The McDonald’s Paddleboat Was a Fast Food Trendsetter. Then It Disappeared

The world’s first floating McDonald’s got off to an ominous start. Decades later, it simply vanished.

byJames Gilboy|
McDonald's paddleboat-themed restaurant in St. Louis, MO
McDonald's via Antique Roots on eBay
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Themed restaurants are always a bit of a gamble. When the point is the decor, you can't help worrying that food comes second. Maybe that's why themed joints from Casa Bonita to the Rainforest Cafe and McDonald's McTrain haven't always been able to stay afloat. Maybe literally in the case of the paddleboat McDonald's of St. Louis, MO, which vanished decades ago. Perhaps it found a new life—or maybe the bad omen at its christening shouldn't have been ignored.

Opened March 11, 1980 according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the McPaddleboat (as I'll unofficially call it) was the world's first floating McDonald's restaurant. McDonald's had hoped to open a franchise in the museum under the nearby Gateway Arch, but the city wasn't having it. Instead, McD's turned its attention to the riverfront, where restaurant tickets averaged a then-pricey $6 a head (almost $24 in 2023). The restaurant got a permit, bought a watercraft, and signed a local franchisee, sending the McPaddleboat on its merry way.

I keep calling it that, but this restaurant wasn't technically a boat. It was an up-fitted cement barge with a structure reminiscent of an 1880s-style paddleboat, measuring 185 feet long, 50 feet high, and more than 700 tons. The interior was styled accordingly with 19th-century paintings and murals, seating 134 indoors and 200 outside on benches.

The crew was enormous at 200-strong, and they all had uniforms unique to the location. (They can be seen in the archived newscast below.) The franchise's owner, dentist Dr. Benjamin H. Davis Sr., even got an admiral's outfit—though no photos of his getup seem to survive. In contrast with the McTrain, there doesn't seem to be any indication that the McPaddleboat had its own special menu.

For decades, the McPaddleboat served tourists and locals alike. They recall the establishment smelling like a mix of diesel, fryer grease, and beached catfish according to Riverfront Times. Those seemed not to matter, as living in a landlocked state, a McD's on a barge was the closest most kids growing up in '80s St. Louis could get to dining on a yacht.

"I remember taking my parents to the floating McDonald's when they came to visit me from upstate New York," recalled Cameron Collins, author of "Lost Treasures of St. Louis," to Riverfront Times. "My dad had never seen the Mississippi up close and personal, and tried to wade in it. I have memories of eating a Big Mac and taking in the Arch and hearing my mom yell at my dad, 'Peter! Get away from the edge!'"

Inside the paddleboat-themed McDonald's in St. Louis, MO. McDonald's via Restaurant-ing Through History

Apparently, the concept was successful enough to be worth copying. A second floating McD's was opened in Vancouver in 1986, and an executive told media at the time that a Hong Kong franchisee had also asked to license the idea. Perhaps they were inspired by the then-new tourist destination Jumbo Kingdom. More locally, a floating Burger King sprang up nearby, but it was reportedly washed away and destroyed in a 1993 flood.

But while this floating McDonald's may have weathered a storm its copycat didn't, any seaman who attended the McPaddleboat's christening would've felt uneasy about the craft. St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that breaking the champagne bottle on its bow took two tries—a bad omen in seagoing culture. Seaworthy the McPaddleboat may not have been, but a sailor would be worried about the barge going under. As it turned out, their fears would've been justified.

McDonald's paddleboat in St. Louis, MO. Art Grossman via Root Rock Farm on eBay

On November 7, 2000, the St. Louis Business Journal reported the McPaddleboat had closed the day prior due to problems with the restaurant's "structure." McDonald's told the outlet the barge was "in need of extensive renovation, which is financially not justifiable at the present." That justification never came around, and the McPaddleboat vanished from the historical record thereafter. What happened from there to its (maybe leaky) husk doesn't seem to have been documented.

Maybe it met a similar fate to the Vancouver franchise that copied it, the McBarge, which went bust and was towed away in 1991 to an inlet where it has rotted since. That's a more fantastic end than the McPaddleboat likely met; it was probably stripped back down to a barge again, and then either returned to service or scrapped.

Today, the McPaddleboat seems to live on only in scans of official postcards, likely sold on board the restaurant itself. Wish you were here, McPaddleboat.

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: james@thedrive.com

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