EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - A remnant of the country's river-based transport history, the old paddle-wheel steamer Belle Miracle Ann has found an unlikely home in the back bays of Egg Harbor Township.
That the vessel is still around today is because of two dreamers who worked to restore the vessel first launched at the Howard Boat Yards in Jeffersonville, Ind., in 1925.
Hosrof "Sonny" Bagraduni was an Armenian immigrant who had a vision for both the steamer and his community when he brought the vessel to West Atlantic City in 2005. He renamed it the Tarlan Rose - after his grandmother and mother - and started calling himself "Capt. Mark Twain."
Bagraduni planned to fix up the boat and run leisure cruises on Lakes Bay, but his dream "became mired in red tape." He died in 2008 without ever achieving it.
Now, Leonard Dagit Jr., a developer and 20-year resident of the township, has set his sights on a similar goal: restoring the steamer and opening it as an event venue or extension of his Anchorage Poynte restaurant. Photos of the complicated move, completed in February 2010 after he purchased the boat from Bagraduni's heirs, line the walls of his restaurant.
"It's the greatest eye-catcher you could put out there," Dagit said. "And the idea of a river boat blends well with the barbecue theme, the ambiance."
In the summer, Dagit said, it's not unusual to have several people stop each day just to take a look at the vessel, with its red-and-blue trim and twin crown-topped smokestacks. While it looks impressive from the road, he said several years of neglect mean the river boat needs a substantial amount of work to make her seaworthy again.
Dagit also faces one of the problems that sank Bagraduni's dreams: the shallowness of the bay.
"It sits on the bottom at low tide, but it floats rather nicely when the tide's in," he said.
The last dream of a dying dreamer
Bagraduni's friends remember him as a gregarious man. He never said much about his past, but he always had a new dream for the future. A lifelong gambler, Bagraduni was always willing to take a risk on a new idea.
"Sonny would come to my front porch, always telling me about his new troubles and his latest idea," said Jake Glassey, a former mayor of the township who lived near Bagraduni in West Atlantic City. "And he'd run with his choke out with that (idea) for a while."
His dreams included a trolley to bus tourists through Atlantic City and the surrounding beach towns and a canopy over a portion of the Atlantic City Boardwalk to display light shows, like Fremont Street in Las Vegas. Every time he traveled, he would return with new ideas, Glassey said.
"Unfortunately, you run into a lot of things down here," he said. "The bureaucracy in New Jersey - it takes a long time to do them. And, like a lot of business owners, he got frustrated."
But not all of Bagraduni's dreams were crushed by bureaucracy.
In the 1970s, he built a thriving charter bus company, transporting gamblers to the new casinos. Then, in the early 1980s, Glassey said Bagraduni set his sights on a dilapidated gas station in the crime-ridden community of West Atlantic City.
To the Armenian-born entrepreneur, it seemed like the perfect location for a "flagship hotel." At the time, Glassey said, most of the other businesses along that stretch of the Black Horse Pike were cheap motels.
After several years spent securing financing and permits - during which time Bagraduni lived with his aging mother in a modular home behind the gas station - the Hampton Inn was built.
But Bagraduni wanted a river boat.
"He basically searched all over for a river boat," said longtime Hampton Inn front desk employee Luis Toro.
No one's sure how the second steamer - it followed a previous steamer that was too old and dilapidated for Bagraduni to fix - entered the picture. But when it did, Toro said it renewed his boss' passion.
"His idea was, you have yourself a little party in there, feeling you were on a cruise," he said.
Glassey said Bagraduni was able to fix it up and operate the paddle wheel, but again he ran into a harsh reality.
"Lakes Bay is shallow," said Glassey. "You can only run it at high tide, so that limits (excursions) to four hours and it changes every day."
With tours now impractical, Glassey said the unflappable Bagraduni refocused his attention on creating a "destination nowhere," a place for bachelor parties, bar mitzvahs and wedding receptions.
But that idea, which Bagraduni spoke of widely, attracted the attention of state regulators.
"‘Destination nowhere' became mired in red tape," Glassey said.
At that point, Glassey said, Bagraduni made the Tarlan Rose his own private getaway for the days when managing the hotel and caring for his sick mother became too stressful.
"We'd sit in the wheel house or go to the upper deck in the sun, throw a crab trap out and sit there and talk and have a soda," Glassey said. "We did that many times. He was more than happy doing that."
A few years ago, after the death of his mother, Bagraduni fell ill. While he kept his sickness private, it was obvious to his friends that the unstoppable dreamer, at age 76, was slowing down. Toro said Bagraduni had cirrhosis of the liver.
"He slowly became sicker and sicker," Glassey said. "And one day I went down to the hospital to see him, and he passed away."
New life for the ship of dreams
Around the same time Bagraduni was rekindling his dream of owning a working paddle-wheel steamer, Dagit was watching his own dreams evaporate in front of his eyes.
In 2003, the then 43-year-old Dagit and his brother, John, purchased about 200 acres of land in Anchorage Point, the community he had lived in for 13 years. On the land, they planned to build two 5,000-square-foot duplexes with stunning views across the marshland.
After that proposal drew the ire of nearby residents and was rejected by the township Zoning Board, the brothers regrouped and came back in 2006 with a plan to use the land for a 111-slip marina. At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer.
The Egg Harbor Township Planning Board approved the marina and yacht club, but their decision was overturned two years later when a lawsuit filed by several residents made it to Superior Court.
"We tried to develop residentially, and then we decided to develop a marina," said Dagit. "The neighbors opposed that, too, so I opened a barbecue."
These days, Dagit is preoccupied by the Belle Miracle Ann. He said large sections of structural steel are in disrepair, the iron railings are starting to rust and, most importantly, there is engine and paddle-wheel work to be done. He also needs to inspect the condition of the hull beneath the water line.
"We're trying to make the decision whether we actually want the boat to run again," he said.
Last year, Dagit renovated the interior of the ship and repainted the exterior in time for his 50th birthday party.
"She looks gorgeous at night," he said. "We had a couple hundred people for that and had an absolute ball."
The occasion gave just an indication of the ship's potential as either an event venue or an extension of the restaurant, Dagit said.
"It has intrinsic value," he said. "I'm predisposed to renovate something like this, just for the historic value, but I also know it's the type of project I could drop $100,000 into and not see it."
For now, Dagit said he's continued to make repairs. He hopes to bring in welders to make repairs to the railings next. For the more expensive repairs, he said he's looking into grants that could defray the costs.
Having long thought the Tarlan Rose had been taken to "Pennsylvania somewhere," Toro said he was relieved to hear that it was still around and being looked after.
"I'll have to drive past it tonight on my way home," he said.
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