On April 1, 2022, for the 41st time, the Queen headed north from her winter residence in Stillwater to rejoin the Princess in Taylors Falls. The return of paddle boats has signaled the beginning of the summer to residents of the St. Croix River Valley since the mid-1800s.
According to information from the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, the first steamboat to travel the St. Croix River was the Palmyra in 1838. St. Croix Falls was as far upriver as the boats could go because of the falls or rapids that existed there. Steamboats with paddle wheels were useful for river travel because they could carry large amounts of cargo in shallow water. The Palmira was commissioned to bring the machinery for two sawmills: one for Taylors Falls, the other for St. Croix Falls, cementing the importance of these two river towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin history.
By the 1890s hundreds of steamboats traversed the St. Croix. “Every spring, townspeople of St. Croix River communities looked forward to the return of the steamboats. “Steamboat’s a-comin!” was the call to teachers to close school early, for merchants to close their shops and for everyone to gather at the levee. The sound of steam driven calliopes and dark smoke billowing on the horizon was a sign that the isolation of winter was over! The ice had melted, and riverboats could travel once more.”
And now it is a cold April Fool’s morning in 2022, forecast to be sunny but windy with temperatures in the 40s. There are only nine people onboard the Queen: Captain Lee Samuelson, General Manager/Captain Ryan Ramaley, and Captain Dominick Raedeke along with six guests invited by owner of the Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours, Amy Frischmon. Amy warned us to “Dress warmly, bring a blanket and hot beverages. This is not a regular trip,” she said. “We don’t promote this to our customers. There will be none of the accommodations the Queen usually provides her guests.” As it turned out, the sun shone brightly, there was little wind, and we spent the entire day on the upper deck.
This is a bit early for the Queen’s departure, and the Princess is already docked in Taylors Falls. The boats usually head north sometime around the first week of April, but it’s a tricky business to figure out when to leave Stillwater for Taylors Falls. Two factors must be considered: the amount of ice on the river and water levels. Once the ice is out on the river in Stillwater, the boat will leave the dock in 24 hours, but only if the water levels are high enough to accommodate the Queen’s 19” draft (the distance between the waterline and the deepest point of the boat; the minimum amount of water needed for the boat to float.) Miscalculate, and the Queen won’t make it under the Swing Bridge. The Princess, with its 12” draft might have an easier time, but she’s taller than the Queen. Captain Raedeke said there was just one missed opportunity in his history with the Queen, a year when the water level was too high, and she couldn’t make it up the river until June.
With the Queen’s two iconic smokestacks lying in repose on the deck, we made it under the Swing Bridge with only a foot of clearance. Between the two bridges at Taylors Falls and Stillwater, the Swing Bridge is one of only three bridges that currently span the St. Croix. They are known locally as the High Bridge (near Arcola Mills), the Swing Bridge (by Cedar Bend) and the Osceola Bridge. There was once another bridge that crossed the St. Croix called the Wisconsin Central Bridge, but now you can just see the beautiful cut-stone pillars that march across the river.
Prior to this trip, Captain Samuelson took a small flat-bottom work boat downstream over the stretch of the St. Croix River that would be our itinerary today, figuring out where the deepest channels were. We learned that the channels on a river are always changing, and rarely are in the middle of the river. So the Queen danced her way between the east and west banks of the river, taking six hours to travel from Stillwater to Taylors Falls.
The Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours has been in the family for five generations. As Captain Samuelson piloted the boat upriver, Captain Ramaley and Captain Raedeke exchanged stories about the company’s history. In 1906, Raedeke’s Great-great Grandfather Carl Muller came upriver when he was 14 and began a boat business, getting people on the river in small row boats and launching a business that would remain in the family for 116 years. The history of the region is in this family’s bones: Great-great Grandfather Carl Muller and Great Grandfather Bob Muller (whom many locals still remember) were present when the last paddleboat left the river in 1924, nearly 100 years ago. The Queen and the Princess are the first true paddle boats on the river since then.
The three amigos as we affectionately called the Queen’s Captains, have a combined 82 years of working for the Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours. During the busiest times of the summer, the Queen makes four trips a day, seven days a week, plus an evening trip and commissioned tours. These three men have ferried hundreds of thousands of visitors and residents, sharing their knowledge about the river’s rich history. Their passion for the river is evident.
Samuelson, who has been working with the Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours since 1977, helped build the Queen in 1981 and the Princess in 1985. (Their main structures were built in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, but they had to be outfitted with all the mechanical and electrical components and interior decorations.) He has been piloting the boats since 2004. Ramaley has been working for the family since 1987 and has had his Captain’s license since 1991. Raedeke has been working on the boat since he was ten years old. He smiled when he confided, “We get so used to this long trip every year, we forget how cool it is.”
The sound of the ice caving under the Queen’s hull is unforgettable, providing a unique soundtrack for the journey. Although it posed no real danger to the Queen, fellow passenger Ruth Ann Willius, educator/author from Scandia said, “I love the sound of the ice; it just adds to the adventure!”
Rick Shneewind of St. Croix Falls and Ned Froberg of Scandia, friends of Captain Samuelson, were delighted to be aboard the Queen. Longtime residents of local St. Croix valley communities, they added colorful stories about inhabitants of the houses and cabins we passed on our way upriver.
Dan Willius, past chair of the Wild Rivers Conservancy (when it was known as the St. Croix River Association) said the Raedeke’s were given the organization’s coveted stewardship award. “We recognized both the business and the family,” Willius said, “by helping people experience the river, they have been building a constituency of citizens who care about the river, who fall in love with it and support its protection.”
Just north of Marine on St. Croix, we passed the historic James Taylor Dunn cabin, home of the artist-in-residence program operated by the St. Croix Watershed Research Station. Marty Harding and Gary Noren reminisced about their month-long time spent as artists at the cabin in summer of 2016 and how high and fast the river rose that year.
To say that the trip was a birder’s dream is an understatement. A small flock of trumpeter swans heralded our departure in Stillwater, but the further north we traveled, the more birds rose off the water as the boat passed. The two major rookeries, just north of Stillwater and near Osceola, were both full of nesting great blue herons; the Stillwater rookery shared by cormorants. Many of the birds had their wings outstretched, catching the sun’s rays just like the humans onboard the Queen.
Early on the trip, an immature bald eagle flew just ahead of the Queen, but this was just the first of many eagles, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks who soared above the ship or watched from tall trees as we cruised by. Captain Ramaley commented on the changes he’s seen in the eagle populations. It was rare to see an eagle on the river when he started with the company. With others in this region, he celebrated the return of nesting pairs on the river, and now said, “If I don’t see an eagle when I’m on the river, I’ve just missed them.” We shared a moment of gratitude for Rachel Carson’s instrumental work, identifying the problems with DDT and saving the eagles, our national symbol.
It was the sheer number of the trumpeter swans that astounded all of us, including the crew. All of them commented that there were more trumpeters than they had ever seen at one time on the river. Hundreds of migrating trumpeters were sharing the ice with an equal number of Canada geese on both Peasley and Rice Lakes which could be seen from the top deck. Raedeke said that the resident trumpeter swans ignore the Queen as she glides by, but the newcomers are “kicked” up. The newcomers delighted us all with their bugling as they circled the boat and returned to settle on the lakes once again.
The boat’s engine mostly kept us from hearing the smaller songbirds on the riverbanks, but we were always entranced by watching the ever-changing flocks of mergansers, wood ducks, mallards, and other shorebirds, all seeking a place to rest on their way north or looking for the best place to nest and raise this year’s brood.
The six-hour trip was over too soon. As he encouraged us all to gather up our belongings and prepare to disembark, Captain Ramaley commented, “The summer has started. We’re getting close to town; both boats are home.” As we walked up the hill toward our car, we looked back one more time to see the Queen and the Princess together again.
This year, Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours will celebrate the grand opening of the River Rock Patio at the Queen and Princess’ landing in Taylors Falls. Over the past two years, the area has been completely redesigned; the Patio now affords visitors an expansive view of the rapids below and cliffs to the south. An expanded menu provides refreshments to those awaiting boarding or visitors who simply want to linger on the landing.
Boat tours will resume service on April 30, 2022. Visit www.taylorsfallsboat.com to get more information about daily tours, private charters, and private excursions.
Submitted by Marty Harding, Chair of North Woods and Waters Heritage Area (writer) and Gary Noren, past Chair of Wild Rivers Conservancy (photographer).