In 1968 the steamboat began to take shape on the shores of the Wisconsin River at Catfish Bay, just north of the Wisconsin Dells. Bessie Cook, owner of the Catfish Bay Resort, rented the land for the steamboat building operation, and Orn Lindloff of Wisconsin Dells offered some financial support. The body of the boat was built from air-dried timbers of Douglas Firs. Although steel and diesel were the modern boat-building materials of the day, Abrahamson said that building an historically accurate steamboat out of steel would be "like building a log cabin out of steel logs". Their original target launch date was July 1970, but building problems and the repeated floods caused them to push their launch date back by two years. Several times during its construction, the spring flood waters picked the hull of the boat off the cribs on which it was sitting, scattered the supports down river, and the boat drifted on its mooring rope. Needless to say, no one thought an artist and an historian with no boat-building experience could complete the project. The Coast Guard didn't even have guidelines for building steamboats at that time.

Four laborious years later in June of 1972, the Apollo 2 was completed and licensed to hold 150 passengers. The steam stern wheel vessel was 108 ft long, with a 22 ft beam, 49 in deep, and weighed 57 tons. The bow was 60 in, the aft was 41 in, and had a wooden hull with a flat bottom. It ran from a fully automatic, oil-fired boiler, and a 200 15 KW Onan diesel generator, with two 110 hp, horizontal, double acting, slide valve engines. The boiler was made by the Johnston Brothers of Ferrysburg, Michigan, the same firm that worked with the steamboat industry during the Civil War. The engines were cast by the Nekoosa Foundry and Machine Works, and the paddlewheel was 12' in diameter with 12" buckets. The decks were tongue-and-groove, end-grain fir, treated with wood preservative and paraffin oil. It was an exact replica of Apollo No. 1, with the exception of a few safety standards required by the Coast Guard, and the first boat in nearly 40 years built entirely out of wood.

The originally estimated cost of $100,000 to build the steamboat had nearly doubled by the time the project was completed in 1972. By that time, Matthews had earned his Ship Master license, and the Apollo II had been built to even better standards than the original. It was truly an unbelievable accomplishment for Matthews and Abrahamson. The Apollo 2 made its first public launch on Matthews' birthday, July 21, 1972, exactly seventy four years to the day after the initial launch of Apollo No. 1. Coincidently, it was also the third anniversary of NASA's Apollo 11 putting the first man on the moon. A significant day in history, indeed. Gardner Kelly, an East Coast pilot, was the skipper, and Bob Brewer, a retired West Coast engineer was the steam engineer for the operation. The landing was located at 1000 River Road, and tickets were $4 per person.

The Reedsburg bank had to turn down the only two low-ball bids it received in 1973 for the Apollo, and left the boat dry-docked for nearly two years while the bank decided what to do. In 1975, the bank put the boat back in operation and ran it for two years as "Apollo Tours, Inc." But without the desire to invest any additional capital in promoting the boat tours, the operation once again became unsuccessful. The boat was later purchased in 1981 by Doug Norton, a Ripon Saloon operator, who planned to operate the boat on Green Lake, and whose family ran steamboats on Green Lake for over 150 years. Unfortunately, bad weather sunk most of the boat at Raftsman's Lodge and Norton gave up on his plan. Later that year, the boat was purchased by Tom Clarkson and Fran Walsh, two Dells businessmen. Their plan was to take the boat to the Dells, set it on top of a block and steel building, and operate it as a multiple interest entertainment center, including a pizza and beer restaurant, ice cream parlor, and steamboat museum. That project never became a reality, and in 1984 the Apollo 2 was purchased by Tom and Joyce Sinkule and dry docked at the Heritage Trails campground, about 4 miles north of the Dells on Highway 13, where it was to be fitted as a museum and bait shop at the campground.

The current whereabouts of the Apollo No. 2 are unknown, and although the endeavor did not turn out to be a financial success for The Western River Steamboat Co. and The Dells Steamboat Line, Matthews says he would do it all over again if given the chance.  It was an invaluable experience to both he and Abrahamson, and truly shows what men can accomplish with passion, drive, and determination.

View the original Apollo Tour Book here.

Unfortunately, the Apollo II did not even complete a full year of tours before facing financial troubles. The boat only toured the Wisconsin Dells for one summer, when the operation officially became a financial failure. The owners began looking for buyers early as the winter of 1972. Since their meager beginnings with only $2,000 in lumber and high hopes, the Dells Steamboat Line received financial support from the Small Business Administration and a loan from the Reedsburg bank. However, two primary flaws in their overall business plan (or lack thereof) ultimately led to the boat's inevitable sale at auction by the bank in 1973.

To begin with, The Dells Steamboat Line was never able to secure a downtown location on Broadway, the Dells main thoroughfare, for their ticket outlet, and their dock on River Road was not easy for visitors to recognize. The second problem was their lack of funds for promotion and advertising, to compete with the Ducks and other modern, diesel powered boats that dominated the Dells at that time. The Coast Guard's delay in approving the boat for passengers didn't help matters either; it cost the operation an entire month of revenue waiting for the permit. For a weather-sensitive, tour boating operation in a state with only a few months of good weather each year, every month of revenue counts. The remaining summer months proved to be rainy and affected all tourist revenue that year. To make matters worse, the ticket salesmen at the competing tour-boat operations were doing a good job of talking prospective customers out of riding the Apollo with various tales about its safety. Any promotional assistance provided by the Chamber of Commerce would have required advance-payment, which the start-up operation could not afford without help from additional investors. Matthews admitted that "we were foolhardy enough to think that if we could just get enough money to build the boat, the rest would take care of itself".

Matthews and Abrahamson wanted the new steamboat to be historically accurate, so Matthews located the wreck in the river and hired divers, Owen Michaels, William Winegarden, Jr. and James Winegarden of Wisconsin Rapids, to salvage what was left of Apollo 1. In spite of the dark-stained water with less than 12" of visibility and a strong river current, the divers with the use of some donated equipment from A.E. Michael Construction Co., were able to extract the engine of Apollo 1, along with enough bolts, timbers, and parts to guide the recreation of the boat. After studying old photos of the original steamboat and information provided by the John Crerar library in Chicago, together with the sunken artifacts found in the river, Matthews was able to accurately draw plans to recreate Apollo No. 1. "All the work on the engines and the design had to be approved by the Coast Guard. All of the pieces of the two engines had to be individually cast," Matthews said.

After working in the once bustling river town of the Dells since 1964, Gerry Matthews learned of Apollo No. 1 (also shown left) from the guides on a river tour of the Dells, and became intrigued with the idea of having an authentic paddlewheel steamboat in the Dells once again. Meanwhile, historian Ardell ("A.J.") Abrahamson, originally from Grand Forks, ND, moved to the Dells in the mid 1960s to research steamboats. He had been a movie cameraman making educational films for the University of Minnesota, but always had a passion for steamboats and wanted to build one in North Dakota. The two were introduced by a mutual friend, Captain Don Saunders, who knew of their common interest, and in 1968, the two men combined their talents and began with $2,000 worth of lumber, to create what would soon become Apollo II. Three other men soon joined the crew to build Apollo No. 2, Gaylord Johnson of Port Edwards, Herb Nichols of Wisconsin Rapids, and William Steinke of Port Edwards. Zora Leach, Herb Nichols, and Warren Winegarden later joined Matthews and Abrahamson as stockholders in the Western River Steamboat Co., Ltd. which later operated as The Dells Steamboat Line.

Apollo No. 1 was an excursion steamboat, that began taking as many as 400 tourists at a time through the natural, scenic beauty of the world famous Wisconsin Dells in 1898. The boat continued running until 1931, when it was considered obsolete, and was taken up river to be burned and sunk between Stand Rock and Witches Gultch. Apollo No. 1 carried close to a million and a half passengers during her nearly 35 years of operation.

Sources Cited

  1. Newhouse, John. "The Apollo Will Float Again." Wisconsin State Journal 1 Dec 1968: page 1, Section 2.
  2. Sharkey, Karen Goetzke. "South Wood County group joins in rebuilding Wisconsin Dells steamboat." The Daily Tribune 22 Oct 1969: page 1.
  3. "City Holds Up Final Approval for Apollo." Wisconsin Dells Events 16 Mar 1972.
  4. "Transformation." Wisconsin Dells Events 13 Apr 1972: page 1.
  5. Mueller, Sue. "Upper Dells Trips Scheduled...Steamboat Apollo Rises Again." Wisconsin Dells Events 25 May 1972: page 1.
  6. "Apollo II Arrives." Wisconsin Dells Events 15 Jun 1972: page 1.
  7. "Sternwheel Returns to Dells." The Milwaukee Journal 25 Jun 1972: part 4.
  8. Karius, Joe. "Steamboat Debut 'Dream Come True' for Area Residents." The Daily Tribune 26 Jun 1972: Second Section, page 1.
  9. Mueller, Sue. "Maiden Voyage of Apollo II." Wisconsin Dells Events 6 Jul 1972: Section Two, Picture Page.
  10. "The New Sternwheeler Apollo." National Fisherman Jul 1972: page 8-B.
  11. Newhouse, John. "'Impossible Work' of Two Men: New Boat Has Instant History." Wisconsin State Journal 13 Aug 1972: Section 5, page 1.
  12. "In Troubled Waters...Apollo II Steamboat Up For Sale." Wisconsin Dells Events 22 Mar 1973.
  13. Cosgrove, Howard. "Dells Dream Dies On Auction Block." The Capital Times 31 Mar 1973: page 11.
  14. "Sale to End Steamboat Dreams." The Milwaukee Journal 1 Apr 1973.
  15. "Dells Steamboat Bids Too Low." The Capital Times 3 Apr 1973: page 25.
  16. "Dells Steamboat Bids Too Low." Baraboo News Republic 4 Apr 1973: page 11.
  17. Karius, Joseph. "String of Setbacks Puts Steamboat in Financial Straits." The Daily Tribine 4 Apr 1973.
  18. "No Sale at Auction...Apollo Will Ride Again." Wisconsin Dells Events 5 Apr 1973: page 1.
  19. Walch, Kathy. "More Problems for Apollo."
  20. "Bank Seeks Sale of Apollo." Wisconsin Dells Events 3 May 1973.
  21. "Dells Men Want to Raise Apollo." Wisconsin Dells Events 3 Jun 1982: page 1, 15.
  22. "Overland to Dry Dock." Wisconsin State Journal 6 Jun 1984: page 1.

Apollo II

artist   |   sculptor   |   Painter   |   designer

Gerald L Matthews