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Okoboji's Maritime Museum director Mary Kennedy poses behind one of the many examples of vintage watercraft on display at the facility in Arnolds Park. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

Boats have storied histories: Queen's presence on Iowa Great Lakes dates back to 1884

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ARNOLDS PARK, Iowa -- For 89 years, the original steamboat Queen traversed the waters of West Okoboji, hauling lumber and mail, but mostly people, from point to point around the lake.

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She arrived back in 1884 as a transport vessel, according to Mary Kennedy, curator of the Great Lakes Maritime Museum. Originally launched on Spirit Lake, she was moved to West Lake Okoboji toward the end of the 19th century because there had been a drought and people feared Spirit Lake was drying up.

By the time the steamboat was moved, the area was already becoming a destination for people to both live and visit.

"We had an Indian massacre here in 1857 and, at that time, it was a devastating, awful thing," Kennedy said. "But, it also drew attention to our area."

W.B. Arnold was one of the early homesteaders on the lake. He built the first water park slide in West Lake Okoboji, which later developed into the Arnolds Park Amusement Park that entertains people yet today.

Still, it is the Queen that played a major role in the development around the Iowa Great Lakes.

"There were many depots around our lake, and the steamboats would take the people where they needed to go," said Kennedy. "If people were on a dock somewhere, they'd wave their little white towel and the Queen would come and pick them up."

The steamboat ran seven days a week, from as early as it could after the spring thaw until late into the fall.

"When she first came, she only had one floor," Kennedy said. "They added a second level later on."

In 1973, the Queen left the waters of West Okoboji after its owner sold the steamboat to Adventureland in Des Moines, Iowa.

"The people of the area were very, very sad to see it go," said Kennedy. "They tried to stop it -- they tried to get an injunction."

Their attempts were futile, however, and the Queen ended up on display in a pond at Adventureland for several years until it fell into disrepair and was removed.

After the Queen, West Lake Okoboji became home to the Empress, which had a shortlived stint on the lake. It left in 1983, and the people were suddenly without a large excursion boat.

A vision

After that first summer without a tour boat operating on West Lake Okoboji, Tom Kuhlman, then executive vice president of the local Chamber of Commerce, had an idea.

He dreamed of bringing an excursion boat back to the lake, and he shared that dream with his neighbors -- Steve and Mary Kennedy.

"They got others together and they formed the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum," said Kennedy, adding that they studied the feasibility of getting a new boat and worked on fundraising ideas.

After just two years, the group raised enough money to purchase the hull from a company in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When the hull arrived in Okoboji, the super structure was constructed and the boat was completed in time for its maiden voyage on June 21, 1986.

"It was a very exciting day," recalled Kennedy. "We had a very rainy spring and early summer. When June 21 came, we were ready, but we were barely ready."

Kennedy's late husband Steve was the first captain of the Queen II. In fact, he was the only captain that first summer.

"His only experience was running a small wooden runaround, called a Haifer, on the lake," she said.

In comparison, the Queen II was 75 feet long, 18 feet wide and could transport up to 200 people.

"The Queen II was built to be approximately the same size as the original Queen," said Kennedy. "It's three feet wider, and that's for stability."

The Queen II has been a fixture on West Lake Okoboji every summer since its maiden voyage. Tours begin each year in May and continue through part of September. In the height of the summer tourist season, the excursion boat offers daily tours of approximately 75 minutes in length.

The tours are narrated, sometimes by the captain on board and sometimes by recordings created when Steve Kennedy captained the boat. Steve died eight years ago after a two-year battle with cancer.

"People learn about Arnolds Park -- some of the structures around the lake like Gull Point State Park," said Kennedy. Other stories shared by the captains include swimming and fishing in the olden days, and the fishing that is done today in the Great Lakes.

"They talk about wave runners and the sailboats ... and they talk about current activities in the area," she added.

In addition to tours, the Queen II is available for reservations for private parties and even weddings and receptions.

"They have quite a few weddings on the Queen, and church services as well," Kennedy said.

When the Queen II was purchased with the funds raised in the community, it was purchased under Historic Arnolds Park, Inc. (HAPI). Today, the entire complex -- from the shops to the amusement park and the Great Lakes Maritime Museum -- is owned by HAPI.

Sharing the story

When Tom Kuhlman and Steve Kennedy first began to round up support and money for the Queen II, they did so in the name of the Great Lakes Maritime Museum. It wasn't long after that they realized they needed to have an actual place that people could visit.

The first museum opened in 1991 on the lakefront.

Although cramped for space in those early years, it wasn't until a diver discovered a sunken 1939 Chris-Craft boat in 65 feet of water in West Lake Okoboji and donated it to the museum in 1996 that they realized they needed a bigger place.

"That was a huge draw," said Kennedy of the boat that is known as the "Number Thirty Boat" because the number 30 is painted on it.

"People were coming from everywhere to see it," she added.

The museum eventually opened in its new location in 1999 inside the Okoboji Spirit Center. The large, yellow building near the entrance to the Arnolds Park Amusement Park houses not only the maritime museum, but the Chamber of Commerce, Iowa Visitors Center and the Okoboji Foundation as well.

The Great Lakes Maritime Museum fills a majority of the space, however, with its 6,000-square-foot exhibit hall.

"The main focus is the boats," said Kennedy, adding that there are some Hafercraft boats on display that were actually built in Spirit Lake.

Other items visitors can view are a replica boathouse that was once on East Lake Okoboji, a miniature version of the Okoboji store that was built in 1884, and a display of bison bones found in the lake over the years.

"Another popular exhibit is our amusement park relics, like the bumper cars," said Kennedy. "We have a really fun old swimming suit collection, and we do have a section designated to the steamboats."

The museum also includes a theater that shows videos on the history of the area.

The Maritime Museum opens at 10 a.m. each day, Monday through Friday during off-season, and daily during the summer.

For more specific hours or additional information, visit www.arnoldspark.com.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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