CEDAR RAPIDS — A sign outside Michelle Thompson’s front door reads “This is our happy place.” Inside the gray two-story home, plush tan carpet lines the living room and the stairs and balcony, leading to a bathroom and master bedroom with a walk-in closet.
The kitchen on the main level features a large, wraparound sink.
The only way you can tell you’re on a houseboat on Ellis Boat Harbor, on the northwest side of the Cedar River, is if you catch a peek of the sun glinting off the calm water and the shiny boat docked off the back deck of Thompson’s home.
That, and the light blue “Boat House Rules” sign that urges fun in the sun and also serves as a reminder to Thompson’s four grandchildren that they have to wear their life jackets on the main floor of the boat house.
Thompson and her significant other, Shawn Cassiday, both of Cedar Rapids, own one of nearly 140 other boat houses permanently docked on the river. On the weekend, they pack the harbor, grilling on decks, boating and water-skiing.
While the boats can be stationed at the harbor year-round, most use the houses as a weekend vacation destination.
Watching the water
A house on the harbor always had been their dream, Thompson explained.
“We dated when we were in high school, and we would come down all the time,” Thompson said. “When we would drive through we would say, ‘Hey, that’s going to be ours someday.’ I just knew I wanted to be here. I love the water.”
Though residents on the boat harbor are required to have a permanent address, Thompson said she spends most of her time at her boat, rarely going home to her E Avenue house on weeknights and weekends.
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“I’m here 75 percent of the time,” she said. “We go home to do laundry. I would sell my house before this. We just enjoy being down here especially in the summer. It’s fun and very relaxing. After a hard night at work, you can just come and watch the water.”
Cassiday built the 18-by-30-foot floating home from the dock up in 2010, Thompson said. The couple has two slips they lease — one for the home and one to dock the boat.
They rent the spaces for about $600 a year, she said.
Thompson said the boat’s wraparound kitchen offers twice the amount of counter space in her other, land-based home. The boat house has full electricity and a 100 gallon water tank provides fresh water and indoor plumbing.
The sewage tank is emptied by a portable restroom company, while other boat house owners empty their sewage tanks at a dumping station on the shore of the river.
But the couple isn’t just out on the water to boat, Thompson said. The Ellis Boat Harbor acts as a neighborhood on the water, close to the heart of Cedar Rapids where houseboat owners even come down to the harbor on New Year’s Eve to start fires on the thick ice and walk across the froze river to each other’s houses, she said.
“It’s a community,” Thompson said. “We’ve developed a lot of friendships down here. I love it because you’re in the middle of town. You don’t have far to go anywhere.
“Who needs a vacation when you have this?”
Houseboats have existed on the harbor since the late 1940s, but 70 of the 140 houseboat fleet were damaged or washed down the river in the 2008 flood. After deliberation between the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the city of Cedar Rapids on whether the houseboats should be allowed to return to the harbor, the city decided to put more stringent requirements on docking and the flotation systems to make the boats more secure.
The harbor was filled again, said Jim Kaas, commodore of the Cedar Boat Club and owner of one of the houseboats.
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“Without the boathouses to be an anchor point to have your boat and have recreation and barbecue grills, you wouldn’t get the utilization of the river,” Kaas said. “In Iowa there’s pretty limited water recreation options. The people that understand Cedar Rapids know that (the Ellis Boat Harbor) is such a unique thing.
“To not allow it would make it an empty river.”
The Cedar Boat Club helps to put on events at the harbor throughout the year, including boat races, fireworks on July 3 and a Venetian lighted boat parade on the Saturday after Labor Day each year.
‘The history of Cedar Rapids’
Pictures of Bob Lewis’s first houseboat that crashed into the downtown railroad bridge in the 2008 flood hang on the wall of the kitchen in his second houseboat. Lewis, who lives in Atkins and owns another slip next to the houseboat where he docks a cruising boat, built both houseboats — the one that crashed and his current one.
As with Thompson, the houseboat is a sanctuary for Lewis who stops by most days after work to watch TV, grill and walk around in shorts and a T-shirt with a cool drink in a purple coozie.
He outfitted the inside of the houseboat to look like a cabin with wood paneling and metal signs he gathered from cities across the country he’s visited on his motorcycle.
Lewis said he knows the harbor is special to Cedar Rapids, a town that is not known for water recreation.
“You’ll get people from all over the country that will stop and take pictures,” he said. “To have this many in such small a space on this river is kind of weird but yet unique. Nobody really had the guts to flip the switch and say get rid of them (after the 2008 flood). It’s the history of Cedar Rapids.”