by Dan Pence
RiversWest, April, 2004

Crater Lake, the deepest and most pristine lake in the U.S., is a bright blue jewel set on the spine of the Oregon Cascades. The ultra clear water fills the hollow shell of former Mt. Mazama, one of the tallest Cascade peaks until it blew it’s top about seven thousand years ago in a cataclysmic eruption. The six thousand foot plus elevation Crater Lake has been host to fascinating boat tours since 1921, providing a significant source of income for the park concession.

The Launch Builders

Bus mechanic Paul Herron began working at Crater Lake Park in 1922. Ten years later he began to care for the hodgepodge collection of Crater Lake tour boats. After piloting, maintaining and managing the tour boats for 27 years, he suffered a heart attack in 1959 and grudgingly retired. In the mid-sixties Rudy Wilson, a boat builder with 25 years experience, ran the tour boat operation and Paul Herron was back as a part-time consultant. 1966 was the year Paul and Rudy were sick of patching up the odd collection of four little old tour boats the park had haphazardly collected over the years. They came up with an ambitious plan to create a boat building operation on Wizard Island and build four 60 passenger boats. The materials, hardware, engines and tools were delivered by one of the then new Sikorsky Sky Crane helicopters.

The Launch Design

The boats would be 39’ long, 11’6” wide, with 2’8” of draft, the hulls based on a 1936 William Atkin -- a highly noted east coast marine architect -- cabin cruiser design. These would weigh 12,000 lbs, carry 60 passengers and run at 17-20 knots with single big 280 horsepower gas engines. Built as open launches so a roof or windshield wouldn’t obstruct the view of the spectacular surroundings, the huge mahogany runabouts would be built with highest quality materials and workmanship. Passenger seating consisted of 16 blue and white wooden benches separated by an aisle, school bus fashion, for elegant simplicity. The pilot station up forward was a big stainless steering wheel and a couple gauges. Beside the pilot could stand, facing the visitors, a park naturalist providing commentary via a P.A. system.


Building the Lake Launches

The launching of the Paul Herron, “brought to a close the boat building project of Rudy H. Wilson who assembled the boat from his own plans at the boathouse on Wizard Island beginning two summers ago.” (Klamath Falls Herald and News, July 7th, 1968). The National Park Service approved the boat design later that summer (in 2000 the boats received Coast Guard Certification). After the christening Rudy got to work on the second boat, pre-cutting many of the parts from patterns of the first. The Rudy Wilson, also assembled on Wizard Island was launched in August 28, 1971. These first boats cost $20,000 apiece.

To save time the bare hulls of the remaining two boats, the Ralph Peyton (named for the former Crater Lake Lodge Company President) and Jim Griffen (the Lodge Company president at the time) were built at Rudy Wilson’s new boat works near the Portland Yacht Club. The finished hulls were trucked to the rim, then carried by helicopter down to Wizard Island. Minus the engines, seats, drive shaft and propeller the hulls were still near the 6,500 lb. payload limit of the logging helicopter in the thin mountain air. In 1983, despite superstition, the Jim Griffen was renamed the Glen Happel, after the new Crater Lake Lodge President.

Ralph Peyton on Crater Lake

Service of the Lake Launches

“They were our bread and butter," related former Crater Lake Lodge president Dick Gordon. Each boat typically ran three trips per day all summer long. The tour boat fares were $12.50 for adults, $7.00 for kids. The lodge sold between 20,000 and 27,000 tickets every year in the late 1990’s. Over the years, perhaps a million people toured the Crater Lake in the four launches.

Service on the lake was hard on the boats. Sudden williwaws and thunderstorms surprised the tour boat fleet many times each season. The recently christened Ralph Peyton broke it’s mooring line during an August of ‘72 snowstorm. The storm carried the empty launch across the lake and smashed it onto jagged rocks, tearing a 4’ hole in the bow. The seasonal inexperienced pilots bashed the boats, usually accidentally, into docks, moorings, boathouses and the rocky shores. In the mid-70’s Ralph Peyton’s son was busted for water skiing across the lake behind one of the tour boats one evening. Denny Charlot of Tomahawk Island, did his best to keep the boats in good shape from 1983 until 2001.

In 2001, the new lodge concessionaire, Xanterra Corporation, decided the old launches should be replaced and ordered new fiberglass tour boats. The four retiring launches were lifted out of the lake in the summer of 2003, overshadowed by the sleek modern -- but distinctly less charming and beloved -- replacements. The old lake launches were trucked to a boatyard near Newport, to await their fate.

RudyWilson, RalphPeyton and Glen Happel at River Bend
Photo by John Kohnen

Interior of Glen Happel at River Bend
Photo by John Kohnen

Bringing the Launches to Portland

In mid- March, 2004, RiversWest, a non-profit low-impact boating and boat building organization in Portland, who organizes The Portland Wooden Boat Show and has been providing a free demonstration ferry service, heard the launches were available and asked if they could be put to work in Portland for a permanent river ferry service. Xanterra happily agreed to donate the fleet to RiversWest rather than see them destroyed. The best three of the boats are being prepped for hauling to a Portland City yard on the Eastbank of the Willamette River at the foot of SE Salmon St. The 4th boat, the Glen Happel, was found to be unneeded and in poor condition. It will be salvaged for spare parts and useful pieces. This may validate the superstitious.

Paul Herron arriving in Portland
Photo by Peter Wilcox

four RiversWest water taxis
Photo by Peter Wilcox

With the boats fitted with roofs to hold off Portland’s winter drizzle and hot summer sun, slowed down to a more appropriate and efficient speed, and innovatively re-powered to protect the river’s water, people should be able to shuttle between OMSI, the Maritime Museum, shopping districts and residential areas, the Convention Center, Rose Quarter and historic Oaks Amusement park, all within a 5 mile stretch of river. Service is planned to begin in the spring of 2005.