Our Story


The Early Years

For more than 45 years, the Princess Riverboats have been chartering passengers around Michigan's rivers and lakes. In 1976, John and Karla Chamberlain started a small canoe rental business in Lansing's Potter Park. After a few years, they expanded their business by purchasing an old barge and building it into their first boat, the Spirit of Lansing. This boat operated out of Potter Park and took passengers downtown to Adado Riverfront Park.

The Princess Laura

The Spirit of Lansing became so popular that they needed a larger boat to accommodate all their new passengers. In 1984, they christened the Princess Laura, named after John's daughter. This boat was double the size and held 110 passengers. Communities throughout the state began asking John to transport Laura to their waterfronts for different festivals.

The Michigan Princess

John spent a few years planning his next project and spending time with family. His son Chris was now helping with the boat business. The new boat would be less affected by outside weather and could manage large scale events. In 1991, Governor John Engler christened the Michigan Princess.

The boat was originally designed to be disassembled and moved to different communities. As more people around Lansing became familiar with the Michigan Princess, the demand to rent it for private parties grew. In 1998, the boat went through a major remodel to expand its size. At that same time the Spirit of Lansing was retired. The Michigan Princess now able to handle 500 passengers, has stayed and operated out of Grand River Park ever since. With over 500,000 passengers served the Michigan Princess is the largest vessel to ever run this part of the Grand River. The history of the area and boating goes much farther back.

The Detroit Princess

While the Michigan Princess was a huge success, Captain John had even bigger plans for his next boat. He considered purchasing one of the original Bob-Lo Boats, the large steam vessels that transported passengers between Detroit and Bois Blanc Island for nearly a century. After touring the boats, talking with the Coast Guard, and doing some heavy research, he decided it would take too large an investment to restore these boats to their former glory. But the dream to operate a boat out of Detroit was not lost. In 2004, John found a boat for sale in the classified ads that was perfect. There was only one issue – it was in Texas on the Gulf Coast. John and his wife knew they were facing a giant hurdle to bring it to Detroit, but they purchased the boat anyway and set sail for Detroit in May. They only made it as far as Florida before they hit the first bump in the road. Hurricane season had settled in and they had to delay their trip for four weeks, which meant paying extra docking and fuel expenses. To pay for the amount of fuel they needed to make it home, John and Karla had to make the tough choice to sell Princess Laura. Despite these set backs, they safely brought the boat to Detroit – and it only took 104 days!

The Grand Princess

John and his son Chris began building a new boat to replace the Princess Laura. In 2010, they completed The Grand Princess, a boat almost the same size as its predecessor with an enclosed lower deck. This has operated at several locations over years but primarily out of Island Park in Grand Ledge with tours to the Ledges along the river.

Little Traverse Bay Ferry

In 2019 Chris met with a number of people in the Petoskey region of Michigan inquiring about bringing a ferry to run in Little Traverse Bay. There was a lot of discussion about how best to bring a ferry that would run between the three communities of Bay Harbor, Harbor Springs, and Petoskey. With that in mind a group was formed called the Little Traverse Bay Foundation with members from all three communities. With the experience of starting new boating operation Chris had a number of concerns in starting this boat operation with out support. The foundation in partnership with Princess Riverboats raised funds to support the initial start up cost and investment to bring the boat to Little Traverse Bay. Ultimately, they settled on a smaller boat to get in and out of the busy ports more easily. The Little Traverse Bay Ferry is a retired launch from a navy destroyer tender AD41 USS Yellowstone. We are happy to report we are expecting another great season.

The Harbor Princess

The Harbor Princess originally was called the Emerald Isle and was custom built in 1955 to Ferry people from Charlevoix Michigan to Beaver Island. It did that for a number of years before being purchased and taken to Mackinac Island and ran as an Arnold Line boat under the same name. It did that for a number of years then spent a short period in Milwaukee doing harbor tours before finding its way to Detroit and changing its name to Diamond Jack. It spent 30 years doing sightseeing tours on the Detroit River before finding its way home to Petoskey. To avoid confusion we changed the name to Harbor Princess as the current ferry that runs out to Beaver Island Island is called the Emerald Isle.

Captain Chris's Story


Welcome aboard! I'm Captain Chris. Before we shove off today, I have to tell everyone where the life jackets are stored. If you're on the lower level, they're in the front storage bins, but if you're on the second and third levels, you'll see them up in the rafters. If you pull the ripcord, all 500 of them will fall down. Before you do that, you should know the river is about 6 feet deep, and the boat's 30 feet tall, so by the time you get upstairs, your feet aren't going to get wet. In the 100-and-some-odd years there's been a riverboat running here, it's never sunk, but I'll keep a lookout for icebergs today, just in case. We have a few minutes before we depart, so I'd like to share a little bit of history and information about the river.

We're cruising on the Grand River today, the longest and largest inland river in Michigan. The Grand River starts just south of Jackson in a little town called Liberty, Michigan, flows north through Jackson and Eaton Rapids, Diamond Dale, Lansing, does a big turn around Lansing, and heads west to Grand Ledge, then on to Portland and Lyons, near Ionia, Ada, Plainfield, Grand Rapids, and finally Grand Haven at the end. It's almost a mile across at Spring Lake, which empties into Lake Michigan. It's about 252 miles in length, and we're about 105 miles up the river from Lake Michigan. There are 12 other tributary rivers that join in along the way, including the Red Cedar, the Mud River, the Flat River, the Tittabawassee, and Looking Glass.

The Native Americans were the first people to inhabit the areas near the river. There were two primary tribes: in the middle of Michigan, it was more the Potawatomi, and over near Lake Michigan, it was more of the Ottawa. If you've heard of Okemos, Michigan, Chief Okemos lived along the river but downstream from here. The first Europeans to really come up the river were the French, primarily for trapping and trading. Not long after that, other Europeans started coming up the river, and you have to imagine, Michigan was a very dense forest with no roads, and the trains weren't really developed up here yet, so the only way to get your supplies inland was to load up a canoe or barge and take it up the river. As they settled along the riverbanks, they put in 12 dams to harness the water power for sawing lumber and grinding grain. The south side of the river, where we're cruising along, has a road that goes along it called Moore's River Drive. Mr. Moore was a lumber baron, and you have to imagine, lumbering back then involved cutting down trees in the winter and dragging them out onto the frozen river. In the winter, they would float down to the sawmill at the dam in the spring. This allowed this area to be developed because it was cleared early on. We'll cruise along, and if you've ever been to Francis Park, Francis was Mr. Moore's wife, and she planted a lovely rose garden. There's a beautiful outlook in the park there of the river.

In the meantime, those dams they put in stabilized the river level and allowed a group of 13 steamboats to run the river, just like a modern bus system. You could get on one boat, ride it up to the dam, get off, walk around, get on the next boat, and go all the way up the river. This was number 12 of the 13 boats, and in the mid to late 1800s, they made Lansing the capital of the state, so nobody was really going any further up the river. So, Captain Loomis got together with Mr. Ledley, a local businessman, and they built an amusement park up the river.

(What you might not know is where the engines for the steamboats came from. R.E. Olds was originally a machine shop, and it was his father's machine shop, but he expanded quickly and built the original steam engines for the original steamboats that ran along the river here. He experimented with a number of different kinds of propulsion. In fact, if you can imagine, in the 1890s, he had a gasoline boiler on a boat out here that was propeller-driven. Now just think about this for a minute: the Titanic was crossing the ocean in 1912, and they were burning coal, and Olds was so far ahead of his time, he was running a gasoline steam-powered boat in addition to a gasoline internal combustion boat right here on this very spot that we're cruising. A little bit of truth in this story: they built the steam engine for a boat that took people to the amusement park. Jumbo was the name of the boat, and they couldn't afford the

payments on the steam engine. So, Olds repossessed the boat and ended up driving it for a few summers, making pretty decent money.)

The only way to get to the amusement park was by boat, of course, and the same for getting back. Everyone got a round-trip ticket, right? The park was quite a popular attraction with a ferris wheel, carousel, and particularly the electric light bulb. In the 1880s, electricity was big news but rarely seen. The park operators brought in early generator sets and lit up a tree, drawing crowds from all over. The park ran for about 20 years until a competing amusement park opened across town at Lake Lansing. Mr. Ledley passed away, and within a few years, the park and the boat both shut down.