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The Big Boats on Lake Bemidji

The “Bemidji Belle,” a 66-foot stern-wheeler, had a capacity of 125 persons. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
“The City of Bemidji” boat during an excursion part on the River East of Lake Bemidji in 1907. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

BEMIDJI — Boating on the lakes and rivers in Beltrami County goes back well before our recorded history of the area.

Anishinaabe people used canoes to gather wild rice; voyageurs used larger canoes paddled by crews of eight; and explorers and fur traders relied on the waterways to facilitate their work. As loggers and settlers moved into the area, larger boats became common sights on Red Lake and Lake Bemidji and even on smaller lakes such as Turtle River Lake, where a steamboat, in the early 1900s moved logs and carried passengers across the lake.

The archives of the Beltrami County Historical Society include some interesting accounts of boating adventures, as well as mishaps, some tragic. A few passenger boats on Lake Bemidji between 1898 and the 1950s have especially interesting stories.

The 'big boats'

The first "big boat" of significance was the Ida, a steam-powered paddle-wheeler built by Carl Carlson, a local blacksmith. It launched in Lake Bemidji in the spring of 1898 and served for 20 years as a cargo boat, log boomer, and recreational boat that could hold 200 passengers.

Passenger boats have played an interesting and sometimes tragic part in the history of Beltrami County. One account of The Shadow (which appeared in Pioneer on May 25, 1901) detailed an event that occurred on the evening of May 17, 1901, during a celebration of Norway's Independence Day. With plans of a reenactment of sorts, the boat left shore loaded with fireworks and, contrary to orders, 24 passengers, most of whom were young boys. A "fort" anchored in the lake just east of Eighth Street was the target of a staged attack. Rockets were fired from The Shadow. Somehow, fireworks on board the boat were ignited and started to explode. The clothing of passengers caught fire; some jumped into the lake. The accident resulted in the deaths of four people: Joe Michaud, Richard Zacharias, and Fred Driver drowned, and Fred McCauley, age 12, died from the burns he suffered.

A fire aboard The City of Bemidji five years later could have been equally tragic, but life preservers, quick reaction, and luck saved all 20 passengers. The boat had been servicing cottages around the lake. On the day of the near tragedy, the engine caught fire. Capt. William McLachlin immediately steered the boat toward Diamond Point. Although the fire spread quickly, the passengers were close to shore when their panic to disembark caused the railing to break and several plunged into the water. All had safely escaped the boat before the boat's air tank exploded. No one was injured, but Capt. McLachlin pledged, "I am through with the boat business. I will not build another boat."

The Belle

Perhaps the most elaborate recreational boat on Lake Bemidji was the Bemidji Belle, a 66-foot stern-wheeler that launched in May 1953 from the dock by the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues. Owner Don Holmes, proprietor of Don's Repair Service located at Fourth and Irvine, also owned the Paul Bunyan Amusement Park and had operated a smaller boat, Dixie Belle, in 1952. That 28-passenger boat could be chartered for recreation and was also frequently chartered by local churches for prayer meetings.

Holmes' Bemidji Belle was more than twice the size of the Dixie and had a capacity of 125 persons. It had an enclosed deck as well as two open decks for dancing, a cabin that seated 100, a lunch counter, snacks, and a power plant to allow for the use of electrical appliances. Music was supplied by an on-board juke box or by live musicians. Varnished knotty pine and round-topped windows added to its luxury, and instead of a noisy steam engine, it boasted a quiet gasoline engine. The boat floated on 124 sealed compartments and advertised that it was "virtually unsinkable."

The Bemidji Belle launched with a full ceremony including the cracking of a bottle of champagne against the hull. First Lutheran Church was the first charter customer and sponsored an on-board pancake dinner. The Belle's first big excursion the next day featured live music by Joe Plumer and his orchestra.

The Bemidji Belle operated on the lake until 1973. In 1987, a factory-built Bemidji Belle launched on Lake Bemidji but operated for only two years.

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