The rum-running, party-hopping wooden belle of Rainy Lake
The 85-year-old Virginia may look like a distinguished lady as she motors along the wind-whipped surface of Rainy Lake near Voyageurs National Park, but her life story teems with drama and secrets. She sank twice – for each of her three owners. It was said that during Prohibition she was sometimes taken to Canada, loaded up with liquor and steered back to a small island, where a speed boat would come and pick it up the illicit goods for distribution in the United States.
The saga of the Virginia started in the early 20th century with a man named Major Roberts, who owned a tiny island in Rainy Lake. The island was called Atisokan. Atisokan is an Ojibwe word that means “legend” or “storyteller.” In 1926, Major Roberts commissioned the Electric Launch Company out of Bayonne, N.J.to build him a boat. It arrived in 1928. He named it after his beautiful, intelligent daughter.
Fifty feet long and 11 feet wide, the wooden Virginia draws 3 1/2 feet, sleeps 8 and can transport up to 24 people. It was costly to launch and spent a lot of time sitting in dry dock. Major Roberts mainly used the boat to whisk guests to and from the grand socials held at private homes around the lake.
The first sinking was Major Roberts’ fault. He was out in the woods and forgot to place the plug in the bottom of the boat. When he and his friend, conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer, returned to the Virginia, they had to bail out the water before they could head home. Another time, the Virginia took on water and had to be run aground at a nearby island and rescued. She also sank twice for her second owner, Steve Lindstam.
When Jim Hanson was growing up, he and his parents often visited the camp at Atisokan. In the late 1970s, Jim’s family purchased the island. Time passed and life kept Jim busy, but his desire to purchase and restore the Virginia only grew. In 2008 he took the plunge.
Reflecting on the decision, Jim says that if he would have known the work involved, he might not have made the same choice. (One imagines the two sinkings he’s had to deal with also factor into this sentiment.) However, the restoration has truly been a labor of love. The Virginia now travels the channels and open expanses of Rainy Lake, restored to her full, gleaming glory.
The Virginia can be seen at Rainier Days in August.