How Okoboji became a resort mecca

It might not have happened without the Queen and other excursion boats that followed

November 13, 2023 9:00 am

The Queen II excursion boat has been in service since 1986. (Photo courtesy of Arnold Garson)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.The last of the grand excursion boats on Iowa’s largest natural lake will be refurbished and updated this winter, thanks to a $1 million gift from an anonymous donor.

The boat, the Queen II, now nearing its 40th year of service on West Okoboji Lake, is one of the last physical reminders at Okoboji of how the large glacial lakes of Northwest Iowa came to be a widely known tourist attraction.

The story begins in 1882 when the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway (BCR&N) opened the first rail line to the lakes area. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway, generally known as simply the Milwaukee, opened a rail line to the lakes the following year.

The arrival of automobiles and air-conditioning would change everything, but those innovations still were a half-century away. For now, the companies’ grand vision was to attract thousands of vacationers every summer to the Lakes area, people seeking refuge from the summer heat in locations to the south. It was a plan that required more than rail lines and promotion.

First, there had to be hotels. So the railroads built them. The Orleans Hotel, built by the BCR&N, opened in 1883 on the south shore of Spirit Lake, was described as the finest hotel in the region, sometimes as the finest hotel in the West. But the hotels were only one piece of the equation.

Hotel Orleans Spirit Lake. (Photo via

The other essential set piece of the plan was providing transportation from the rail depots to the hotels and around the lakes area. The most obvious method, horse and buggy, would be too slow and too problematic. They could transport only a few people at a time, and summer rains often made the mud pathways of the time impassable. But wait. This resort area is built along waterfronts. There is another way to provide transportation. What about boats?

The privately owned watercraft of the time — sailboats and rowboats — were too small and too slow. But there was one other possibility:

Large, motorized excursion boats. They soon became a key factor in creating a regional lakes resort region in a remote location.

The excursion boats not only got people to and from the rail stations, they also provided local transportation within the lakes area. Vacationers summoned an excursion boat as needed. To go somewhere on one of the lakes, they went down to the end of the nearest dock with a towel or white flag and waved it at the first excursion boat that passed by. It would stop for boarding, then drop them off at their location of choice.

The boats also carried mail for delivery and hauled lumber to lakeshore construction sites.

The first excursion boat on the Iowa Great Lakes was the Alpha, launched by the BCR&N in 1882. During the decades that followed, at least eight more large excursion boats served the three clustered lakes of Dickinson County – West Okoboji, East Okoboji, and Spirit Lake.

The Milwaukee responded quickly with its own, larger excursion boat in 1884, the Ben Lennox, named for one of the company’s executives. Not to be outdone, the BCR&N immediately commissioned the construction of a bigger, grander ship the same year: The Queen.

The Queen excursion boat, Lake Okoboji. (Photo by Naper Photo Shop, Spirit Lake)

The Queen, based originally on Spirit Lake, was relocated to service on East Okoboji and West Okoboji in 1900. It was able to navigate between the two lakes via a pivot swing bridge where Highway 71 crosses the two lakes today.

It was not long before other excursion boats joined the Iowa Great Lakes fleet – the Okoboji, the Sioux City, the Des Moines, the Boji Belle, the Empress.

Then, in the 1920s, led by The Des Moines Register’s “Get Iowa Out of the Mud” campaign, paved roads quickly became a reality throughout the state. About the same time, the first motorized runabouts began to arrive on the lakes; soon, virtually every lake cottage had a speed boat. After 40 years of providing the only local transportation for the lakes area, the era of the excursion boats ended almost as quickly as it had arrived.

It was not long before only the Queen and the Empress survived, operating as casual tour boats, not destination boats.

The Queen did find one new purpose. After World War II, it became the so-called flagship of the Iowa Navy, a fictional entity designed for promotional purposes. The Queen would stop at a private dock along West Lake, summon the owner, and hand him an admiral’s commission. The admirals of the Iowa Navy were assigned to “confound all harbingers of gloom, worry, energy and all enemies of carefree fun and relaxation.”

By 1973, the Queen had been working the Okoboji lakes for almost 90 years. It needed a major renovation or replacement. The boat was sold to Adventureland near Des Moines for $33,000 and transported there, where it spent some time providing rides around a small lake, then became a land-based tourist attraction. Finally, it was returned to the water for refurbishing – and sank. Its ultimate fate is not known, but it disappeared from Adventureland.

The Empress remained as the last of the excursion boats on Okoboji until it relocated to the Lake of the Ozarks in 1984. Area residents scrambled for the next year or two to raise money to bring back the Queen, the most legendary of the excursion boat fleet. The Queen II, a diesel-powered replica of the original steam-powered Queen, arrived in 1986 and has been in service since then.

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My first ride on the Queen was in the mid-1940s. I was a child, and do not remember it. But a ride on the Queen was a must-do activity for my family every summer in those years when we went to Okoboji for one or two weeks’ vacation.

My wife’s family has roots at Okoboji going back to the late 1890s. Her grandparents, Clair and Adel Baird of Omaha, built Clairdell Cottage on Fairoaks Beach on West Lake in 1931. Our grandchildren now are the fifth generation to spend a part of their summers at Clairdell.

I have been researching and writing about Okoboji history for many years. I intend to write about Okoboji history in this column periodically. It will be one of several diverse and reappearing themes for Arnold Garson: Second Thoughts!

Stay tuned.

This column was originally published by Arnold Garson: Second Thoughts on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Arnold Garson
Arnold Garson

Arnold Garson worked as a journalist and media executive for newspapers for 47 years. His posts included The Des Moines Register, where he served as an investigative reporter and then managing editor, and The Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, where he served as president and publisher. He was a Gannett group vice-president, overseeing several newspapers in the western United States, and the Gannett Co., Inc. Manager of the Year in 2008. His career also included stops at the Omaha World-Herald, The San Bernardino County Sun, and the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, where he presently resides. He is a founding director of South Dakota News Watch and the founder of Family Stories by Arnold Garson, through which he researches and writes long-form family history books and other specialized history projects. His blog, "Arnold Garson: Second Thoughts" is on Substack.