Faces in the crowd: What happened to Vic Murgaski’s Houseboat

Faces in the crowd: What happened to Vic Murgaski’s Houseboat
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At the end of this semester Instructor Vic Murgaski plans to retire.

While he refused to be inter-viewed for an Oracle feature, Murgaski’s contribution to the college cannot go unrecognized.

The following story is from a 15th anniversary Centinel published in 1980.

The Oracle staff wishes Murgaski good luck and happiness in retirement and we hope this story will bring back a fond memory.

The infamous Houseboat attracted those who liked the pursuit of the unusual, says the project’s patron saint, Victor Murgaski, Centennial College’s Creative Arts instructor.

The plan to turn a four ton streetcar into a house boat named Diogenes II struck many people as more than unusual. It seemed as crazy as trying to float a rock.But the earl 70s were a time of prosperity, The Greening of America and moon landings. The dividing line between the possible and the impossible seemed to be drawn almost at random.

If anything was possible, Murgaski and his Ideas of Science class could certainly make a streetcar float

“Learning should open the imagination and make fantasies into realities,” he says, lifting his shaggy eyebrows for emphasis.

Murgaski opened up a flood of interest and controversy that lasted years after the Houseboat was sold in 1978. “The first thing graduates who come back to see me ask is ‘What happened to the Houseboat?’ Then, I tell them the sad tale.”

The scheme came out of brainstorming sessions between Murgaski and his students. “There was a real camaraderie between faculty and students in those days.”

In 1971, they presented the idea to the newly appointed President of Centennial College, Doug Light, who gave his approval and some money from thePresidenf s special projects fund.

“He took a personal interest in the project and turned up at most of the Houseboat Committee meetings. For this, we almost awarded him the Committee’s Certificate of Houseboat Technology,” Murgaski said. The committee, led by a student, or-dered curved sheets of metal and spent the summer welding them into an upside-down hull in the middle of the south parking lot of the Warden Woods Campus.

Faced with the bold challenge of floating a streetcar, the fact that the project blocked fire and garbage access seemed a very mundane complaint — at the time.

When the students had finished the hull, a crane was hired to turn it over. “That was the big crunch,”Murgaski said. Theoperator didn’t tie up the hull correctly, so when he lifted it, the hull slipped and fell on its corner.

“The hull was so twisted we had to spend the next couple of weeks straighten-ing it out with special jacks,” Murgaski recalls.

Meanwhile, the Committee had purchased an old streetcar from the Toronto Transit Commission for $300 without the wheels, which cost an extra $100. The students stripped it down, removing the seats, undercarriage and the back. A crane was used to turn over the hull and put the streetcar on top. Many thought the project was on the verge of completion.

Certainly, the outside didn’t change much after the Fall of 1972. It was now a 38-foot rounded barge with a raised bow and a shell of a streetcar for a cabin.

Seen this way, it seemed only logical that it would float Anything will float if the barge underneath it is big enough. Ironically, the controversial choice of a streetcar for the cabin was made “for the sake of expediency so we wouldn’t have to build and design our own cabin,” Murgaski said. But a streetcar on the waves was a bit much for many people. “It’s interesting that in spite of conclusive mathematical evidence, most people took an ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ attitude.”
The committee still needed money. They appealed to the President, the Student Association and the general public.

Then, THE ANSWER appeared.

It was daring, imaginative and exciting. Charge admission to an evening of music, gambling and entertainment. Better still, call it Monte Carlo Night and invite the ambassador from Monacco to draw the crowds.

“I built rails to hold back the 15,000 people who were supposed to show up,” Murgaski said, but only 1,500 did and the ambassador wasn’t one of them. The show lost $10,000.

“It was an experience in negative learning,” Murgaski said laconically. He pushes back on his castor chair (but he can’t go anywhere because of the mounds of trophies, books and assorted treasures that cover nearly every inch of his office floor).

Houseboat fever was catching on, both ins ide and outside the College with a stream of jokes, articles, plays and even poems. Former English instructor Harry Howith wrote a number of unsigned poems about the houseboat, and there were two plays written on the Houseboat story.

But the best piece of theatre was reputed ‘ to be when Centennial’s Vice-President Pat Ellwood did a skit in which he played Queen Elizabeth christening the Diogenes II.

“The christening skit came complete with the high-pitched English accent and the swing of the champagne bottle. Vic Murgaski will never forget it as long as he lives,” Murgaski said.

A stream of articles came out in the newspspers with the wire services giving Centennial world-wide coverage. “It was very cheap publicity and, for the most part, was very favourable – a genuine ‘Oh, Wow!’ response.”

Murgaski pauses, reaches into his cluttered desk and pulls out a stapler. He bends over and staples up the sagging hem of his pants.

Work continued on the Houseboat. The hull was welded on the inside, checked and rewelded. Empty oil drums were fastened insidefhe hull for extra safety and bouyancy.

A diesel engine was installed to propel the craft. “We got a deal on it, but actually I preferred it because diesel is much safer than gasoline.”

Murgaski feels the Houseboat helped shift some of the aggressive feeling that many students had toward society in the ‘early 70s.

“In those days, a lot of students resented authority of any kind. I think the Houseboat helped channel those feelings constructively.”

Murgaski adds with pride that there wasn’t one major accident in the seven years of working on the Houseboat. Mechanical Engineering students planned the operation of the vehicle, Electronics students planned the navigation equipment and Hospitality students planned the accommodation for the future crew.

Everybody planned the trips they would take.

The Houseboat would go through the Trent Canal. It would search for treasure at the bottom of Lake Erie. It would cross the Atlantic.

It would travel up the Rhine River giving performances of Canadian culture wherever it stopped. “We wanted to let children on for free and charge the parents to get them back,” Murgaski joked.

High adventure could be theirs, just for a few more dollars, a mere $5,000 for lighting, navigation and life-saving equipment.

Even though each year a new Houseboat Committee started out with fresh enthusiasm, the slowness of the work was disheartening.

Students would come in after the pub night at Warden Woods and make a complete mess. “We found beer bottles, cigarette butts and all sorts of unmentionables,” Murgaski remembered.

The writing was on the wall when the Health Department became concerned, the Fire Marshal’s office wanted it out of the fire lanes and then money ran out.

The new mood of austerity in the country and in the education system had drawn the line between the possible and the impossible much more firmly than in 1971.

In late 1976, in one of his last acts as head of Centennial, President Light wrote: “I believe I have been more than reasonable about the amount of time allowed for this project.” After six years, he ordered that the Houseboat be sold.
Not even a mock effort to move the Houseboat to Progress campus by turning it into a streetcar could save it. By July 1978 it was gone.

“The Houseboat would have floated when it was sold, but it couldn’t have gone on long trips. Some people said we proved our point just by building it. Floating it wasn’t important,” Murgaski said.

After years of effort and spending $ 1,300 of his own money, the optimist Murgaski said ia ao it again it l was w years younger. With the experience I have now, it would be done right.”

He paused and said, “I might not try to conquer the water like last time though. I’d go for the ionosphere instead – with a rocket!”

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