The Adirondack Guideboat-Where did it come from?

The origins of the Adirondack guideboat have always puzzled me.  Did it evolve entirely within the Adirondacks?  I believe it did.  The early Adirondack settlers were dependent on boats to move about in a land that was devoid of any other mode of transportation except foot paths.  The chains of lakes allowed them to travel from the south, Old Forge, to the north, Saranac Lake, a distance of 90 miles, relatively easily.

By necessity the early settlers became proficient at building boats.  Their first boats were sturdy, but quite heavy, row boats.  They weighed over 100 lbs.  These boats were not hefted across the Adirondack carries (portages) but left at one end of the carry.   The boat man would pick up another boat left at at the opposite end by his neighbor and go on his merry way.  Apparently there were enough boats to go around to make this scheme work.

Evidence of the evolution of the guideboat is hard to come by.  The Adirondack natives were too busy surviving to do much writing about their boats.  We are left to those who visited the Adirondacks during the 1800’s to provide insight into how this small craft evolved.

The very earliest physical record of the early boats I call the “bookcase boat”.  It was collected by Franklin Brandreth and resides at Brandreth Park near Raquette Lake.

The bookcase boat.
The bookcase boat.

The boat survives only because it was made into a piece of furniture.  To do so the stern portion was sacrificed.  Nevertheless, much can be learned from it.  Painted on the deck is an inscription “1848”.  There are six sets of ribs 7/8″ wide on 14″ centers.  There are four planks on each side and they vary in thickness from 1/2″ at the midships to 3/8″ at the bow.  There are thole blocks that received thole pins that held the oars.  It has a bottom board that is 10″ at its widest point.  There are rounded notches in the gunwale that could have held a carrying yoke.

So we have in the bookcase boat a prototype of later guideboats.  That the bookcase boat was not an anomaly is shown by a sketch by Richards of a guide’s boat he did in 1853.

Richards' sketch of a guide's boat done in 1853.
Richards’ sketch of a guide’s boat done in 1853.

This boat also has four planks per side.  It is square-ended and has more ribs than the bookcase boat.  The oarsman rows from a plank seat and the oars are now pinned rather than held by thole pins. It is square-ended with a so-called tombstone transom due to its rounded shape.

This style of Adirondack boat may have gone essentially unchanged for a long time if it weren’t for a new arrival on the North Country scene, the wealthy sportsman.  These men came mainly from the large eastern seaboard cities because they had heard of the vast opportunities for hunting and fishing that the Adirondacks offered.  But they needed guides and the guides needed a boat specifically designed for guiding.  It had to be light enough for one man to carry yet able to carry two men, their hunting and fishing gear, and other paraphernalia that would allow them to remain in the wilderness for a week or two.

An example of these new guide’s boats is shown below.

Guide's boats at the Racquette Falls carry, 1870.
Guide’s boats at the Raquette Falls carry, 1870.

These boats were of lapstrake construction, that is their planks overlapped along each edge much like a clapboards on a house.  They are square-ended with a small transom.  An example of such a transom is shown by a boat built by the guide Reuben Cary around 1870.  Cary cleverly used a carefully selected crook , or knee, of a spruce tree to form the transom.  The broad face of the transom was formed by  exploiting roots running at right angles  to form the fan shape of the main body of the transom.  At right angles to the fan he shaped another root to form a stem-like appendage.  All this from one main root!

Stern of guideboat made by Reuben Cary about 1870.
Stern of guideboat made by Reuben Cary about 1870.

Here is an photo of a lapstrake square-ended guideboat taken by Seneca Ray Stoddard around 1890.  Its getting some rough treatment!

Lapstrake guideboat.
Lapstrake guideboat.

The square-ended lapstrake guideboat was to undergo two major modifications before reaching maturity.  Both of these changes occurred about 1880.  The transom disappeared in favor of a double-ended boat.  This may have been a practical move.  With the stern seat set so far back it was difficult to trim the boat.  With someone in the stern seat, the stern would often drag on sand bars and such.

The reason for the other change, from lapstrake to a  smooth-skinned hull, is harder to explain.  I have heard that it increased the speed, made the boat quieter, and reduced weight.  Perhaps so but all those incremental improvements would not have offset the time and craftsmanship necessary to achieve such a result.  My guess that it was strictly for aesthetics and beauty sold.

It took some time for the old square-ended guideboats to disappear from the scene.  Here are some square-enders that seem to be mixed in with the newer double-enders at Camp Pine Knot on Raquette lake.  The photo was taken by Seneca Ray Stoddard around 1890.

Sqaure-ended and double ended guideboats on the beach at Camp Pine Knot.
Square-ended and double-ended guideboats on the beach at Camp Pine Knot.

The boat reached perfection as a double-ended, smooth skinned small wooden craft in the 1890’s and into the 1900’s before its time passed.  Here is one example, built by Allison at the Adirondack Museum. It is a reproduction of one built by Warren Cole in 1905.

Reproduction of guideboat originally built by Warren Cole in 1905.
Reproduction by Allison Warner of guideboat originally built by Warren Cole in 1905.

Next time I start on my fourth guideboat.  What will I do differently this time?



One comment on “The Adirondack Guideboat-Where did it come from?”

  1. I have a theory (unproven) that the Adirondack guideboat originated with the bateau. Bateaux were in use in all the waterways surrounding the Adirondack Mountains, the Hudson-Champlain corridor, Mohawk River and on the St. Lawrence. They were in common use by the French from the 1600s and then adopted by the British and Americans during the 1700s and used well into the 1800s, in some cases as late as the Civil War.

    These bateaux were flat-bottomed, double-ended, lapstrake, and their frames and stems made from natural wood crooks. Many people in the area would have been familiar with them and their construction, especially at traditional boat building locations such as Schenectady. During the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers would have had experience with them and their construction.

    I think it would have been natural for these boats to be adapted to the conditions – built smaller and lighter – as people moved from the surrounding river corridors up into the Adirondack Mountains.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *