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Bill Bowell, legendary St. Paul riverboat captain, dies at 90

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Capt. William Bowell
Capt. William D. Bowell, Sr., of the Padelford Packet Boat Company, ca. 1985.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

A St. Paul legend, 90-year-old Capt. Bill Bowell, died this week. Bowell started the Padelford Packet Boat Company, a St. Paul-based river cruise business that carried thousands of people on trips up and down the Mississippi. 

Bowell was a St. Paul native and a World War II veteran.

In a 2002 conversation with MPR News, Bowell recalled growing up in St. Paul with 11 siblings selling popcorn on Harriet Island.

Bowell called it a special french-fried popcorn and remembered the sales pitch he used.

"We had a phrase: 'Sharpens your teeth and combs your hair and makes you feel like a millionaire. Hey, hey, it's french-fried popcorn, only a nickel, half a dime, keeps you eating all the time.'"

Bowell grew up during the Great Depression, and worked many jobs including shining shoes and selling good luck charms to help the family finances.

Just before World War II broke out, Bowell, a teenager, said he joined the National Guard.

"We joined the National Guard to get the shoes at that time. This is an honest to god's fact. You know, in our day getting a pair of shoes, that was something else," Bowell said.

Bowell was a World War II paratrooper. He was among the first wave of Allied troops to land in France behind German lines on D-Day.

"Two o'clock in the morning, and I got shot down. I was a radio operator in a demolition crew to blow up a bridge, and of course we went around the Cherbourg Peninsula over by Marseille. 

"About 30 miles from the drop zone we got hit with 2,000 pounds of dynamite and TNT underneath the airplane, that's going to drop with us. And nothing blew up, but the plane was going down. 

"...I hit the ground, but the chute opened. I sprained an ankle which I'd never done before and as I'm laying on the ground I'd dropped my knife which I'd spent weeks sharpening, pulled it out of my boot and dropped it and I picked it up by the blade not thinking and I'm trying to cut myself out with the wrong end and I cut the devil out of my hand."

Bowell also fought in the Battle of the Bulge and returned from World War II with medals and citation for his service including the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

Bowell, a Macalester College graduate, says his lifelong dream was to pilot a boat on the Mississippi River, which required getting a Coast Guard pilots license. 

He remembered taking the test for the license in Dubuque.

"I go down there and there's this old guy by the name of Schmoker. And this is 1951. And I go into the office and he says, 'Well what side of the boat is port?' I said, 'Well it's the left side.' And he said, 'What's the other side?' I said, 'That's starboard and that's right.' He said, 'Son you just passed your license," Bowell remembered.  "Of course, I've upgraded that license many times to higher tonnage, but when I tell that to the Coast Guard people, they'd like to croak."