Historical Vessels in Local Waters: The 30th Annual Upper Mississippi Steamboat Meet

By K. Woodzick, Editor

All Photos Courtesy of Dennis Faist

Dennis Faist became fascinated with boats at an early age. He grew up on the thumb of Michigan on Lake Huron. He has many fond memories of being on the lake with his grandfather.

“I’ve always been around boats since I was a small kid,” he shared. “We had wakeboards before there were water skis.”

This childhood fascination with boats, love of all things mechanical, and his engineering background, naturally evolved into a fascination with steamboats. It’s no wonder that he has paired these passions into restoring two steamboats and his involvement with the Upper Mississippi Steamboat Group.

Dennis co-organizes the event from over 550 miles away. Emails were sent in February and March inviting 55 steamboaters from across the country to join the Meet. Most participants come from Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but steamboats have made their way from both coasts to join the Meet over the years. This year, nine boats are coming from as far away as Georgia.

The Meet has taken place at different locations over its history. Dennis worked closely with the Eagle River Chamber of Commerce to find the best location for this year’s Meet. The Meet prefers sheltered docking locations to protect the unique vessels.

The home base for this year’s Meet will be the Wild Eagle Lodge, with planned dates of Tuesday, September 14th through Saturday, September 18th.

For the first three days, there will be a sternwheeler with a three-octave calliope on it.  “Several of our boats are based on the classic late Victorian, or early Edwardian Fantail Launch hull designs – reminiscent of those once used to ferry families to their summer homes,” Dennis explained. “Others employ unique designs, and a few boats have even been converted from another purpose in a prior life. Each boat’s boiler, engine and plumbing are a unique assembly of parts and designs – by the individual owners. The majority of the boats are powered by wood or coal.”

Dennis makes it clear that this is not a club. The steamboaters are coming together because of their shared passion. It takes an enormous amount of time, care and skill to get the steamboats in working order. Many boats are built on an existing hull, while others are built completely by hand – from the keel up!

Dennis has two steamboats, which are reproductions of steamboats that travelled the waters in America from 1890 to 1910. The steamboat he is bringing is the Steam Launch Huron, named after his childhood memories on the lake. It took him five years to re-build the boat, which is more than 23 feet long, and features meticulous additions of teak and brass fixtures.

Dennis has a machine shop at home to maintain the boats. Like many steamboat builders, he is self-taught. Each steamboat is unique and requires mechanical skill to maintain.

“I like boats, I like mechanical things” Dennis said. “The work is never done. You can put it to whatever level of fit and finish you want.”

While the steamboaters are in Eagle River, their agenda varies from day to day. They often choose places they can steam together as a group and some boat captains may decide to fly solo.

“Typically, we wake up in the morning and steam up,” Dennis shared, “It takes 30 to 45 minutes to warm a steamboat from a cold boiler. We’ll steam up and then strike out for somewhere.”

Though they often stop at local restaurants, many steamboaters can also cook onboard over the fires in their boilers. Timing is essential when mapping out any given journey, as a careful eye needs to be kept on the boiler. “As you’re getting to your destination, you want to let your fire die down in the boiler,” Dennis said.

It is likely that you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of these magnificent vessels at the Wild Eagle Lodge docks on Wednesday or Friday morning or along the Eagle River Municipal Dock Wall near the US-45 Bridge on days when they visit town. When you do see these historical steamboats in our local waters, Dennis says, “Give us a wave if you see us or hear our whistles – as we ply the protected waters of the Eagle River Chain!”