By the late 1880’s, news of the spectacular beauty and the lure of wealth in precious metals began to draw prospectors and sightseers alike to the Lake Chelan Valley. The need for public transportation to the remote upper lake areas became evident, and THE BELLE OF CHELAN was put into service in 1889 as the first commercial passenger vessel on the lake. Built in Lakeside by Charles Follett, and operated with his partner William Goggins, the BELLE was to become the first of a long list of commercial and pleasure craft to ply the waters of Lake Chelan. A short time after her first voyage, she was purchased by the Lake Chelan Railway and Navigation Company, which would become the present day Lake Chelan Boat Company.
The BELLE was powered by firewood, as were most of the early vessels, and could reach a top speed of about 10 mph. The trip from Chelan to Stehekin took two days and required ten to twelve cords of wood 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 re-christened the MAID OF MOUNTAIN PARK and used as a family pleasure craft.
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.
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.
There have actually been two boats called the LADY OF THE LAKE, the second was purchased by the 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.