At 18, She Bore Witness As The Paula Lee
‘Burned To Water Line,’ Had To Replace It
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – It’s kismet. Or so it seems, that Paula Wikoff was born to be captain of The Glimmerglass Queen.
Her grandfather, Alfred Engelman, built the original Lakefront Hotel & Restaurant from Quonset huts he bought at an auction of surplus World War II materiel. At the same auction, he bought a surplus World War II landing craft.
He converted it into a double-decker that echoed a Mississippi River paddleboat, and put it in the waters of Otsego Lake a year before today’s Captain Wikoff was born.
Engelman named it “The Paula,” after his wife. But a year later, when his darling granddaughter was born to their daughter Haidy and her husband, Bill Zoeller, she was named for both her grandmothers.
And the joyful granddad renamed the boat “The Paula Lee” after the newborn.
She grew up with The Paula Lee. Then, in 1973, just before her 18th birthday, it caught fire. From the family home in Lakeland Shores, “We watched it burn down to the water line.”
Time went on, Paula Zoeller went to college, then moved to the Midwest, and met future husband Terry Wikoff. She missed family, came back to Cooperstown, and the couple created the Red Nugget ice cream stand and developed it into the second biggest Hershey outlet in New York State.
At 40, she and brother Fred Zoeller became partners in the family Lakefront enterprise. He focused on the restaurant; she, on the hotel – and her dream, replacing The Paula Lee.
Two decades ago, the opportunity arose. The late Lou Hager, of the Busch family, let the lease expire on The Paula Lee’s former slip at the bottom of Fair Street where, for years, he had provided boat rides on his famous launch, The Chief Uncas.
In short order, Paula sought out – and clicked – with an Albany boat building, John Scarano. “He worked hand-in-hand with me designing this boat,” she said, sitting in The Glimmerglass Queen’s water-level lounge after a recent one-hour tour.
She wanted a barge frame to provide stability on the water, necessary to host parties. And a 3-foot draft – the slip is shallow. She wanted it to be a double-decker, with an observation deck on top.
“I wanted it real nice inside,” she said, seated in one of the lounge’s director chairs and looking around the always spotless interior. “All of this was my design.”
For two years, there was no tour boat on James Fenimore Cooper’s Glimmerglass. The first year, design. The second year, the vessel was being built.
Her long-awaited dream come true, Paula was determined to captain the vessel. “They didn’t think I could do it,” she said. But May 15, 2002, she was at the wheel trying out The Glimmerglass Queen on its maiden voyage.
Just as Paula returned the brand new ship to the slip, a near-fatal drama began. A boat, just off shore, hit debris and the two fishermen aboard were thrown into the water.
The empty boat began circling at speeds up to an estimated 25 mph, according to a news article Wikoff has framed in the entryway. The fishermen were flailing. “I’m not going to make it,” Paula remembers one of the men calling out.
Meanwhile, with half the engine stalled, she backed The Glimmerglass Queen out of the slip and crew members snagged the struggling men, pulling in one on the port side, the other on starboard.
They were safe.
“I docked the boat,” Paula recalled, “and I collapsed on the dock. I was like a rubber band.”
All these years – and hundreds of uneventful voyages later – Paula sees meaning in that first-day mishap and the trouble-free years since.
“God did it on purpose,” she reflects. “God put that terrible thing in front of me. I haven’t been afraid of anything since.”