While visiting the quaint community of Carlsbad, New Mexico, this writer came to the conclusion that the city rates right up there with its UFO neighbor, Roswell. Carlsbad seems to have several mysterious locations that many residents don’t normally care to speak about even though many of the stories and places are plentiful. One of the sites with unexplained strange mishaps is the George Washington paddle wheel boat docked at Lake Carlsbad near the Pecos River.
obody knows the exact origin or the age of the mysterious boat, but it is estimated to have been built between 1920 and 1933. The George Washington was purchased in Kalamazoo, MI and brought to Carlsbad, NM in 1969. The engine had a coal fired 1872 steam motor. It took three workers to operate the boat. A driver, a stoker and a fireman controlled the sailing vessel. The George Washington was the first ride in the new amusement park called “President’s Park.”
Port Jefferson was opened in 1970 and severely damaged by the flooding of the Pecos River. The mighty George Washington rode the flood out securely anchored to the dock. But, in 1971 the George sank for the first time. Angry employees shot several holes in the boat with a rifle sinking it into the dock. The bullet holes still can be seen in the driver’s area. The George sank for the second time in 1972. A hose had been placed in the hull.
The George Washington experienced a terrible accident in 1973. The steam boiler blew up injuring one of the workers. The boiler was replaced with a diesel motor and a new hydro-drive system. All went well until 1975 when another accident plagued the doomed boat. A family riding in a speed boat on Lake Carlsbad accidently ran into the paddle wheel at over 30 miles an hour. No one was injured in the wreck, but this almost destroyed the paddle wheel. The paddle wheel was replaced, but never seemed to turn perfectly straight again.
The George sank for the third time in 1978. Over 20 people were aboard the boat and were rescued by wading back to the shore. Lucky for the passengers, the water was very shallow. Things ran smoothly for a few years until employees forgot to add water to the diesel motor. The motor overheated and had to be replaced. A four cylinder motor out of an old Ford tractor was installed.
In 1987 President’s park is sold to the City of Carlsbad. The mighty George Washington continued to serve the community. An unfortunate suicide took place on board the boat while it is in dock in 1988. Does this ghost remain as a permanent passenger? The George Washington sank for the fourth time in 1989 just as it sailed away from the pier. The Captain of the boat managed to get it safely back into the dock where it sank once again.
The George Washington was the first boat used on the Christmas on the Pecos tour in 1990. It was later replaced by the Pecos Queen. In 1991 the City of Carlsbad closed President’s Park for good. All rides were sold. The George Washington was put up for bids. The only bid received was $900 for scrap iron. The mayor refused to sell the boat, so the George sat in dry dock.
Three years later the Balzano family purchased the old paddle wheel, refurbished it and began to operate the boat once again. By 1995 the boat was working and returned as the star of the Christmas on the Pecos! The George Washington was nominated as the only historic boat in New Mexico in 1999. The nomination made it to the final evaluation but dismissed due to propulsion system being converted from steam to diesel. It was recognized as one of only a few boats that is still an authentic wooden driven paddle wheeler.
In 2002 the George Washington was dry docked in the beach parking lot due to the lake being drained for dock repairs. A woman just learning how to drive hit the gas pedal instead of the brake and hit the George going over 40 mph. The two people in the car were severely injured and rushed to the hospital. The boat also sustained damaged. Over two months of work were needed to repair the ill-fated boat.
Carlsbad experienced one of the worse flash floods in its history in 2004. The Pecos River flooded causing the docks and paddle wheel boat to wash away. The George was in danger of sinking once again. The Carlsbad fire department and the Balzano family rescued the stranded boat.
Derek Balzano resurrected the boat again from top to bottom in 2005 and it continues to serve Lake Carlsbad. Nancy and I were going to take a boat excursion along the lake and river front but after learning of the paddle wheel’s misfortunes, we knew we’d be riding on a sinking ship for sure. The George Washington seemed overdue for another unexplained event to add to its mystifying history!
It’s easy to get to Port Jefferson, home of Carlsbad Cruise Lines. From Canal St. (285/62/180), go east on Church St. Go 5 blocks to Park Dr. Turn left (north) on Park Dr. and immediately turn right (east) into the Port Jefferson parking lot.