Gary and Sue DeVore had owned several houseboats so they knew what they wanted when they shopped for another one. But Gary likes unique and that complicated the buying process.
So an online ad for a one-third size replica of an authentic sternwheel river boat immediately caught his eye. It had been listed for three years as part of an estate. The family didn't want it because they knew it was “well used.” Eventually the DeVores drove six hours to see it, but were told there was an offer pending so they weren't allowed to board. After pleading, they were allowed 20 minutes onboard and learned the engines didn't work, there was a reported hull breach and it leaked badly.
Regardless, the DeVores made an offer that was quickly accepted.
They bought it because it had space, charm and uniqueness and because they had confidence they could restore it. And, Gary says, because it “doesn't look like everything else.”
Can Do Spirit
Their confidence came from managing and owning children's camps where they developed construction and administrative skills. Plus, they had rehabbed a couple of houses.
Two days after they took possession, however, it rained. But after it stopped, it continued to “rain” inside the boat for another half hour. At that point, they questioned their decision.
It was originally a crew boat with steel pontoons—4 feet wide and 5 feet deep—that were divided into five separate compartments. It had a farm tractor engine and a single paddlewheel.
Then it was bought by a man who admired and studied riverboats. He had a full hull built between the pontoons in 1978 and constructed the rest as close to authentic as possible.
The wide, flat hull was intended to be beached. It also is stout and flexible enough that it rises in ice rather than being crushed so has been frozen-in during the winter ever since. That made the boat livable year-round, even in St. Paul, Minn.
The hull is 55 feet long and measures 70 feet to the back of the paddles. It is 14 and a half feet wide and with the walkways, measures just over 20 feet. It holds 240 gallons of fuel, 40 gallons of water and has three holding tanks that total 120 gallons. And it is licensed to hold 45 passengers.
The boat's layout is a combination of classic riverboat style and modern living accommodations and amenities.
Forward is a spacious, partially covered front deck. A sliding door leads into a 14- by 12-foot salon, complete with a wood burning stove, easy chairs, and a sectional couch that turns into a king size bed. It is one of five beds in the boat.
A stairway leading to the second level separates the salon from the fully-equipped galley on the port side and a round oak antique table and buffet on the starboard side.
Behind the dining area is a combination office and kid's bedroom. It also houses HVAC equipment.
A full bath with walk-in shower sits across the hallway and the guest bedroom is behind that on the port side.
The engine/work/tool room is in the aft starboard corner. Twin 42hp Mercedes diesels set to run only at idle power the boat's hydraulic system. Top speed is about 8 mph, burning just a gallon and a half an hour. Their original use was on refrigerated semi-trailers.
They still run smoothly with over 6,000 hours because they have never been put under a load. They are used to build pressure that is hosed to hydraulic motors that turn large sprockets with chains that turn the bucket, or paddle frames. Each frame holds 16 five-and-a-half-foot-long paddles that dip about 14 inches into the water. The boat's overall draft is just 28 inches.
Each bucket array is controlled by a separate joystick. By forwarding one and reversing the other, the boat can turn 180 degrees in almost its own length. It is sensitive to wind, but Gary says they have learned that by opening the windows, “It goes from being a big sail to a piece of Swiss cheese.”
On the second level, the pilot house is nostalgic in its décor and details. There are windows all around and the front one lowers down for more ventilation. A large wooden-spoked wheel dominates the re-built helm station, which is about the only thing the DeVores have not built themselves. The wheel controls two rudders for going forward and two much larger monkey rudders for reversing.
A large bell on the bow is controlled from the helm and so is a large set of Kahlenberg air horns that came from a train. This boat can be heard long before it is seen.
The raised liar's bench is a favorite spot for passengers who almost feel compelled to spin yarns while sitting there. It also converts to a full bed so is a preferred sleeping spot.
Part of the back section of the upper level is now the master bedroom with another full bathroom.
Beyond that is a screened-in porch with a door that leads to the back deck overlooking the paddles.
Gary says passengers are drawn to the turning paddles. There is just a low hum from the engines so the sound of the water off the paddles and their motion becomes mesmerizing, he says.
That is what the boat is now. But that is a long way from where it was when they bought it.
The non-running engines were simply, and luckily for them, flooded with fuel so they gave the impression of being locked-up.
A little research revealed the hull breach had been repaired several years earlier. So in short order, their major mechanical problems were easily resolved.
But the leaks were real, widespread and constant. They were so pervasive that Sue laughingly says for a while their plan was, “Whatever leaks next, we fix.” Eventually, the pilot house got new rubber roofing and the second deck roof's rubberized coating was refreshed.
Beyond that, there were problems everywhere.
Their solution was to gut the boat room by room and start over. There was significant wood rot so they re-framed where necessary. They insulated heavily and put in insulated windows. A new furnace and AC system had been installed earlier, but they replaced all the plumbing and wiring. They paneled both the inside and outside with exterior plywood.
While re-wiring the pilot station, they pulled out hundreds of feet of old wire after spending considerable time trying to figure out its purpose and destination. There were no windows, just shutters, so they installed insulated window units.
They also discovered that a structural floor member had been cut, causing the pilot house to sag three inches into the lower deck. To solve that, they had to remove the entire ceiling on the main deck, jack up the second deck and install a series of engineered beams. They insulated the ceiling so when the temperature really plunges, they drain the upper bath, close an insulated hatch at the top of the stairs and live on the main deck.
As an illustration of the boat's condition, there were seven marine radios onboard and none of them worked.
The DeVores spent four years working and mostly living on the boat in St. Paul, Minn. Along the way there were the expected problems and numerous unexpected ones, like when the holding tank sprung a leak directly on Gary's chest.
He had drilled a 5/8-inch hole in the upper section to relieve what he thought was an air lock. Instead, a 5/8-inch stream of waste shot out and continued until they had filled four, 5 gallon buckets. After more dirty work, he ended up cutting the ends off the old, built-in tank and put a new polyethylene tank inside.
In 2013 they moved the boat down the Mississippi River in a memorable trip to Sabula, Iowa. They now commute between the boat and another unique restoration project they have in Pennsylvania. (See sidebar)
Even though they thoroughly enjoy being on the boat in all seasons and use it as a Midwest base where they have family, they now have the White Eagle II listed for sale.
That is partly due to the demands of time and finances needed for the Lynn Hall project. But it is also partly due to their tendency to constantly look for other restoration projects. Gary says Sue points out that he is “always one too many project ideas ahead.” Even Sue says, “There are always other boats out there.”
Like the old steel hull on shore at their marina Gary keeps looking at and thinking he could make into the boat of his dreams.