River Santa gets loose on 50th anniversaryPublished 4:42pm Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Santa Claus was nearly on the loose in the St. Joseph River Tuesday morning — if only for a few hours.
Passersby could be seen taking curious looks at the floating Christmas display, which was facing the wrong way and lodged against the river’s east bank north of the Broadway Street bridge in Niles.
Mike Peters, a caretaker of the river Santa, got the distress call from a concerned woman at around 8:30 a.m.
“She said, ‘Santa’s in trouble and needs help,’” said Peters, owner of East Main Gardens in Niles. “That’s the great thing about this town. People keep an eye out.”
Peters and his friend, Larry Pickles, boated out to Santa’s pontoon just before 11 a.m. and re-attached a loose cable. Pretty soon Santa was back where he belonged: facing south and floating in the middle of the river, just north of the Broadway bridge.
“I don’t think it’s going anywhere now,” he said. “If that thing goes, you have to catch it before it gets too far — we’ve have instances where we’ve caught it by the railroad trestle.”
River Santa turns 50
Santa was first placed in the river in 1962, where it could be seen by patients in the children’s wing of Pawating Hospital (now Lakeland Hospital), which overlooked the river.
It was put there by Peters’ father, the late Roy Peters, with the help of Pete Williams, Willy Huss and Hank Hansen.
“They are the ones that really got this thing together,” Peters said. “Their intention was to put it out there so the kids could look out and see that in the river.”
The original river Santa featured a lighted sleigh with two reindeer pulling a raft on which stood a 20- to 30-foot tree.
Today, the float features a smaller tree, Santa, sleigh and five reindeer surrounded by a white picket fence — all on a single lighted pontoon.
Mike Peters, Tom Bonner and Larry Pickles — along with several others volunteers — have been in charge of the Santa display for the past several years.
The display sits on a 20-foot pontoon, which is held in place by two cables tied to the Broadway bridge. A waterproof electric cable allows the display to light up at night.
Mike Peters said placing the river Santa has become a tradition the city looks forward to every year.
“It’s amazing how many people see me or call here and ask if we are doing Santa again this year… It’s something we will continue to do as long as possible,” he said.