The Lantern Queen has paddled a long way from Wisconsin to the Chesapeake Bay.
The two-story paddle-wheeler was built in La Crosse in 1983 as a replica of a Mississippi riverboat. Over the next decade the boat traveled from South Dakota to Florida to Pennsylvania. Along the way, the Lantern Queen sank, was salvaged, restored and renamed.
Now the 90-foot vessel is undergoing another incarnation. A Havre de Grace couple bought the Lantern Queen and have started a cruise business that they hope will help promote local history.
"We wanted to use the Lantern Queen to tell the history of Havre de Grace," said Carroll Fitzgerald, 53, who purchased the boat in August. "Havre de Grace has ties to the War of 1812 and the first act of piracy in the state. So many people drive by here on Interstate 95. ... We're hoping to be able to get more people to stop."
On Friday, the couple took the first group on the 145-passenger boat for a two-hour dinner cruise featuring a guided historic tour of the Susquehanna River. The $45-per-person fare includes a gourmet buffet. Fitzgerald and his wife, Rebecca, who will operate the venture under the name River City Trading LLC, plan to offer charter cruises for business meetings, weddings and birthdays. Three of the boat's captains are ordained ministers who can perform on-board marriage ceremonies.
Originally named the Far West, the boat was built at a cost of $261,000 and first served on the Missouri River, embarking from Yankton, S.D. The vessel - a stern-wheeler - was sold in 1994 to the owner of The Ship's Lantern restaurant in Englewood, Fla. The new owner renamed the boat and operated it in conjunction with his restaurant.
In July 1996, the boat was taken to Philadelphia and docked at Penn's Landing, a waterfront area similar to Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Tied to a dock with little slack in the lines, the boat took on water during high tide and sank, said Jack Morey, who salvaged the vessel.
"The boat looked like it had been through a flood," said Morey, 68, of North East, who bought the boat and restored it. "It was in bad shape, but I knew I could make it work."
Morey gutted the interior of the steel vessel, replacing the paneling with mahogany and installing new carpet and ceiling tiles.
Initially, the boat was for Morey's personal use. But he later turned it in to a business venture, giving tours and private charter trips.
"It's an awful nice ride," he said. "And the Chesapeake Bay area is beautiful. So it was easy to get people to take the trip."
He sold the boat to the Fitzgeralds in August. The couple hadn't spent much time on the water and decided it was time for a new adventure.
"Both of our children have ties to the maritime industry, and this just seemed like a nice thing to do in retirement," said Carroll Fitzgerald, an account executive for a manufacturing company.
He declined to divulge the purchase price of the boat, which is docked at Hutchins Park, but he said the replacement value is about $800,000.
Rebecca Fitzgerald, executive director of the Susquehanna Museum in Havre de Grace, will work on designing historic tours, while her husband is working as a deckhand to obtain his captain's license from the Coast Guard.
He must have at least 360 days of experience on the boat and pass various Coast Guard tests. He will be working under the supervision of several captains hired to operate the vessel, including Fred Lied.
Unlike the Fitzgeralds, Lied grew up on the water. His grandmother had a house on the Elk River, and he learned to row a boat at age 5, he said. He had several relatives - including his father - who were in the Navy.
"I wanted to be a captain since I was a kid," said Lied, a boat repair technician at the Tidewater Marina in Havre de Grace.
Lied became a captain six years ago.
"I feel the most at peace when I'm on the water," the 36-year-old North East resident said.
His decision to work on the Lantern Queen was an easy one, he said.
"Paddleboats are rare, and they give a nice ride," he said, adding that the Lantern Queen is one of the few riverboats powered by its paddlewheel.
Lied, who worked on the boat for Morey, said watching passengers' reactions to being on the Lantern Queen has become a favorite pastime.
"Teenage girls go to the rail and do the Titanic thing," he said. "And I invite the kids and ex-Navy to come to the ship's wheel and drive the boat. They get so excited, and it's a lot of fun to watch."