Long live the Queen

Elkhart Lake man's model keeps spirit of lake tour boat alive
by Bill Rathman Special to The Review


The Elkhart Queen was a fixture on the waters of Elkhart Lake for decades, providing tours for visitors and preserving pieces of several historic resorts in its railings, deck, ladder, steering wheel and more. Today the boat is used only for charters and to put in and take out buoys for sailboat races. — Submitted photo The Elkhart Queen was a fixture on the waters of Elkhart Lake for decades, providing tours for visitors and preserving pieces of several historic resorts in its railings, deck, ladder, steering wheel and more. Today the boat is used only for charters and to put in and take out buoys for sailboat races. — Submitted photo ELKHART LAKE — It was 1956 and Jim Karras was the head chef at the Schwartz Hotel.

Jim had a young son, Tom, who spent most of the summer at the beach. To keep Tom from being bored, Jim Karras bought three row boats for his son to rent out.

That was the beginning of Captain Tom's Boat Business.

The business expanded through the years adding motors, sails and water ski boats. In 1959 Jim Benson, who was washing dishes at the resorts, started working with Tom in his business.

In 1963 Bill Rathman started his career as a science teacher at Elkhart Lake High School with Jim Benson being a student in his first chemistry class. Jim graduated that year and in fall attended the University of Wisconsin.


Bill Rathman (right) shows Jim Benson the model he built of the Elkhart Queen on board the original pontoon tour boat. 
— Submitted photo Bill Rathman (right) shows Jim Benson the model he built of the Elkhart Queen on board the original pontoon tour boat. — Submitted photo Through his college years, he returned summers to work at Captain Tom's. After graduation from college, Jim taught social studies in Sun Prairie.

Tom Karras finished high school in Florida. He went to school at the University of Wisconsin and became a successful cardiologist in San Diego, Calif. Tom continued to return to Elkhart Lake to be part of the business.Later, Tom married France, the sister of Jim Benson.

In 1960 Captain Tom began to give boat tours of Elkhart Lake using his speed boats at 75 cents a tour. Soon, this became so popular that a larger boat was needed.

In the early 70's large pontoon boats were very scarce. Jim Karras began looking for large pontoons on which to build the Queen.


This model of the Elkhart Queen will be displayed in the Elkhart Lake Public Library. 
— Submitted photo This model of the Elkhart Queen will be displayed in the Elkhart Lake Public Library. — Submitted photo In 1971 he found a pair of fiberglass pontoons located on an island in the Mississippi River. That winter the pontoons were brought across the ice in the river and trailered to the parking lot of the Schwartz Hotel.

Here, Jim Karras cut the wood pieces that would be placed on the pontoons. The pontoons and wood pieces were then taken to the outlet where the boat was assembled in the water.

The first year of operation, the Queen had no top structure.Therailingsweremadefrom2x4'swith 2x2spokes.Thesteeringpositionwasontheside, which was later changed in 1973 to the rear position.

In 1976 stairs were purchased from the Schwartz, Pine Point and Sharpe's Resorts. The spindles and rails from the stairs were used to make new railings for the Queen.

In 1986, spindles from Bare Foot Bay chairs were used to add the high deck at the rear of the boat. A ladder was added to the side of the boat, which was taken from the Schwartz raft.

Also, a new steering wheel was installed, built from Schlitz Beer Tappers made by

Keys Mfg. in Elkhart Lake.

Tom, Jim and Bill came together in the 80's as members of the Elkhart Lake Sailing Club racing against each other on Sunday afternoons. Many of their children also raced with the club, growing up together enjoying Elkhart Lake. Many times they would sleep overnight on the deck of the Queen.

From 1972-1988 the Queen was used to take two rides a day, six days a week for an average of 200 riders per week.

At the end of 1988 Captain

Tom's Boat Rental went out of business.

Today the Queen is used for charters only and to put out and take in the buoys from the sailboat races.

Every fall the boat is dismantled down to the base structure. All railings and furniture are removed.

In 2009, Bill got an idea to build a model of the Queen. There have been other excursion boats in the past history of Elkhart Lake, but Bill found only a few pictures of these crafts and no models.

Since the Queen is wintered just about 400 feet from Bill's home, it was very convenient to photograph and measure both the under and upper structure of the boat. Bill decided on 1/36 scale for no apparent reason.

The model is made mainly of balsa wood with railings spindles made from toothpicks. Bill's wife Susy helped by making the awning using her quilting skills. Bill estimates it took approximately 300 hours to complete the model.

In 2010, when the model was about half finished, it fell off a shelf breaking off two of the roof supports and part of the back railings. It took almost a year before he could start working on it again.

Coincidently the same year, a late summer storm came up on Elkhart Lake tearing off the Queen's awning and snapping some of the roof supports.

That fall and spring Jim Benson did a lot of repair to the boat.

The model was completed in August of this year and will be displayed in the Elkhart Lake Public Library.


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