Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Where did it come from?

Chris Andrie’s comment on the origin of the Adirondack guideboat got me to thinking again about the origins of this iconic wooden boat.  He points out that bateaus were used as troop carriers during the Revolutionary War and during later wars.  Since thousands were built during these times many men learned at least rudimentary boat building skills.  These men could have turned that knowledge towards building other types of boats of similar construction, ie. a flat bottom with natural crooks used for frames or knees.  The guideboat was one of a family of boats using this construction.  Others include the wherry and the dory.

Great minds think alike, Chris.  Durant in his book, “The Adirondack Guideboat” and Stephenson in “Wooden Boat” make the link between guideboat and bateau.  Hallie Bond in her book “Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks” states on page 33 “Within two generations the bateau ancestor had inspired an even more refined boat. the Adirondack guideboat, which became essential to life in the interior of the mountains.”

Was this really the case or was something else at work here?  The bateau has straight sides, is double ended, and uses oak knees for its frames.  Its bottom is formed by laying planks crosswise rather than a single fore to aft plank, as in a guideboat’s bottom board.  Early guideboats had a rounded hull and possessed a stern transom.  The bateau/guideboat comparison reminds me of a dump truck and a Ferrari.   The evolution from bateau to guideboat could have occurred but I think it is unlikely.

A clue to where the idea for the small wooden craft known as a guideboat came from originated from my friend Rev. Bunny Austin’s family tree.  His family has lived in Long Lake for six generations.  Bunny and his father Merlie are/were accomplished guideboat builders.  When I asked where the first of his family to settle in Long Lake emigrated from he said “Ferrisburgh, Vt.” I didn’t think much about it at the time but then later I found it was on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain.

The Rev. Bunny Austin.
The Rev. Bunny Austin.

I also recall that Caleb Chase left his home in Ticonderoga, NY at the age of 16.  Caleb became one of the premier builders of guideboats in the Adirondacks.

This is a very small sample but is there something about the Lake Champlain region that would spawn the building of small wooden boats during the early 1800’s and before?  It turns out that I was quite ignorant of the role the Champlain Valley played in US history.  Anyone that controlled the Lake had access to the Hudson River and hence New York City.  So battles and skirmishes were held there during the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812.  The Battle of Plattsburg in 1814 opened my eyes to the scale of naval encounters on the Lake.  The British were intent on an invasion of New York state and brought troops and naval vessels into the Lake from the St. Lawrence River via the Richelieu River.  Their flagship was a 36 gun frigate, the Confiance which was supported by various other warships.  To counter the British, the Americans had the corvette USS Saratoga of 26 -guns and the 14-gun schooner Ticonderoga.  Only a few days before the battle they completed the brig USS eagle that sported 20 guns.

The Americans routed the land invasion force and defeated the British naval forces.  What is clear is that Lake Champlain was a maritime hub in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Shipbuilding of vessels of various sizes including tall ships went on there.  And tall ships needed smaller vessels to ferry men and supplies between the shore and their anchorage.  This must have meant a thriving economy of shipwrights and boat builders of all kinds.

This brings to mind a marvelous wooden craft called the Whitehall.  The Whitehall is a versatile small wooden craft that can be either rowed or sailed.  It evolved from the need for a water taxi in New York City in the mid- to late 1800’s to provide passage to and from the tall ships in the New York harbor.  In Massachusetts it provided the same service in the Boston Harbor.  Ship chandlers extended its use on Cape Cod.  They would wait at Provincetown until a Clipper ship was spotted on the horizon.  They would then jump into their Whitehall and set sail to intercept the arriving clipper.  There was often a race with other chandlers since the first to reach the new arrival would often get the business.

Like the guideboat, the origin of the Whitehall is unknown.  Necessity was the mother of invention. Apparently the two versions, Boston and New York,  differed in some way but no one knows just how.

My uncle and my son have both built these beautiful boats.  My uncle built the Elysea with boatbuilding friends who then donated it to the Mystic Maritime Museum’s collection.  On a visit to Mystic some years ago my son happened upon Uncle Don’s boat in the boat house there.  The boats there are for visitors to take out on loan.  Stew was told that Don’s boat goes out nearly every day and shows little sign of wear.  Here are two photos of the Elysea.

The Whitehall, Elysea, built by Uncle Don and friends.
The Whitehall, Elysea, built by Uncle Don and friends.


My son Stew in the Elysea.
My son Stew in the Elysea.

It seems to me that the small craft that evolved into the what we now call the Adirondack guideboat came from a particular “genius”.  This genius was totally conversant with small wooden craft and knew how to build them.  I’ll step out on a limb even further and say that he came from Vermont on the eastern shores of Lake Champlain or on its western shores of New York.  I like to think that he saw this view of the Adirondack High Peaks taken from the eastern shore of the Lake.

The Adirondacks beckon. Photo taken from the eastern shore of Lake Champlain looking west.
The Adirondacks beckon. Photo taken from the eastern shore of Lake Champlain looking west.

His curiosity was aroused.   When he heard that there were uncounted lakes and ponds there and that there was a great need for a boat builder there as well, he said “I’m outa here”.

Next time, back to guideboat building.

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

  1. Very nice post, and certainly plausible. I am very familiar with the migration of New Englanders across New York State, and undoubtedly, some of them brought boat building skills and boat types with them. There were two main routes, both opened up after the close of the Revolutionary War. One was from Connecticut and Massachusetts up the Connecticut River to New Hampshire and Vermont and then across northern New York through St. Lawrence and Jefferson Counties. The other, of course, was the Hudson-Mohawk corridor south of the Adirondacks.

    In both cases, the earliest arrivals got the best land in the river valleys and later generations were forced up into less desirable land in the foothills of the Adirondacks, where they often were forced to give up farming for other trades, often in forest products industries or on the canals. Boat building would have been one option in places where farming wasn’t very profitable.

    Just a minor point, bateaux were usually built with bottom planks running fore and aft, usually three or four very wide boards. Both the Lake George bateaux recovered by the Adirondack Museum in the 1960s and those found in an excavation in Quebec all had fore and aft bottom planking. Often there were additional planks called cleats that ran across the bottom planking between the frames.

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