Charting a new course for Queen

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

QUITE A HISTORY — Frank Gerrish (right) remembers a day when he was nicknamed “Noah” as he and his cousin built a paddleboat replica — the Songo River Queen. He is pictured here with present boat owner, Kent Uicker. (De Busk Photo)

NAPLES – When Frank Gerrish and his cousin Lloyd Cole were building a paddleboat replica on the Naples Causeway, residents would stop and joke with him often referring to the structure as “Noah’s Ark” and nicknaming him “Noah.”

“They called me Noah and all that stuff. They said, ‘You must be out of your minds,’ ” Gerrish said.

During the winter of 1970- 71, the first Songo River Queen was constructed where Evergreen Credit Union’s building now stands, he said. There were many mornings of removing inches of fresh snow from the boat before construction could resume, he recalled.

The Queen carried 100 people during its virgin voyage in April 1971, as soon as the ice left the lakes. Meanwhile, spectators stood on the shore wondering whether the vessel would sink or float.

“The first trip was a freebee,” Gerrish said. “There was all kinds of champagne, and all that stuff.”

“There were a lot of observers” standing along the Causeway watching and taking photographs in the windbreaker weather that April afternoon, he said.

Afterwards, some community members still ribbed him, while others praised him for building the boat that would become Naples’ moving landmark.

Actually, there were two Songo River Queens because the first paddleboat burned in a blaze started by a cigarette smoked during the last tour in October 1981; and a new one was built that winter and christened in May 1982 — just in time for that season’s tours on the Songo River, Gerrish said.

Like the river they’ve maneuvered, both Queens have taken a winding and changing journey through the decades of marine transportation in Maine.

Until 30 years ago, the Queen navigated the Songo River from Brandy Pond to Sebago Lake. That was in an era when the river was dredged, and large steamboats traveled the Songo’s corridors.

This Saturday, the Queen enters another era as it takes a final trip through the Naples Swing Bridge. Then, the swing bridge will be locked to boat traffic and dismantled next spring, when a soon-to-be-built fixed bridge takes its place. The arch of the fixed bridge will be too low for the Queen to travel between Long Lake and Brandy Pond.

Three factors — the Maine Department of Transportation’s limited budget, inflationary construction costs, and numerous infrastructure needs statewide — played into the state’s decision three years ago to build a fixed bridge in Naples rather than building another swing bridge.

In this millennium, reconstructing a swing bridge was neither cost effective nor practical, according to MDOT officials.

READY TO SET SAIL — The Songo River Queen is christened before heading out for its initial journey.

This Saturday, Sept. 17, people will step onto the decks of the Queen to take one last historical trip to the Lock and back — a trip that is doable with the aid of the swing bridge. Like clockwork, that swing bridge has opened for the Queen’s passage during the summer of 2011, as well as during the 40 summers prior to this one.

But, the Queen won’t become a landlubber or museum relic because Long Lake offers the boat and its passengers a variety of adventures.

The Conception of a Paddleboat in Naples

A corporate airplane pilot for 20 years, Frank Gerrish’s job brought him to Chicago in the late 1960s. There, the sight of a paddleboat in the Chicago River inspired Gerrish. He envisioned the opportunities for such a boat in the heart of the Lake Region.

At the time his Naples business provided people with seaplane tours and speedboat rides, he said.

With the idea of offering paddleboat tours in his mind, Gerrish sought the help of his cousin, who was a professional carpenter living in Kennebunk. His cousin agreed — although he built homes, not boats.

The two men took on the task without the aid of blueprints or sketches.

“We just built it. We did it by guess and by God,” Gerrish said.

“It was the homeliest looking boat,” he laughed.

“But, it was very acceptable and appealing, especially to senior citizens and people who came on the tour buses,” he said.

“It caught on right away,” said Gerrish, adding he continued to make improvements to the boat’s appearance.

“By the next year, it looked pretty good,” he said.

During the first decade, it was common practice to dredge the river to allow the hulls of bigger boats to pass up and down the Songo River.

“We used to go all the way to Sebago” Lake, he said.

“Back then, we could get water enough to float it (the Queen) without hitting bottom,” he said.

The boat has a 2½- to 3-foot draft — the area that is submerged in the water — allowing it to maneuver in shallow waters.

“The Queen quit doing tours to Sebago Lake when they quit dredging the river,” he said.

The discussion of dredging is a sore topic for Gerrish; and one that has divided residents for and against the Department of Environmental Protection’s policy to cease dredging the Songo River.

Gerrish supports dredging. He explained water currents cause sandbars to build up, prohibiting bigger boats from making the journey.

“Any piece of water has to have maintenance,” he said.

“They used to have big steamboats. Now, you are lucky to run a canoe down there,” Gerrish said.

As captain behind the wheel of both Queens over the decades, wildlife sightings are among Gerrish’s favorite moments aboard the boat.

“We see moose on a lot of the night charters” because they come out to graze at twilight, he said.

One time, two game wardens were enjoying a night cruise. One commented that ahead in the water was the biggest loon he’d ever seen. The second one said, ‘That’s not a loon. That’s a moose,’ ” Gerrish said.

Those aboard the Queen that evening watched the cow moose swim around Long Point on Long Lake.

Dream boat burns; New paddleboat is built

The first Songo River Queen was built on shore, and launched when the ice went out.

Ten years after it was built, Gerrish’s dreamboat burned down while it was docked on the Causeway. Investigation into the cause of the fire pointed to a smoldering cigarette that had been thrown into a trash can on the final tour of the season.

Another societal custom that has become a bygone: People were permitted to light up and smoke a cigarette anywhere on the boat, including enclosed areas.

Flames engulfed the paddleboat around 2 a.m. on the Tuesday after Columbus Day 1980; and the boat was a total loss, Gerrish said. The fire burned the ropes keeping it moored, and it floated away until the CO2 tanks exploded.

Construction on the Queen’s successor began that winter. This go-around, Gerrish received more compassion than teasing from acquaintances and friends.

In fact, a 9-year-old girl named Katherine Johnson mailed Gerrish a letter and $1 to help rebuild the new Queen. His insurance claim and a bank loan helped construct a much prettier and 30-foot longer paddleboat.

The current Queen is 93-feet long and 23-feet wide, according to the business website. It weighs 100 tons, or 20,000 pounds, the website said.

Gerrish designed the new boat 8-feet less wide than a true paddleboat so it would fit into the lock.

“It’s sad when you think about it. When the boat goes back through the swing bridge on Saturday — that’s the last time,” he said.

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