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Lady of the Lake Pilot House
Boat History on Lake Chelan
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Boat History on Lake Chelan

By Roni Freund - Commercial boat travel on Lake Chelan began in 1889, when the Belle of Chelan took her maiden voyage to Stehekin. Over the next century, boats hauled passengers and supplies from one end of the lake to the other, with stops at communities and trailheads along the way. The arrival of the boats became a reason for the residents to gather and collect mail, groceries, and news of the outside world. The remote towns of Manson, Lucerne, Stehekin, and other homestead ranches along the lake relied on the boats for everything from livestock and lumber to groceries, mail, newspapers and gossip. 

In the early days, the boats we powered by firewood, and could reach a top speed of 10 mph. Lakeside was the southernmost point of the lake deep enough for a large boat to dock, until the first dams were built to raise the lake and allow boats to dock near Campbell’s Hotel

First dam at Lake Chelan

The trip to Stehekin took two days and required ten to twelve cords of wood (approximately 20-30 trees cut and chopped) each trip. The need for fuel was such that a number of settlers supported themselves and their families by helping cut and stack wood along the lakeshore so the boats could pull in and replenish their supply.

Another of the early commercial passenger ferries was the CITY OF OMAHA, built in Illinois and shipped to Lake Chelan sometime in the 1890’s. Owned by Thomas R. Gibson and operated by Howard Graham, both of Nebraska, the 34-foot wood burning vessel served the public for several years before being rechristened the MAID OF MOUNTAIN PARK and used as a family pleasure craft.

Swan (docked) and Stehekin

The first of two stern-wheelers to operate on the lake was originally built in 1888 and was used on the Columbia River until 1892 when she was cut in two and hauled over Navarre Coulee to be rebuilt and launched as QUEEN. A year later she was wrecked during a storm, and under the new ownership of Stewart Johnson and R.J. Watkins, was reconditioned for “state-of-the-art” passenger comfort, fitted with a steam engine, and redubbed THE STEHEKIN in 1894. Reportedly 72 feet long, her elegant upper deck could carry seventy-five passengers and the lower deck was designed to haul freight, livestock, equipment and other supplies needed by residents uplake.

The STEHEKIN made two round trips each week to the head of the lake, and passenger fare in 1897 was $4.00. Five stops for cord wood had to be made for the journey from Lakeside to the Stehekin Landing.

Retired from passenger service in 1904, she was converted into a barge, but later suffered the demise typical of many boats once seen on Lake Chelan. The decks were burned, and her hull was filled with rocks until she sank. 

Pictured here is the Stehekin paddling away from the dock and the Swan.

Many names of boats appear throughout the history of Lake Chelan, and many memories with them, but the most well-known of the boats to travel these waters was the LADY OF THE LAKE. The original LADY was built at Lakeside in 1900 by the Alger brothers, using windows and doors from a Puget Sound Ferry, the VASHON. Officially launched on August 25th, christening ceremonies were festive, including a social dance. Several hundred people were present when eleven-year-old Gretchen Purple broke a bottle of wine over the bow. Unfortunately, the new steamer was stuck on the shore, and had to wait until the next morning to be pulled into the water by another boat. The LADY OF THE LAKE was 113 feet long, the longest boat ever on Lake Chelan, and after the addition of upper deck cabins in 1903, she was able to carry 125 passengers. The trip to the head of the lake required eight to ten cords of wood, and many stops were made to deliver groceries and mail along the way.

With her final run in 1915 came the end of the steamboat era on the lake as petroleum powered vessels took over. Pictured: Lady of the Lake, circa 1910.

Lady of the Lake 1910

There have actually been two boats called the LADY OF THE LAKE, the second was purchased by the Lake Chelan Boat Company and moved to Chelan from Lake Roosevelt in 1944. She was retired from the Stehekin run in 1990, when the LADY EXPRESS was launched.

The iconic “Lady of the Lake” boat which evokes the most memories of locals and friends of the region got her start on a different lake. Originally the Miss Coulee, she was built by the Tuttle Brothers and began service on Lake Roosevelt in the 1940’s where she ran as a tour boat behind the Grand Coulee Dam. In 1944 she was purchased by the Lake Chelan Boat Company and moved to Chelan.

On April 9th, 1945, the “Lady of the Lake” was the center of a huge community gathering where she was christened, and began a long history of service transporting passengers to Lucerne and Stehekin, with flag stops along the way. Pictured: The Lady of the Lake at Stehekin Landing, circa 1970's. 

She was remodeled at that time, and again several years later, so she could carry 150 passengers in comfort as the flagship of the boat company, until 1976, when the Lady of the Lake II replaced her on the daily summer runs.

The Lady of the Lake was used for Charters and winter runs until late in the 1990s, when she was retired. The Lake Chelan Boat Company donated her pilot house to the Lake Chelan Historical Society, who collected donations from the community to create a display in Riverwalk Park where it can be viewed today. 

Pictured: Pilot house of the Lady of the Lake, installed at Riverwalk Park. 

Gallery of other historic boats below: