or to consider donating river-themed items to Murphy Library Special Collections, contact Mindel at

A model of a steamboat is one of the hundreds of collection items and photos recently donated to Murphy Library’s Special Collections.


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