I have learned that the Adirondack peoples are especially fond of family, town, and country. This is a story of one Adirondack person’s love of family and the part a guideboat played in that affection. I was drawn into that tale when I received a call from Keith Austin. Keith is a fifth generation guideboat builder in Long Lake. His Great-Great Grandfather William started building wooden boats on Long Lake around 1850. Anyway, several years ago Keith was asked to restore an antique guideboat. Its owner wanted to know its provenance (pedigree) because they wanted to sell it after it was restored. Knowing who built the ship often adds to its value. Anyway Keith asked me to drop by and see if I could determine who built it. I told him I didn’t feel particularly qualified but I would give it a shot.
My first view of the boat was as it was standing upright. I hadn’t a clue who may have built it. It was indeed a very finely crafted boat and was certainly built by one of the elite builders of the Adirondacks. But whom? I was about to give up when, for some reason, I asked Keith to turn the boat over. Aha! It was then plain as day who had built it. The bottom board was widest, not at the midships as with most guideboats, but more towards the bow. This is called “cod-headed” construction according to my friend Tom Bissell. Tom said that this hull design was all the rage around the turn of the century. Even warships were built this way in the belief that it would make them a faster vessel. Tom said the only guideboat builder he knew that employed a cod-headed design was George Smith of Long Lake. So I told Keith that George Smith had built the boat he was restoring. My judgement of its builder was later confirmed when Debbie, Keith’s wife, began caning the boat’s seats. On the underside of the seats was inscribed “Smith”.
Word spread locally that Keith was restoring a Smith guideboat and that it was for sale. This prompted a gentleman in Long Lake to make an offer on the boat. When it was turned down he let Colleen Smith, granddaughter of the builder, know of the boat. She, in turn, offered a bid that was still under the asking price. When it was made known to the owner Colleen’s relationship to the boat her offer was accepted. Colleen was overjoyed because a boat made by her beloved grandfather would be hers. It turns out that this guideboat had resided on Lake Champlain since the early 1950’s. Now it would come home at last to its birth place. Here is a photo of Colleen.
Here is Colleen’s guideboat built by her grandfather, George W. Smith.
One sterling quality of Adirondack people is their support for one another. When Colleen voiced her concern about acquiring her grandfather’s guideboat saying “But I have never rowed one” to friend Richard Dechene he stepped right up. He made her sit on the floor and taking her hands he made her rotate her hands and arms through the complicated movement necessary to row a guideboat. “Sure you’ll have some bruised knuckles at first but you will soon get the hang of it.”
It is somewhat ironic that the Smith guideboat spent so much time on Lake Champlain. It was from the Lake Champlain region of Vermont that the two originators of the guideboat migrated to the Adirondacks. You have already heard of one, William Austin, who came to Long Lake in 1850. The other, William McLenathen, uprooted and went to Saranac Lake about the same time. He began building boats for Inn Keeper W. F. Martin.
So re-launch day of Colleen’s boat became quite an occasion, one written up in an online journal the Adirondack Almanack. Local support for Colleen was wonderful, as expected. Tom Bissell let her use his boat house at Endion to store her boat while she wasn’t using it.
(Endion is Haudenosaune word meaning “home”. Frederic Remington, the painter and sculptor of the Old West, was cruising down the St. Lawrence River when he encountered some Native Americans on the shore. He called out “What place is this?” They replied “Endion” which in their language meant “home”.)
Friends with deep connections to the guideboat turned out for the re-launch on July 19th. As written up in the Adirondack Almanack, “Three generations of Smiths were on hand to witness the soaking and launching. Long lake native Gail Emerson was also there. Her grandfather Wallace Emerson was a contemporary of George W. Smith and the two granddaughters stood side-by-side on the shores of Long Lake for the historic re-launch.”
Here is a photo of Colleen rowing her grandfather’s guideboat on re-launch day.