Operating The Tule Princess Steamboat With mack H. Fox



An Age Of Simplicity And Elegance: The Tule Princess

The Last Operational, Full Size Walking Beam Steam Engine Powering A Side Wheel Paddle Steamboat Anywhere In The World

The Tule Princess Steamboat [Courtesy/Tule Princess]

Steaming proudly out onto the wide open view on Lake Nasworthy in San Angelo, Texas, the Tule Princess is the last operational, full size walking beam steam engine powering a side wheel paddle steamboat anywhere in the world. Its uniqueness offers travelers a chance to experience “an age of simplicity and elegance.”

For owner and captain, Mack H. Fox, obtaining and operating the Tule Princess was dream come true.

The journey began back in 1995. Fox was in Chicago pursuing a career in theater and acting. He decided to take up boating as a hobby, feeling comfortable with his current job as a bar and restaurant manager, running a tavern and cafe on the north side of Chicago.

He started looking for a boat. But he didn't want a sail boat (“too complicated”) or an engine-powered boat (“too common”). Through books recommended by other steamboaters and other publications, Fox began researching about steam engine theory and practical operational skills.

The Tule Princess was built in 1983 by a Californian named David Sarlin, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area.  He built the Tule Princess' 12.5 foot tall steam engine by hand in his own garage over a two year period. Sarlin launched the Tule Princess in 1984 [in San Francisco] and operated her till his death in 1995.

In 2005, Fox moved back to his hometown of San Angelo, Texas “to do what an elder son should do – making sure mom was okay.” He got a job teaching music at the Bonham Elementary School in the San Angelo Independent School District. He's been a music teacher for 10 years now, optimizing his Music Education degree from Angelo State University.

Captain Mack H. Fox Explaining The History Of The Tule Princess [Courtesy/Tule Princess]

Fast forward to March of 2013. Fox saw the Tule Princess for sale from a boat enthusiast in Michigan.

“I started thinking of some alterations that could be done to the deck configurations, like creating a large open fantail aft deck that could accommodate custom made benches [and] the possibility of making [it] a charter vessel. [That way we could take] up to 15 people out for rides in our little lake in San Angelo,” explains Fox.

After working on a small business plan and getting approval to finance from the bank, Fox’s goal was about to be attained.

Then there was a huge drought. The bank worried that the lake would be dry by summer and [consequently] turned down the loan. Fox told the bank that San Angelo was right on the cusp of a major flood, which happens every 17 years. But without proof, the bank didn't feel confident with the business plan. A record breaking rain which caused the lake to go up 12 and a half feet prompting the first opening of the local flood gates in 25 years changed the bank’s mind.

The other speed bump was that the Michigan owner Ed Morris thought their bid was too low but relented when he saw that Fox embraced the passion the original owner David Sarlin had for building it.

“David's hope was to keep a working example of walking-beam engine for future generations,” said Fox. “This boat represents the labor of a man that was dedicated to keeping a certain type of marine engine technology that was uniquely American. It wasn't until early 1900s that we advanced enough to make high pressure steam engines, going from paddle wheels to propellers.”

Enjoying A Ride On The Tule Princess [Courtesy/Tule Princess]
The Captain Gets Ready To Tie The Boat To The Dock [Courtesy/Tule Princess]

Not only were steamboats a valuable form of transportation and a way to import and export goods between 1815 and 1910, but a side wheel paddle steamboat with a walking beam engine named “The Yellowstone” played a big role in establishing Texas as a nation. The Yellowstone was instrumental in helping San Houston's Texas Independence Army cross the flood swollen Brazos River in 1836, during his strategic fallback maneuver to evade General Santa Anna's Mexican Army after the Fall of the Alamo.

 “They directly affected the future of this state,” said Fox. “Texas may not even be here if it weren't for steamboats.”

On the tour, the Tule Princess cruises on Lake Nasworthy at four miles per hour (“It doesn't sound very fast but the Yellowstone only went four miles an hour and it changed the whole scope of transportation in this country.”)

“Many people that come on board are shocked to find out that we have a real steam engine,” continues Fox. “Their eyes get huge. [Some of these people] are older guys…motor heads, who think they know everything. Other people don't ask questions. They marvel at how it's so quiet and calm”

Along with his Chief Engineer Anthony Edmund, Operations Manager Debra Edmund, Fireman and Assistant Engineer Gene Roberts as well as the three high school-aged deck hands from his classes, Fox is proud that “we all share this vision of maintaining this unique, one of a kind boat,” said Fox. “We work on it…pray on it…and miracles come. It's been a family thing. It's been a team thing. We'll do anything to keep this boat viable and running.”

Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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