Lake Meridian group to replace Kent’s popular Meridian Belle boat

Michelle McDowell walked out on the dock behind her Lake Meridian home and looked at the Meridian Belle before crews started to tear apart the 40-year-old boat. "She's just falling apart," said McDowell, who carefully stepped up on the boat but took only a few steps because of the weak floorboards. The boat had once been the queen of the lake hosting dinner parties and even a brass band as it traveled around the lake on Kent's East Hill. But nobody had used the boat for a couple of years because of its bad condition. That, however, is all about to change.

Project coordinator Bruce Axworthy

Project coordinator Bruce Axworthy

Michelle McDowell walked out on the dock behind her Lake Meridian home and looked at the Meridian Belle before crews started to tear apart the 40-year-old boat.

“She’s just falling apart,” said McDowell, who carefully stepped up on the boat but took only a few steps because of the weak floorboards.

The boat had once been the queen of the lake hosting dinner parties and even a brass band as it traveled around the lake on Kent’s East Hill. But nobody had used the boat for a couple of years because of its bad condition.

That, however, is all about to change.

More than a dozen members of the Lake Meridian Community Association tore apart the boat July 24. A new boat will replace the Belle and launch later this summer for use by lake residents.

The community association received a $15,000 matching grant three weeks ago from the city of Kent Neighborhood Council program to help fund the project. McDowell said the total repair cost will be about $30,000 to $35,000 but that cost will be reduced because of donated labor.

Cecil Johnston, owner of Washington Dock Builders (previously Johnston’s Docks) in Kent, is building the new Belle.

“It used to lead our Fourth of July boat parades and a brass band even played on it,” said McDowell, president of the Lake Meridian Community Association. “But she became too dangerous to use.”

Volunteer crews salvaged as many of the parts as possible, including the bell and smoke stack.

“We want to try to keep the flavor of the old Belle,” McDowell said.

The new pontoon boat will be about 32 feet long, Johnston said. The boat will have a double deck, so several people can sit or stand atop the roof. It will hold 15 to 20 people.

“It will have all of the riverboat flavor as this Belle, including the paddlewheel,” McDowell said. “It will be a new paddlewheel.”

The paddlewheel, missing several key pieces, stopped working on the old Belle.

“I can’t wait to see the after,” McDowell said as she eyed the Belle for one last time before destruction. “I remember seeing it sitting across the lake when I moved here 16 years ago. It was part of the charm of the lake.”

Johnston promises the new Belle will look marvelous.

“It’ll be a eye catcher,” said Johnston, whose company moved in May to Kent after 19 years in Auburn. “It’ll be a beautiful boat. It’s a labor of love for me and should provide a lot of exposure for us. We hope people see the pontoon boat on the lake and then they will want one.”

The old Belle did not feature an upstairs area. The new boat will have a railing so people can go upstairs.

The Lake Meridian Community Association will own the boat, which is expected to be ready for use by the end of summer. Members of the association will be able to rent the boat for an evening for a small maintenance fee.

Hugh and Hazel Hartnett built the Meridian Belle in 1970 and brought the community together with dinner parties and evenings on the lake, McDowell said. Hazel Hartnett died July 18 at the age of 94. Her husband preceded her in death. Hazel Hartnett had been a longtime lake resident until moving away a few years ago.

“I hoped she would be here to see the new Belle built,” McDowell said.

A storm wrecked the boat in 1983, but then-owner Bob Fitch had the boat repaired and launched it again in 1986. Tom Brotherton, a former Kent City councilman, bought the boat in 1997 and donated it three years ago to the lake community group after he moved off the lake.

Johnston said he has kept the costs as low as possible to build the new Belle.

The community association plans a fundraising campaign to purchase a 50 to 90 horsepower outboard for the Belle, pay the sales tax portion of the new boat and refurbish some of the distinguishing features on the old Belle to be used on the new, McDowell said. The group is considering selling tiles or plaques on the Belle to offset some of the costs.

Over the years, the boat carried local dignitaries around the lake for the Fourth of July parades, served as a starting point for the Fourth of July boat races, dragon boat races and hosted dinner parties.

McDowell expects the new Belle to get plenty of use for those events.

“In this time there is not a lot of money for big vacations,” she said. “But you can spend a few hours on the Belle with your neighbors so it’s like a vacation.”


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