Press-Republican

September 3, 2013

School chief pilots steamship

LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

LAKE GEORGE — Easing the steamship Minne-Ha-Ha out of its dock and into Lake George, John McDonald Jr. begins a running commentary to the more than 300 passengers over the ship’s public-address system.

“Good morning and welcome to the Minne-Ha-Ha,” the Ticonderoga resident says as he dodges parasailers and small boats and steers the huge paddlewheeler into the open water.

McDonald is not just captain of the Minne-Ha-Ha, one of three vessels operated by the Lake George Steamboat Co. — he’s also the superintendent of Ticonderoga Central School District.

SUMMER DIVERSION

This has been McDonald’s part-time summer job for 25 years, ever since former Ticonderoga High School guidance counselor William Connors told him about all the fun he was having as another summer captain for the Steamboat Co.

McDonald shares the helm of the Minne-Ha-Ha with retired Ticonderoga Central School teacher and curriculum coordinator Stephen Boyce, who’s been a captain for the steamship line for 32 years.

“I feel like the kid who grew up to drive the firetruck,” Boyce said. “It’s something different happening all the time. I like it a lot.”

Swinging the wheel to get closer to the shore and start a mini tour of some million-dollar camps, McDonald said he shares a love for the captain’s job.

“I wouldn’t have done it for so long if I didn’t like it. It’s a family company. They’re good people.”

SPECIAL LICENSE

Lake George Steamboat Co. was started by the Dow family in 1945, and they have three ships today: the Minne-Ha-Ha, Mohican and Lac du Saint Sacrement.

Built in 1969, the Minne-Ha-Ha is 134 feet long and has boilers capable of producing 6,000 pounds of steam and 200 horsepower.

Both McDonald and Boyce hold a state license called Masters of Public Passenger Vessels, as do all captains for Lake George Steamboat Co.

After he was named school superintendent in 2000, McDonald cut back on his steamboat job, but he’s recently started doing it again.

“It’s nice to keep in touch,” he said. “I work here two days a week; when I was a teacher, I worked four days on and four off.”

CALLIOPE

The Minne-Ha-Ha runs seven trips a day on Lake George, with a moonlight cruise sometimes added.

During their stints as captain, McDonald and Boyce have to be not just the pilots, but tour guides, entertainers and operators of the ship’s steam calliope that’s programmed to belt out tunes.

At one point, McDonald directs passengers to look at the shoreline, where someone has erected a 7-foot-tall model of the Statute of Liberty.

“You can see it’s not as large as you’d think when you get this close,” he says, pretending the replica is the real thing.

Operating a huge passenger steamship on one of the busiest lakes in the country is no small task.

“I remember in 1981, my first year here, I came in, hit the dock and took a chip out of the wood on the side of the pier,” Boyce said.

“The ship’s engineer painted ‘welcome to the club’ and my name on it and gave it to me. I still have it.”

McDonald takes the microphone one more time as the massive steamboat approaches its berth in Lake George village.

“In just a few minutes, we’ll be docking at the Steel Pier,” he tells passengers. “Please take a seat.”

Email Lohr McKinstry:lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com