Irene Hodgeden, christened Mary Irene, was born in Aitkin in 1892. The daughter of Samuel and Catherine Hodgeden, her high school yearbook called her the “prettiest girl in town.”
Aitkinites might already be familiar with the history of the Hodgeden family. The Aitkin Opera House and the Butler Building, originally the Hodgeden/McDonald building were the dreams of her parents. Samuel and partner James McDonald started their “pioneer shopping mall” which included a mercantile, bank, bathhouse, barber shop, hardware store, feed warehouse, and buggy/wagon shop.
Catherine Hodgeden was a trailblazer in arts and culture in the area, and influenced her husband to start the opera house, perhaps also in support of their daughter, a talented local actress.
While Irene Hodgeden never pursued a professional acting career, she did become a successful businesswoman. Taking over all her father’s business interests, she kept them active and prosperous until shortages from WWII negatively impacted the businesses.
Irene Hodgeden had one other claim to fame. In the era of steamboat travel along the Upper Mississippi, she had a steamboat named in her honor, the only local woman to receive such an honor.
The steamer Irene had several incarnations. The first version, 1898, ran between Grand Rapids and Brainerd, hauling both freight and passengers. It burned soon after being built. The second Irene was built later that year. It burned in 1901 near the Aitkin Mississippi River swing bridge. The captain, asleep in the pilot house, and one crewmember, were injured in this fire.
Irene was rebuilt once more and continued service (1902-1909) until its smaller size became an issue. This incarnation sank at the Verdon Landing from the weight of overloading, in 1908. It was raised out of the water and continued routes until sinking a second time at the Aitkin dock. It was then dismantled, but parts were used in the creation of the steamboat Lee, allowing the Irene to live on.
Interestingly, Irene had a feature unique to this steamer. Two large searchlights, like those once used aboard steam trains. Few steamers ran at night between Aitkin, Brainerd and Grand Rapids, especially along the Mississippi. The shallower depth, narrow channel, and multiple curves in the river made travel at night extremely hazardous.
Like many steamboats of its time, we remember Irene now only in old photographs and artworks inspired by steamboat history. Come visit a replica of the Irene at the ACHS and learn more about steamboats and other fun history topics.
Heidi Gould is the administrator of the Atkin County Historical Society.