The waterways of the United States have helped shape the nation from its earliest days, serving as one of the earliest modes of transportation for goods and travel, and playing a critical role in the lives and livelihoods of many Michiganders.
For more than four decades, the J&K Steamboat Co. has helped restore that cultural link to the past on Lansing-area rivers and beyond. The roots of the business date back to 1976, when John and Karla Chamberlain started a small canoe rental business in Lansing’s Potter Park. With that venture underway, they expanded their business by purchasing a barge and building it into the first boat of many, the Spirit of Lansing. The Spirit of Lansing would operate out of Potter Park and would take passengers downtown to Adado Riverfront Park.
The popularity of the Spirit of Lansing would soon force the Chamberlains into a larger boat. In 1984, the Princess Laura, named after the Chamberlains’ daughter, began taking as many as 110 passengers on the waterways of Michigan.
The Michigan Princess was the next boat that the couple set their sights on, with the idea of a boat that could handle large events and inclement weather. It was christened by then-Gov. John Engler in 1991, with a remodel to expand its size in 1998.
“The Spirit of Lansing and the Princess Laura did not have as much cover as the Michigan Princess would have,” explained Chris Chamberlain, John’s son and the current owner of the J&K Steamboat Co.
“The Michigan Princess is able to hold up to 500 passengers and not worry about if the rain starts up at a corporate event we’re holding.”
When the large steamers that once ferried passengers to and from the Boblo Island amusement park at the mouth of the Detroit River went up for sale, John considered purchasing them but discovered that they would be too much of an investment to restore.
However, the idea of operating such a boat stuck with him, and in 2004 he purchased the perfect vessel. The only problem was that this perfect boat was an old casino ship off the coast of Texas. It took John and Chris 104 days to sail all the way back to Michigan. They christened her the Detroit Princess.
Along the way, John and Karla made the tough decision to sell the Princess Laura, but the couple replaced her with the Grand Princess in 2010. The Grand Princess was of comparable size but had an enclosed lower deck.
Chris took over the company after his father passed away in 2013, and he is growing and expanding the business to new and exciting projects.
“It was amazing to see all the people he had impacted,” said Chris Chamberlain. “People tell me all the time how he had let them steer the boat as a kid and they’d come back years later to get married on the same boat.
“We don’t just sell boat rides,” explained Chris. “We give people the experience and memories that people love, and they come back to share that with their friends and family. I always feel lucky to be a part of that.”
Chris also likes how his boats create environmental awareness in his passengers.
“When people get out on the river, they can actually see the water around them,” said Chris. “And that awareness really shows. The water is so much better than it was 10 years ago. I can see that the community is really looking at the river differently.”