During the late 1800s, paddlewheelers were common on Michigan rivers. Their flat-bottomed hulls allowed them to navigate shallow waters, delivering supplies and people to locales where traditional ships could not go, often to logging camps and settlements around the state.
Today’s modern paddlewheelers still require less than 3 feet of water, making them ideal for river cruises a century later. Each a replica of those original designs only powered by diesel fuel instead of steam, they invite passengers to step back in time, to a simpler era while underway, and enjoy the clink of glasses and contented conversation that has long been heard on passenger decks.
“We want to give our passengers a unique experience,” said Greg Boynton, owner and captain of the 65-foot Grand Lady based in Jenison. The Grand Lady (grandlady.info) operates on her namesake waters, the Grand River, where her shallow draft allows the vessel to cruise from the Lakeshore Railroad Bridge west to Grand Haven.
An interest in historic vessels gave Capt. Greg’s father Bill Boynton the idea for the paddlewheeler’s design. Bill oversaw construction until the boat’s completion in 1994. A 100-hp diesel engine powers each paddlewheel independently, allowing the 70-ton boat to be easily maneuvered in tight spots.
With a 145-person capacity, the boat hosts popular dinner and sunset cruises, as well as weddings and other special events. The boat also hosts live music.
“There is a lot of wilderness on the Grand River Greenway,” Greg said. “It’s fun to see a band in that setting with that backdrop.”
Star of Saugatuck
Approximately 25 miles south, where the Kalamazoo River meets Lake Michigan, the Star of Saugatuck II is the second heavenly body to cruise the shallow river and Lake Michigan waters just off the Saugatuck and Douglas beaches.
Built in 1978 in a small machine shop 3 miles east of town, the 57-foot Queen of Saugatuck was initially driven by a single set of paddles before the drive wheel was split into two to increase maneuverability. In 1992, a name change turned The Queen into the first Star of Saugatuck. The vessel’s popularity grew until her 82-passenger capacity was no longer enough and her big sister, the Star of Saugatuck II, replaced her in 2000.
Under new ownership as of 2019, the Star of Saugatuck II (saugatuckboatcruises.com) provides 90-minute sightseeing tours along the Kalamazoo River where common wildlife includes deer, fox and even bald eagles. During a sunset cruise, passengers also can experience a spectacular Lake Michigan sunset from the Star’s open-air upper deck.
A trio of princesses
Captain Chris Chamberlain operates three paddlewheelers around the state. The Chamberlain family’s boating operations began in 1976 when Chris’s father John began offering canoe rentals to Lansing Zoo visitors. To keep parents busy while their kids paddled about, he converted an old barge into the Chamberlains’ first paddlewheeler.
The Grand Princess originally was designed to be disassembled and transported to special events before a major remodel expanded her capacity and her size. The boat now calls Grand Ledge her permanent home, where 5,000 people experience lunch, dinner and private cruises each year.
Based in Lansing, the larger 110-foot Michigan Princess provides more than 15,000 passengers per year with sightseeing tours and special events onboard the Victorian-style vessel. The boat also can be chartered for private parties, and for wedding ceremonies and their receptions.
The five-deck, 222-foot Detroit Princess began life as a casino boat in Texas before she was relocated to Detroit and refitted for sightseeing operations, weddings and other special events like craft-brew cruises and Made-in-Michigan trips that feature local products. “We fell in love with the Detroit Riverwalk area and wanted to provide something that was missing since the late 1980s,” Chris Chamberlain said.
More than 60,000 people a year climb aboard for a cruise on the Detroit Princess alone. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder so many paddlewheelers keep rolling on the Michigan rivers. Learn more about these three royal ladies at
Chuck Warren is a boating writer from Grandville who has worked around boats for 40 years.