Matriark: Grande Dame of Geneva Lake Yachts

By Anne Morrissy | Photography By Holly Leitner

In the late 1940s, a teenager named Bill Gage begged his father, Russell, to let him drive the family motorboat. Instead, Russell made a deal with him: If Bill could find an older boat that needed some work, they could buy it and restore the boat together and then Russell would teach him to drive it. So Bill went out in a small outboard runabout and began scouting. The boat he found was probably not what Russell originally had in mind. Rusting away in Williams Bay, Bill discovered an 87-foot-long, turn-of-the-century steam yacht formerly owned by Richard Teller Crane, founder of Chicago’s famous Crane Company. The boat, formerly known as the Passaic, was badly in need of restoration. Although initially skeptical, Russell stepped onto the once-grand yacht and discovered a life’s passion.

FROM PRIVATE YACHT TO WOULD-BE TOUR BOAT

Beginning in the early 1900s, the Passaic had been a familiar sight around Geneva Lake. The elegant yacht was built by the Racine Boat Company in 1899 and eventually launched in Williams Bay, with RT Crane’s daughter, Dorothy Crane Maxwell, performing the christening honors. Like many families with homes on Geneva Lake during that era, the Cranes used the yacht for transportation from the train station in Williams Bay to their home on the lake. They also used it for trips to places like the Lake Geneva Yacht Club, the Lake Geneva Country Club and other private homes on the lake.

The Passaic was designed by marine architect George Warrington, who designed several of the steam yachts on Geneva Lake between 1890 and 1902. (The following year, President Teddy Roosevelt appointed Warrington Chief of the Division of Marine Engineering, a subsidiary of the Department of Commerce, a position he held through 1915.) Born in Chicago in 1856, Warrington went on to study mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois, and then worked in the family’s iron works before launching a successful career as a marine architect. Through his social connections in Chicago, Warrington received commissions to design yachts for several of the Gilded Age resorters who built homes on Geneva Lake.

Warrington’s design for the Crane family’s Passaic featured a gracefully curved bow fitted with a bowsprit to evoke an old clipper ship. According to yacht historian Larry Larkin, author of two books on the history of Geneva Lake yachts, the design of the Passaic was one of the most elegant and beautiful boats that Warrington designed during this era. “If you look at the deck line of the [Passaic], it rises at the back and dips down slightly toward the front of the cabin and then imperceptibly it begins to curve upward but it flattens out as you get toward the bow,” he describes. “It’s difficult to create and it’s the most important line in the sense of the look of the bow. The [Passaic] is a wonderful example of that.” The boat’s metal hull was plated with quarter- inch-thick steel that was originally painted white. However, RT Crane requested that the smokestack be painted orange with a black band, the official colors of the Crane Company.

The Crane family used the boat through the 1930s, but as steam engines became obsolete and smaller gasoline-powered motorboats took over the lake, the Cranes sold the boat to the Delavan Lake Boat Company for use as a tour boat, at which time the name of the boat was changed to the Clipper. However, according to Larkin, the boat was not well suited to Delavan Lake and by the end of WWII, it was out of use. In the summer of 1945, a local businessman named AC Thomas who owned the Speedcraft Transportation Company in Williams Bay bought the boat with the intention of using it for tours on Geneva Lake. He replaced the steam engine with a lighter and safer gasoline engine, but again, Larkin says, the endeavor failed and the boat sat abandoned.

THE FIRST RESTORATION

By the time Russell and Bill Gage found the boat in the late 1940s, years of neglect had taken a toll. Luckily, Russell Gage had a lot of contacts with knowledge of boats: he had previously been in charge of the Williams Bay-based, boat-building division of the Globe Corporation, owned by George F. Getz Jr., another Geneva Lake summer resident. With the help of several friends and colleagues, Russell and Bill spent many months in 1949 rebuilding and restoring the boat. They sandblasted and reinforced the steel hull; installed new shafting, new bearings, a new 225-horsepower gasoline engine, an automatic fire extinguishing system and a fresh water system; replaced the deck, the cabin, the brass work and the smokestack; added a power plant and new wiring to provide electric power; and replaced the steering mechanism and the instrument panel, among other upgrades. They renamed the boat the Matriark.

Shortly after restoring the boat, Russell Gage took a job in California and put the Matriark into storage, but in 1953, he brought his family back to the lake for the summer and converted the Matriark into a living quarters for himself, his wife, their two children and the family dog. An article in the Janesville Gazette from that summer shows the family on the deck of the boat under the headline, “Geneva Family Lives in Summer Luxury Aboard Renovated Yacht, Matriark.” Five years later, the family moved back to the area permanently when Russell Gage purchased the Wisconsin Transportation Company, a Geneva Lake tour boat company, today known as Lake Geneva Cruise Line.

A SECOND RESTORATION AND A THIRD GENERATION

Bill Gage eventually took over the family business, and according to Larkin, he became an avid student of yacht design and history. “Bill was a real intellectual for boat history and boat design, and he developed a passion for European boats,” Larkin explains. This deep knowledge of European boat design influenced another restoration of the Matriark that began in 1980 and continued until 1991.

Using his vast research, Bill Gage, along with his son Bill Jr., completed a second significant restoration. “At that time, about 40% of the hull had to be replaced,” Bill Gage Jr., explains. “We changed everything: the engine, the generator, we basically stripped everything off the boat. We saved the original mahogany handrails, brass stanchions, a few other ornamental pieces, and then basically rebuilt everything from scratch.” During this restoration, the exterior of the Matriark was painted a deep navy blue inspired by the European yachts that Bill Gage admired, the color it still retains to this day.

Bill Gage has since passed away, and today, Bill Gage Jr., serves as the president of Lake Geneva Cruise Line as well as Gage Marine and popular restaurant and bar Pier 290 in Williams Bay. The Matriark is a familiar sight docked outside his family’s home on Geneva Lake’s north shore, and Gage says that he and his family primarily use the boat to enjoy the lake and entertain friends. In addition, Gage frequently makes the Matriark available for charity events and occasionally loans it out for private parties. He says the boat has inspired his family in other ways as well.

“For a little over 70 years now, we’ve been taking care of it,” Gage explains. “That love is something that’s been infectious with our family, and it’s extended to other parts of the business as well — whether it’s restoring old steamers for the cruise line or saving salvaged parts and collecting history for the interior of Pier 290. We’re always looking for ways to connect to the past and make it relevant in the current times.”

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