Most vacationers to the Waupaca Chain o’ Lakes will spot the long motor yacht called The Lady of the Lakes cruising across the water at least once during their stays. Operated by the Clear Water Harbor, the Lady has given tours of the major lakes in the Chain since 1983. However, this boat was not the first Lady to show passengers the beautiful natural scenery of the Chain o’ Lakes.
The original Lady of the Lake was a steamboat built by Jim Jensen, a Waupaca boat builder, around 1893. The vessel was long and narrow with an engine and smokestack in the middle that powered an underwater propeller. Two people were needed to operate the boat: one person shoveled coal or wood into the engine to power it and another person steered at the front of the boat.
Jim Jensen gave the boat its first name, the Sunrise, and sold it to Major R.N. Roberts, a prominent Waupaca merchant and banker. Roberts hired William Foster, a resident of the Wisconsin Veterans Home, to run tours on the boat. Two years later, William Smith, a farmer who boarded travelers in his house north of Round Lake, then purchased the Sunrise and renamed it the Lady of the Lake. William tasked his son and an employee with operating the boat.
By 1901, Charles Merriam purchased the Lady of the Lake and started giving tours with the aid of his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Bessie – he powered the engine and she steered. Charles endeared passengers with his jovial personality and playful humor, obtaining the nickname Captain Merriam. Bessie helped turn their tours on the Lady into a full-fledged business by building rental cottages and encouraging Charles to purchase three gasoline-powered motor launches to also use as tour boats. The business was known as the Chain o’ Lakes Steamer & Cottage Company.
Charles and Bessie’s business was booming, but the Lady of the Lake became so run down that it was no longer unusable. So in 1914, Charles disposed of the boat by lighting it on fire in the middle of Nessling Lake, hoping it would sink to the bottom. However, the boat drifted toward the lake’s southern shore and sunk in about 10 feet of water with the rear end facing upward. Charles passed away the following year and Bessie took over the business, eventually renaming it Nelsen Boat Line and Cottages.
Over time, the Lady of the Lake rotted away, but its frame, keel, driveshaft, and propeller could be seen by passing boaters. In the late 1960s, one of Bessie’s grandsons and a friend retrieved the Lady’s propeller and driveshaft. Today, both pieces are on a mount outside the office for Nelsen’s Cottages.
In 1983, Pat and Mimi Meighan named the motor yacht they commissioned for the Clear Water Harbor The Lady of Lakes as an homage to the original Lady of the Lake steamboat. Although separated by time, both “Ladies” have introduced thousands of visitors to the natural beauty and sites of the Chain o’ Lakes.
Special thanks to Skip Bonnell and Kristi Diaz, descendants of Bessie Merriam Nelsen, for providing me with documents and information about the original Lady of the Lake.
Learn more about the histories of Nelsen Boat Line and the Waupaca Chain o’ Lakes by reading The Waupaca Chain o’ Lakes by Zachary Bishop that will be released on June 15, 2020. See the Publications page for more information.