ELKHART — For 16 seasons, John Cleveland plied the waters of the St. Joseph River from the pilot house of the Elkhart River Queen, offering the public Sunday afternoon rides up and down the waterway.
For more than 60 years, the craft — built in 1947 — has had a presence on the river, serving as a private party boat before Cleveland bought the vessel in 1997.
River Queen factoids: It goes 5 mph (and more)
- The boat travels about 5 mph, taking about three hours to go to Six Span Bridge and back to its port, off Bowers Court, east of the Johnson Street dam.
- Under John Cleveland’s ownership, the boat offered Sunday afternoon rides to the public during the regular season, from June to October. It was also available for private events, like high school reunions, wedding receptions and church gatherings.
- Prior owners only rented out the boat for private events, according to Cleveland.
- Cleveland bought the boat in 1997 with Dick Moore, now Elkhart’s mayor. Cleveland later bought out Moore’s share.
- When built in 1947, the boat measured 30 feet long. With a 1965 addition, it grew to 65 feet.
- The red and white craft is 20 feet wide and weighs 32 tons, which would make transfer out of the St. Joseph River difficult, though not impossible.
- The necessary repairs, if Cleveland were to make them, would necessitate cutting out problematic sections of the River Queen’s hull and welding in new steel, Cleveland said.
- Cleveland wouldn’t talk money — the possible cost of the repairs or a possible sales price. He’ll wait to discuss those details with potential buyers.
After the boat sprung leaks, Cleveland and his wife, Dianne, decided they wanted to slow down, and now, the future of the two-level craft — which hasn’t offered rides to the public since 2012 — is in doubt. Cleveland is looking for a buyer, someone, he hopes, who will keep the craft on the St. Joseph River.
But if push comes to shove and no buyer emerges within a year or so, he says he may sell the steel-hulled boat — fit with a decorative paddle to give it the appearance of a paddle boat — for scrap.
“I’m like everybody else, we’d hate to see it leave the river,” Cleveland said Tuesday, May 20, standing on shore as the boat bobbed nearby in the river. “But sometimes you got to do what you got to do.”
Late last spring, just as the 2013 River Queen season was to begin, Cleveland made the tough decision to forego operations after the surprise discovery of a leak. Before the unexpected turn, he had planned to sell after the 2013 season, which runs from June to October. The leak forced him to change plans, though, putting the boat up for sale earlier than expected.
He doesn’t want to put the time and money into fixing the boat, which is still seaworthy if repaired, “because we’re ready to retire,” said Cleveland, who is 71.
He didn’t widely publicize his intentions, but after posting a “for sale” sign earlier this month outside the entryway to the boat dock along busy Jackson Boulevard, the plans became apparent to observant motorists.
As the sale plans have filtered out, he’s gotten feedback from nostalgic customers who don’t want the boat to go away.
“I’ve lived on the river for 44 years now and I enjoy seeing it go up and down the river, even before we bought it,” he said. “It’s sort of a tradition for Elkhart.”
Nonetheless, that hasn’t yet translated into someone who wants to take over operations.
"We don’t know what the future is,” he said.