It was a sight to see in May 1973. Cars dodging a massive excursion boat traveling down the highway. The Queen, as she was known, was making the journey from West Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa to her new home, Adventureland. The Altoona theme park was set to open the next year, featuring various lands with themes based on Iowa’s past. The Queen would be one of the headlining attractions in the River City section, reminiscent of Meredith Wilson's Music Man. She made regular trips on the 17-acre Queen's Lake every day, encircling Fort Wilderness Island and the Indian Village.
There may not be a boat in the state of Iowa more well-known or beloved than the Queen. The “Flagship of the Iowa Navy” was a staple of West Lake Okoboji for more than half a century.
Built in 1884 by the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Co, the Queen was originally launched on Spirit Lake by the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railway. Railroads used steamer boats like the Queen to transport people from the rail terminal. At the time, there were few roads in the area, so it was easier to move people over the water. For more than 15 years, the Queen called Spirit Lake home.
However, a drought in 1901 caused the water level on Spirit Lake to drop to a level that the Queen could not be used. The railroad company decided to sell the Queen, and it was moved to West Lake Okoboji. The Queen continued to operate, transporting people from different points around the lake.
At one time, the Queen was one of many steamers transporting people across the Iowa Great Lakes. Anyone wanting a ride on one of the boats just needed to wave a towel or white flag to let the boat’s captain know to stop at their dock. The Okoboji, a similar design to the Queen, ran until 1922. Two smaller steamers, the Des Moines and the Sioux City, were retired in the 1930s.
As roads in the area improved, and there was less of a need to transport people across the lake, the Queen became an excursion boat. People would pay for an hour-and-a-half-long tour of West Lake Okoboji on the Queen. It was a step back in time on the historic boat. However, a larger modern excursion boat called the Empress took the place of the Queen.
At the same time that the Empress arrived on West Lake Okoboji, businessman Jack Krantz was planning to build a new theme park in Altoona, just outside of Des Moines. Krantz’s plan was for a park with an Iowa theme, showcasing Iowa businesses and industries, as well as an educational facility.
"We hope to attract people nationwide. We investigated the recreational facilities across the country and decided to build one here in Iowa. We hope it will be a big boost to the state. It will definitely be in the class of Disneyland and Six Flags Over Texas," Krantz told the Quad City Times in 1971.
He told the paper that early plans called for dividing the park into four sections. A Main Street section at the front of the park with dozens of shops. An “Adventure” section would have attractions such as a simulated trip to Iowa coal mines, a pirate ship, and jungle trips. There would also be a kiddie section with animated Mother Goose figures, and a fourth section to feature Iowa manufacturers.
With a heavy influence by Disney, Krantz wanted the park to have a boat ride similar to Disneyland’s Mark Twain Steamboat. The Queen, being such an iconic part of the Iowa Great Lakes, fit in perfectly with the vision Krantz had for the park. The Queen had been for sale for several years, but no one in the lakes area stepped up to purchase it and keep it in the area. That’s when Krantz stepped in, hoping to keep the historic boat in Iowa, and bought the Queen for $33,000 in early 1973.
After news of Krantz’s purchase spread, many wondered how the massive boat would be transported across the state. Krantz told the Des Moines Tribune in 1973 that the boat would be moved by truck “as soon as possible and depending on permission from the state highway commission.”
The boat and the seven-axle truck-trailer rig had a combined weight of 50 tons, nearly 13 tons over Iowa's highway weight limit. House mover Douglas Forbes from Harris, Iowa was hired to move the Queen on his flatbed truck trailer. The permit to move the boat was granted by the Iowa Highway Commission on Wednesday, May 16, 1973, and within a week, the 100,000-pound steamship started the two-day nearly 200-mile voyage across Iowa.
All five commission members agreed to allow Adventureland to move the Queen across Iowa roads. The Des Moines Tribune reported that although commissioner Jules Busker of Sioux City said that he feared the possibility of “seagoing tugs traveling down our highways.” He said that he approved the move because the Queen was a part of Iowa’s heritage.
At 7:25 a.m. on Tuesday, May 22, 1973, the Queen left the shores of West Lake Okoboji for the last time. The trailer took up more than half of the highway at times, traveling 5-15 miles per hour. People pulled over and drove to country crossroads to watch the massive boat travel down the highway. The Queen was escorted like royalty with law enforcement and highway commission leading the way.
The route was along primary highways, following Iowa Highway 9 to Iowa Highway 32. The Queen then headed south to U.S. Highway 71 to Spencer, where it turned east on U.S. Highway 18. The Queen then moved along U.S. 18 to Iowa Highway 17 west of Britt, then south on Iowa 17 to Iowa Highway 3. Then east to U.S. Highway 69 in Wright County. From there it continued south on U.S. Highway 69 through Ames and Ankeny before taking county roads to Altoona.
People stopped what they were doing to watch the progress. Coffee drinkers at the Spot Cafe in Milford carried their coffee outside to watch the Queen go by. Townspeople in other communities that the boat traveled by halted daily activities to come out and admire or honor the famous boat.
''In a couple of places, the mayor of the town came out and held a little ceremony," Dennis Ehlert, director of traffic weight operations for the state highway commission told the Des Moines Register.
The trip would cost Krantz about $4,000 and he estimated at the time that more than $30,000 would go into refurbishing the boat and making it ready for excursions at Adventureland.
A man-made “lake” was constructed at Adventureland with an underwater track for the Queen to travel on. The Queen would travel in a loop around an island. However, not long after opening, there were problems with the Queen traveling along the track. Since the boat was not built to run along a track, and due to its age, the Queen was retired and became a floating attraction.
"It was not a practical ride," Krantz told the Des Moines Register in September 1979. A host of mechanical problems plagued the renovated Queen at Adventureland. Among the issues included an aged charcoal steel hull that could be patched, but not welded. That meant that she was no longer lake worthy.
In 1976, the Queen was moved to a corner of the lake, and new paddlewheel boats were eventually brought in to travel along the underwater track. The Queen sat near Sheriff Sam’s Saloon for a few years while Krantz hoped to give the boat the renovation it deserved.
Following the 1979 season, the Queen was moved back to her dock in River City and about $10,000 worth of painting, polishing, and sanding was done to refurbish the aging boat, transforming it into a stationary "walk-through attraction." A Dixieland band was also added to provide entertainment on the boat.
"That boat is better known than any in the state of Iowa,” Krantz told the Register. “We can assure the people that come next spring, they're going to see the prettiest Queen they ever saw."
In 1985, the Queen was stripped down to the deck for a refurbishment. Unfortunately, the Queen was no longer in seaworthy shape and sank.
Today, guests can still visit the dock where the Queen called home, and see the pilings she was anchored to, just behind the Funnel Cake Factory. The same building where guests would wait to board the Queen, and later the paddlewheel boats, is now the Funnel Cake Factory.