Queen II dives into the past with series of cruises
The original Queen steamboat plied the waters of the Iowa Great Lakes for nearly 90 years. Starting in 1884, the vessel was the main mode of transportation for many visitors until eventually being retired in the 1970s.
The Queen II was commissioned in 1986 and honors its predecessor by ferrying passengers on tours of West Lake Okoboji throughout the summer months.
So it was perhaps the perfect vessel by which to visit other memorable parts of the area’s past.
That’s exactly what passengers got to enjoy with the inaugural Legends Series of cruises this summer.
The process started a couple years ago with Mary Dreier fulfilling a dream of working on the Queen II.
“My great-grandfather worked on the original Queen back in the 1880s, so it’s always been near and dear to me,” Dreier said.
During the course of her work, Dreier asked Jean Ahrens, then the events manager at Arnolds Park Amusement Park, about the idea of having cruises geared toward the history of the area. And so Dreier narrated a couple cruises telling what stories she could as they meandered across the water.
“It was really fun,” Dreier said. “People were really engaged and seemed to enjoy it. And so before Jean left last winter we talked about continuing these so the process was ready to go.”
At the same time an old CD with an original narration by the late Steve Kennedy was unearthed and found to be in great condition.
Captain Steve was one of the driving forces behind getting the Queen II up and running, and had a passion for Lakes area history.
The uncovered narration was then put in play as part of a series of Steve Kennedy Memorial Cruises this summer with vintage photos to go along with the places highlighted in the narration.
“Steve was a storyteller and knew the history like no one else,” Dreier said. “And what’s been happening on the Kennedy cruises is that there is community being built. People are engaged and offering their own stories and the past is being honored and preserved. That’s what I love the most.”
Plans are already in the works to build on what’s been offered this summer.
“It’s an easy thing for us to do and people are very excited about the Steve Kennedy narration because it brings them back to when they rode the boat in the ’90s,” said Casey Schmidt, events manager at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. “They did a great job with it. I love the narration so we’ll do more dates with it available. The feedback on every single one of these nights has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The Legends Series featured Jim Koenig and Lloyd Cunningham for “Miss Thriller and the 30 Boat — Two Boats, Two Wrecks, Many Tales,” Jonathan Reed speaking about “Lost Resorts of the Iowa Great Lakes,” “A Naturalist’s View of the Lakes” with Lakeside Lab education coordinator Jane Shuttleworth, and Tom Tourville and Rebecca Peters “Remembering Okoboji’s Roof Garden Ballroom.”
It was apparent right away that the series had struck the right chords.
“I remember the next day after Jim and Lloyd — Mary walks up and talks about the passion those two gentlemen had and that they could have kept the audience for hours. The whole boat was hanging on every word,” Schmidt said.
“Those two are good friends that played off each other well. They know each other’s stories and could ask each other questions,” Dreier added. “The coolest thing for me was that families whose ancestors were involved with the wrecks were present and could add to the stories and be honored at the presentation.”
That concept continued with the second cruise as former resort owners and second and third generation operators of current vacation accommodations around the Lakes were on hand for Reed’s presentation highlighting the mom-and-pop operations of years past.
“He spoke last year and I call him our ‘Lakes area geek and guru,’” Dreier said. “He knows everything about the Lakes and if there is something he doesn’t know he will research until he finds the answer. He’s a great speaker with a knowledge and love of the way things were.”
Shuttleworth’s presentation took the talk toward nature and the Lakes’ geological and ecological history.
“She talked about the future of the Lakes and some of the threats they face and spoke to why Okoboji’s water is so clean,” Dreier said.
Tom Tourville and Rebecca Peters took the last turn with a cruise about the Roof Garden.
“Tom can probably spend an hour just talking about the acts that are playing in the Roof Garden this month, let alone anything else. His knowledge of the place is endless,” Schmidt said.
The Legends series averaged about 100 passengers, but those who missed their chance to dive deeper into Lakes history can look forward to more next summer. The Legends Series is sure to sail again.
“From the park’s perspective it’s as simple as increasing ridership,” Schmidt said. “If you walk out there on a week night at 7 p.m. there aren’t that many people, so anything we can do at the park to increase ridership will be a great benefit. Also, our motto and mantra is to create lifelong memories and the Queen is one of those pieces along with the nostalgia of the park that we have to make sure continue to thrive for generations to come.”
“I like to say that it’s not just creating memories, but remembering memories, and the continuity of those memories,” Dreier added. “There’s a spirit here that transcends everything. The energy and life on each one of these cruises is something you can’t put your fingers on, but it’s palpable. I’ve noticed a lot more interest in history in the area this summer and I like to think these cruises have had a little something to do with that.”