The Adirondack Guideboat-Seneca Ray Stoddard

As mentioned in the last post, Long Lake cherishes its history.  The town makes sure that its history is preserved and passed on.  For as long as I can remember Long Lake has had a town historian.  The present historian is Jeanne Plumley.  Her husband, Lew, is a descendant of Honest John Plumley.  Honest John was Adirondack Murray’s guide in the 1870’s.  Now Murray was the wacky Boston preacher who managed to convince his parishioners that he needed to spend his summers in Raquette Lake.  He wrote Adventures in the Wilderness, a book that awakened a great many to the wonders of the Adirondacks.  Murray was apt to overstate his case saying that even the smell of the pines and balsam firs in the North Country could cure many ills.  In his book Murray recommends that one would be wise to hire Honest John as a guide.

Sometime before Jeanne, Frances Seaman was the town historian.  As you might remember Howard, her husband, was a famous guideboat racer.  They lived on the lake in the home below which is now owned by our friends Sara and Kenwyn.

The Seaman's home on Long Lake.
The Seaman’s home on Long Lake.

I am told that the Seaman’s kitchen was located in the basement.  That worked fine most of the year except for springtime.  Most springs the lake rises ten feet or more which flooded their kitchen.  Rather than abandon the kitchen the Seamans put on boots and went about their normal routine.

According to Mary Beth, Frances kept the town archives on long tables upstairs in their living area.  These are now kept in the town Archive building.  It contains Town Board minutes beginning in 1837, an extensive collection of Adirondack books including Township 34, diaries, writings, and newspaper articles dating back to the early 1800’s and many other important documents and records.

Abbie Verner is responsible for preserving the town’s archives and seeing that they are kept up to date.  I knew that Abbie was a veritable fountain of information about Long Lake history.  So I went to her when I was seeking information about guideboat history.  When I said to her “Abbie, where can I find more about the history of guideboats?” she replied with one word “Stoddard”.

Abbie Verner heads up Long Lakes archive effort.
Abbie Verner heads up Long Lakes archive effort.

Of course, I thought.  I had seen Seneca Ray Stoddard’s photo below many times while at the Adirondack Museum.

Stoddard's photo entitled "the way it looks from the stern."
Stoddard’s photo entitled “the way it looks from the stern.”

Seneca Ray was a truly gifted man.  Best know for his photographs of the Adirondacks, he was also a cartographer, poet, artist and lecturer.  His sketches of the the devastation of Adirondack waterways caused by logging interests helped persuade the new York State legislature to enact the forever wild amendment to the state constitution in 1895.  This amendment insures that any state land in the Adirondack Park be kept free of any commercial exploitation.

To follow up on Abbie’s cue, the next step was to ask Angie, Adirondack Museum curator, to search the Museum’s collection of Stoddard photos for any that contained a guideboat.  When I viewed those photos  it was as if I was slipping back in time to around  1890.  Stoddard captured the lives of people of all sorts who happened to come to the Adirondacks at that time.  The photo above is one example.  It captures the essence of an Adirondack guide back then.

As I mulled over these photos they began to fall into specific categories.  Each category captures an activity involving guideboats that was common back then.  The categories I discovered are:

  • Guideboat evolution
  • Hunting by guideboat
  • Raiders
  • The rise of Adirondack hotels and hotel guides
  • The symbiosis of steamers and guideboats

We will explore each of these in future posts.

Next time- guideboat raiders.

The Adirondack Guideboat-Guideboat Models-Part 2

In the small Adirondack town of Long Lake there are certain revered folks; you might call them town fathers.  Over the years they have earned their respect.  They have served in our country’s wars, Korea and Vietnam.  Their attachment to the Adirondacks is deep and goes back at least several generations.  They are the receptacles of the town’s history.  This is especially valued by the town’s people since they love to recall their history and go to great lengths to preserve it.

Of course these men have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies.  These traits make them even more beloved to the town people who are fond of retelling the legends about their town fathers.  One of these men is Tom Bissell.

I have known Tom for many years and am privileged to call him friend.  Our relationship with Tom and the town of Long Lake began 30 years ago on a rainy, chilly fourth of July weekend.  We were camped at Forked (pronounced fork-ed) Lake and decided to jump in the car and at least get warm and dry.  We left the boys to fish and headed to the nearest town, Long Lake.  While driving along Fran spotted a sign saying “waterfront lots for sale”. She said, “Let’s go look at them”.  It was against my better judgement but I agreed and we turned onto Endion Road  ( we learned later that Endion means “home” in the Native American language).  We met Tom who showed us 5 lots that he had just finished preparing for sale.  We fell in love with one lot in particular but figured we should look at others to get an idea of what was available.  We found nothing that was even close to what Tom had shown us.  So a couple of days later found us back at Tom’s home.

Tom invited us in and a long discussion ensued with him and his wife Jane.  The discussion ranged over our families and the five generations that Tom’s family had been in Long Lake.  I eventually told Tom that we wanted to purchase a lot from him.  He said “Fine.” I asked if he wanted some sort of payment to hold the lot.  He said “No, you’ll get some papers in the mail in a week or two”.  Sure enough that’s what happened.  So this is how business is transacted in Long Lake, by a handshake.

It turns out that Tom loves Adirondack guideboats.  He once built one where the plank laps were glued together rather than sealed with clinched tacks in the traditional fashion.  The prevailing wisdom was that tacks had to be used otherwise the plank laps would crack.  He was right, when glued the planks didn’t crack.

When he showed his creation to others one of the town folk who was familiar with guideboats exclaimed “That’s no guideboat!”  I can still hear Tom’s staccato chuckle as he recalled the scene.

When I first had the urge to build a guideboat I told Tom of my intention but that I didn’t know how to go about doing it.  He invited me to sit down with him and he would show me how.  I’ll never forget his tutelage.  He had made a scrapbook that had photos of each step in the construction.  It was an enormous help and set me off on the right track.

Tom has also built two models of guideboats.  The craftsmanship displayed in these models is extraordinary and they are executed with exquisite detail.  Here is a photo of Tom holding one of his models.

Tom Bissell holding his guideboat model.
Tom Bissell holding his guideboat model.

The model is complete with carrying yoke, “caned” seats and oars.  Tom used extremely small copper tacks to seal the planks.  He got the tacks from guideboat builder Wallace Emerson’s son who built several guideboat models.  Here are additional photos of Tom’s model.

Tom's model-midships
Tom’s model
Tom's model-close up of bow.
Tom’s model-close up of bow.
Tom's model-close up of midships.
Tom’s model-close up of midships.
Tom's model-close up of stern.
Tom’s model-close up of stern.

Tom said that it took as long to build one of these models as it did to build a full-sized guideboat!  I can only imagine the patience it took to create this model.

We will visit again with Tom down the road.

Next time: Seneca Ray Stoddard.