St. Louis River Excursion Boats

The Montauk, 1939. (Image: Public Domain)

In the late 1880s, steamships that made the twice-daily run delivering mail and goods (and commuters) to Fond du Lac began to offer “pic-nic cruises” and the excursion trade was born. A variety of excursion boats transported people from a dock at the foot of Duluth’s Fifth Avenue West to Fond du Lac. A round-trip steamer ticket cost fifty cents. The trip could take an hour and a half or more, with stops along the way at Garfield Avenue, Superior, West Duluth, and Gary. Boats docked at the end of 133rd Avenue West in Fond du Lac at the site of the American Fur Post ruins, and picnickers headed off on foot to find a comfortable spot for lunch—often following the river upstream to Chambers Grove.

Excursion boat rides to Fond du Lac and back became even more popular in the early 1900s, and over the years vessels including the Henrietta, Plow Boy, Chicora, Columbia, and Newsboy steamed regularly up and down the St. Louis River.

Duluth’s Clow & Nicholson Transportation Company—which owned and operated many of the excursion boats, including the Newsboy, first leased Chambers Grove following Michael Chambers’s death in 1895. In 1919 the company, which by then had opened the Fond du Lac Inn at the site, purchased the sidewheeler A. Wehle Jr. and brought her to Duluth for the Fond du Lac route. Company owner David Clow, who was also president of Duluth’s Rotary Club, renamed her Rotarian. She ran to Fond du Lac twice a day, charging sixty cents for a round trip. The Rotarian also ran a special “Around the Horn” route through the Duluth Ship Canal and into Lake Superior, south along Minnesota Point to the Superior Entry, through the entry, and north along Minnesota Point back to its berth. The ride, also called the Moonlight Trip, cost thirty-five cents.

Despite a capacity of six hundred passengers, the Rotarian proved so popular that Clow & Nicholson purchased the paddlewheeler Montauk in 1923 to keep up with demand. The Montauk had begun life in 1891 as the flagship of the Montauk Steamboat Company before serving the same capacity for the Long Island Railroad. Originally a sidewheeler, the 175-foot boat featured three decks, and her opulent state rooms were finished in mahogany and cherry. The Montauk first worked as an ocean-going vessel, taking passengers up and down the East Coast of the United States until 1902, when she was sold to a Canadian company and renamed the King Edward and later the Forest City. A newspaper report from 1944 claims she arrived in Duluth in 1918, once again christened as Montauk, and served Superior, Wisconsin, as a hospital ship during the flu epidemic. Another sale brought her to Chicago, where new owners converted her to an excursion boat. The new Montauk, propelled by a one-cylinder engine, could reach speeds of eighteen knots (about twenty-one miles per hour) and carry over 1,000 passengers running between Chicago’s municipal dock and Jackson Park.

Clow purchased the vessel in 1923, and she began the Fond du Lac route the next year. The Rotarian was sold in 1927, leaving the Montauk as the last of the Fond du Lac steamers. By 1930 the Rotarian was tied up in Chicago and used as a floating restaurant and dance hall; she sank at her moorings that year. Piloted by Captain Burdette J. Roberts, the Montauk ran the Duluth-to-Fond du Lac route until 1939. By then a one-way trip to Fond du Lac cost seventy-five cents; Around the Horn cost fifty cents. She lay docked at Fond du Lac until 1944 when the Lyons Construction Company purchased her. By that November she was in Whitehall, Michigan, where her new owners stripped off her cabins and converted her into a barge. There are no records of the Montauk past 1947.