North Idaho Revisited: Boat-maker Finney is at home on water (but also sand)

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COEUR d’ALENE — Try to fathom this one.

Fred Finney, a product of one of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s most storied, water-oriented families and a craftsman who built or modified the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s entire tour boat fleet and operated it for decades, and a North Idahoan legend in his own right, is “retired” in the Arizona desert. Yep, the Sonoran Desert.

“My lifestyle has changed quite a bit,” said the serious-minded but somewhat solitary 61-year-old lifelong boat captain.

In Peoria, just north of Phoenix, he has lots of cactus but no more snow, no more pine trees, no more meandering moose. But he does have one essential element — water. Finney and his family have been operating a cruise boat service — Lake Pleasant Cruises — for the last three years near the Valley of the Sun.

“I love the boats. That is my thing. I am absolutely addicted to the water,” he said. “Boating is everything to me. And it’s been very good to me.”

The lure of boating goes back a long way for Fred Finney. Finney’s grandfather, Jack, arrived in Coeur d’Alene in 1912 from eastern Washington and acquired two car dealerships. The family, which ultimately consisted of 10 children, including Fred’s father, Bill, moved to the remote and picturesque Glen Eyrie residence on the south shore of the lake.

A 40-foot boat, the “Lurline,” ferried the family to and from the city and set the stage for quite a tradition. John Finney, the oldest son who is credited by the New York Times for inventing waterskiing in the 1920s, began a tour boat service with the “Lurline.” In 1932, he bought a 65-foot cruiser, the “Seeweewana,” and began the Finney Transportation Line.

Fred grew up in Coeur d’Alene rather than Glen Eyrie with nine siblings in a two-bedroom home on Sixth Street. Despite limited means, “it was a great family,” he said. “We all have good, tight relationships with all brothers and sisters.”

Finney said he had an idyllic childhood riding his bike on Tubbs Hill and hanging out with neighbor kids, but it didn’t last long.

“My dad came from the old school and thought the kids needed to learn to work at a young age,” he said. “He placed us on (logging) equipment when I was 10 years old. I am absolutely amazed that we lived through our younger years. We were running chainsaws at 13 years old. I hooked on jammers and drove logging trucks. I did all that stuff.”

Finney worked for his uncle in the summer as a deck hand, and eventually became a boat captain and a business partner in Finney Transportation. During the winter of 1979, Finney, then in his early 20s, transformed the company’s barge — the “Dancewana” — into an actual tour boat on his own at the city dock. He extended the barge by 35 feet, installed twin diesel engines and constructed a superstructure. And systemically impressed businessman and eventual resort developer Duane Hagadone, who watched the undertaking from his waterfront corporate headquarters.

Hagadone then bought Finney Transportation. John retired and Fred was hired to build and operate the resort’s cruise boat fleet, which now consists of five Finney-built craft plus the “Putter,” which carries golfers to the Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course’s floating green.

Finney said boat building came naturally to him.

“I studied it from the time I was a kid because John’s boats were getting old and used up,” he said. “So I built another one and then another one and then another one.”

Finney met his future wife, Diane, who was a tour boat employee with the Coeur d’Alene Resort. They were married in 1997 and have three children, two of whom work for Lake Pleasant Cruises. He left the Hagadone Corp. in 2000.

“I retired from there, but I never retired,” he said.

While visiting Diane’s relatives in Arizona, Finney learned about Lake Pleasant and the need for a tour boat service. He spent seven months at his boat works on the Spokane River building the “Phoenix,” a 65-foot, 100-passenger craft, which he hauled to Arizona at the cost of $70,000 and under police escort the entire way. Finney still operates his boat works in Coeur d’Alene, including maintaining the resort’s fleet that he fashioned with his own two hands.

The Arizona enterprise has been more than successful, he said, and that’s where his children prefer to be. But he and Diane plan to be snowbirds of a sort and split their time between Coeur d’Alene and Peoria. In Coeur d’Alene they live on a simply splendid floating showcase.

The “La Dame du Lac” can hardly be called a houseboat in traditional terms. It is an upscale, 6,200-square-foot house that happens to be docked on the water — when it’s not headed to Harrison for a summer outing. “La Dame,” 100 feet in length and 220,000 pounds, has three decks, including a helicopter pad on top. It has four bedrooms, gas utilities, a climate-controlled wine cellar and exquisite wood-working throughout with Brazilian cherry floors.

“It’s where Diane prefers to be,” Fred said, except in Arizona with the kids.”

He agrees.

“I love it down there because it’s my kids and I get to be on the water every day. I’m almost always on that boat,” he said. “Not many people in Phoenix know this but this is the home I really love. North Idaho is my home.”

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