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Gateway Clipper Fleet One of Pittsburgh’s Water Wonders

Jul 30, 2015 01:35PM ● Published by Larry Richert

Photo courtesy of VisitPITTSBURGH

Rain, rain, go away! I have heard more people complain about our wet summer than at any time in my recent memory. It’s been so wet that they even cancelled the river races for the first time in 36 years at the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta last month. Yet through muddy waters and all, I discovered Pittsburgh’s ‘Aquaman!’

Terry Wirginis, owner of the Gateway Clipper Fleet, is that guy. He lives, eats and sleeps river life. After all, it’s in his blood. His five-boat armada is as iconic a symbol of river life in Pittsburgh as you can get. Every time a national TV broadcast shows our city, you see one of his vessels cruising along in the background. Long before the city really embraced our waterfronts, these boats were docked on the south side of the Mon River at Station Square.

In 1955, Wiginis’ grandfather, John E. Connelly, established the company as a way to attract people to the rivers, which were undergoing a clean-up—the result of an effort that he led. According to a history of the Gateway Clipper Fleet (www.gatewayclipper.com), Connelly went to Erie, PA, to search for a suitable craft, and haggled with the owner of a fishing boat named the Bridget Ann. At a stalemate in negotiations, he suggested a coin toss to decide the price and lost. He agreed to pay the asking price, gave the man all the money he had in his pocket– $50 for a down payment—and left Erie a boat owner.

Getting the vessel to Pittsburgh would take more than four weeks of sailing a distance of over 2,200 miles—from Lake Erie to the Detroit River, across Lake St. Clair to Lake Huron, through the Straits of Mackinac to the Illinois River, to the mighty Mississippi, and, finally, sailing downstream to the Ohio River, and then up river to the port of Pittsburgh. The boat arrived in Pittsburgh on May 16, 1958; on May 17, the Gateway Clipper sailed from the Monongahela Wharf with the local YMCA aboard, which, according to the company’s history, was the first chartered pleasure cruise on the three rivers.

Today, the Gateway Clipper Fleet is proud to be the number one non-sports attraction in the city of Pittsburgh, with 70 full-time employees and 300 seasonal workers. They claim to have carried over 25 million passengers since the company began, and I know that I was one of them. I have been on many excursions since I was a little boy growing up here; the Good Ship Lollipop was my first experience. It seemed so big at the time!

I have also been onboard for many regatta events through the years, and we held our North Allegheny senior banquet onboard a Gateway Clipper boat, which was memorable for a whole list of other reasons. The most memorable cruise was by far the Housewives’ Cruise, a ladies-only lunch created by the late, great John Cigna of KDKA-Radio, which catered to women who needed a break. I ‘crashed’ the event when I disguised myself in a dress and wig for a TV story, and it was a wild ride, as you might expect.

Whether it’s the Empress, the Three Rivers Queen, the Princess, the Duchess or the Countess for a shuttle to a Pirates’ or Steelers’ game, a special occasion, an educational opportunity or just to reconnect with our waterways, I suggest that you try out the Gateway Clipper fleet. And when you’re on the dock, tell them you want to meet Aquaman.

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