Last time I said I would tell about the time I traversed the Marion River Carry. First I need to tell you about the vessel I used to make the trip. It is called an Airolite Canoe and was devised by a fellow named Platt Monfort of Westport, ME. It is basically an assemblage of thin sticks in the shape of a canoe covered with heat-shrinkable Dacron aircraft fabric. I make his Snowshoe 12 model that is 11′ 8″ long and weighs 13 lbs.
Here she is:
An Airolite Ultra-lite Canoe
The impetus behind going lightweight was a canoe trip my son, Stew, and I took over Labor Day of 1987. With nothing but a Coleman “Tupperware” canoe, we set out on the three day trip. The canoe plus our gear probably weighed 90 lbs. This mass had to be carried, dragged, slid, or however transported over some mighty long carries. Both Stew and I remember the blow-downs. Here are some smaller ones. The canoe had to be lifted up and over them. Some of the downed trunks were at eye level.
Blow-downs on a carry.
A succession of these carries will wear you down.
A long day!
Stew reminded me that we often resorted to dragging the canoe by its painters along the carry. We left an orange trail on the rocks in our wake. The Coleman hardly noticed.
I remember one embarrassing incident. Somewhere around Saranac Lake we lost our bearings on a carry. That is not too hard to fathom since we were carrying the boat on our shoulders and our vision was limited. At one point I looked down and saw a manicured pathway. Something was not right so I told Stew that we needed to have a look around. The canoe was let down with a crash. We were left standing, rather dazed, right next to a tee on the Saranac Country Club. Of course, a foursome was just teeing off.
Our trip ended at the Saranac Lakes. The are three of them, Upper, Middle, and Lower, are arranged in a horseshoe fashion. We entered at Upper and spent the night on Norway Island on Middle Saranac Lake. Here is a view of Norway Island.
I said that you would be amazed at how the Marion River Carry was transformed in the late 1800’s. It began as a mere dirt track used first by Native Americans and then by guides to skirt the Marion River rapids. Then, with the advent of steam power, steamboats brought a more enjoyable and faster trip across Blue Mountain to Raquette Lake and back again. Of course, those steam-borne passengers would miss the homespun tales and romance that guides with their boats could provide.
The Carry stayed much the same for about 20 years until the very late 1890’s. Then the New York Central opened a direct line from Penn Station to Raquette Lake. Passengers would board the train in early evening, travel overnight, and arrive at the Raquette Lake Terminal at about nine in the morning,
The Adirondack Experience (Adirondack Museum to us old folks) has a superb diorama that depicts the impact of this second direct rail line to Raquette. Below is a photo of the Museum’s diorama of a view facing east of the Raquette Lake Rail terminal and the Marion River (upper left).
Previous to the New York Central coming on the scene, the flow of new visitors to Raquette was mainly from east to west, from Blue Mountain Lake to Raquette because of the rail line to North Creek. The NYCRR changed that so that the flow of arriving tourists was now overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. This must have put great stress on the Marion River Carry. Apparently it could not handle the upsurge in passenger volume. Then too, passenger must have included many women who where disdainful of walking three or four miles across the Carry in their best attire. Also there were very posh hotels on Blue Mountain Lake that would attract tourists to Blue Mountain Lake. One of these was the Prospect House, the first hotel ever to boast electric lights in every room. So expectations may have run very high so that tourists were looking for much more than walking a dusty dirt track to get to their accommodations.
Regardless, someone dreamed up a solution to the problem, a very small standard gauge railroad. Never officially named, it became known as the Marion River Carry Railroad. At a little over 4 miles in length it became the shortest standard gauge railroad in the world. Here is the original locomotive with its open-air cars as they appear in the Marion River Carry Pavilion at the Adirondack Museum.
Here is a view of the locomotive on the carry.
Several people have produced maps of the carry. Here is one by S. Berliner III.
The Carry was much more elaborate than I expected. There was a station at each end of the Carry and each had a restaurant. There was also an Inn. I imagine that these luxuries were to entertain travelers as they awaited the next steamboat.
S. Berliner III has done a nice job of documenting the history of the Marion River Carry railroad. He says it was commissioned by William West Durant in the summer of 1899, Durant obtained the passenger cars, which were horse drawn streetcars from Brooklyn for $25 each! This rolling stock operated for nearly 30 years, It was retired in September , 1929 and placed in a shed near the carry. There it remained until its preservation became part of the impetus for the founding of the Adirondack Museum in 1955. There it has amused and educated thousands of Museum visitors for over 60 years.
Next time I tell how I traversed the Marion River Carry in my ultra light canoe on my way from Blue Mountain Lake to Long Lake.
In the Adirondacks portages are called carries. The Marion River Carry is particularly well known. You will find out why from the next post.
If you have been following along you know that William West Durant was the author of the Great Camp Style of Adirondack architecture. William was sent by his father Dr. Thomas C. to Raquette Lake in the early 1870’s to develop 500,000 acres of Adirondack land he acquired while serving as VP of the Union Pacific railroad. To facilitate travel to Raquette Lake by those interested in buying land or timber from the Durants, track was laid from Saratoga Springs to North Creek, NY in 1871. But it was still a day’s travel by stagecoach from North Creek to Blue Mountain Lake. There a guide and boat could be hired to take you on to Raquette Lake.
William improved upon this mode of transportation by having two steamboats built, one for Raquette Lake, the Killoquah, and the other for Blue Mountain Lake, the Toowahloondah.
Blue Mountain Lake is connected to Raquette Lake by the Ectford Chain of lakes (Eagle and Utowandah Lakes) and the Marion River. William dammed up the Marion River to allow the Toowahloondah to navigate passage through the Ectford Chain to the head of the Marion River. The passengers would disembark at the dock at the head of the Marion River and walk the 2-3 miles to catch another steamboat that would take them on to their final destination on Raquette. Presumably baggage handlers would transport their duffel across the carry.
Here is a steamboat at dock. This may be the dock at the Marion River side of the carry although I am not sure.
A fortunate circumstance significantly aided the Durant’s scheme to develop their vast land holdings in the Adirondacks. William Henry Harrison Murray published his book Adventures in the Wildernessin 1879. Murray’s book was a sportsman’s guide to the Adirondacks. It told of a vast wilderness with fish and game just ready to be had with rod and gun. Just a short visit to this paradise would restore one’s health. He gave instructions on what gear to buy, where to stay, the best guide to hire, and even a railroad timetable.
Murray’s tale was centered on Raquette Lake so tourism exploded there. Durant had just finished the first of his Great Camps, Camp Pine Knot, so he was ready to entertain those interested in buying land and timber.
Part I of this post serves to give a background on the Marion River Carry. The next post will describe the almost unbelievable changes that came to the Marion River Carry as the eighteen hundreds came to a close.
Fran and I have moved a number of times in our married life, in fact, at least five times. As the years have crept by the subject of moving to a retirement community have kept coming up. After all, two people living in a four bedroom home didn’t make a lot of sense. My objection was always that I would have to give up my boat shop. Upon visiting a retirement community about a mile away, they made an offer I couldn’t refuse. They would convert a garage and some extra space adjacent to it into a boat shop. It turned out that this space was about equal to the usable space in my present shop. So we signed up and a moving date was set for May 3.
So here’s how the move of a partially completed guideboat went. I must say the movers were very conscious about insuring that the boat moved without a scratch. Here’s the boat waiting to be moved.
Here’s a view of the movers inspecting the boat and deciding how to safely move it to the truck. They can take it out through a sliding glass door.
Next step was to remove the hull from the strongback, and start moving it out.
Starting through the door.
Here goes the hull through the door.
I’m sure the movers were not sure the hull would go through the door this easily. They probably uttered a silent sigh of relief. Now, on to the truck…
Next comes the strongback. It was given to me by my Uncle Donald, and it is made of Georgia yellow pine, I’m told. He spotted it in the bottom of a burned out mill in New Hampshire, and asked if he could have it. The powers that be said “Sure, if you can get it out of there, you can have it!” Now Uncle Don was not a man to be easily deterred, and somehow he got it out.
The strongback is enormous and very heavy. The movers quickly realized it was going to be quite a job getting it out of the shop and up the hill to the truck. So here we go…
So it starts moving towards the door.
Meanwhile, the hull rests safely in a truck entirely devoted to it and the strongback.
The strongback arrives and then is strapped in.
We arrive at the new shop location and start moving in.
Here’s the shop after moving power tools, benches and other equipment are moved into the new space.
So the move went without a hitch, although as you can imagine there is still some organization to be done.
This boat and its shop are located some four hundred miles south of the town of Long Lake, in the Adirondack mountains of New York. The completed boat will eventually make its way north there. Fran and I have been associated with Long Lake for nearly thirty years. We have grown quite fond of the town and believe that it represents certain special qualities. We have always lived near large cities, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Big cities swallow up their satellite towns by imparting on to them the big city’s culture, overwhelming the character of the smaller entity. This is not so in the towns in the Adirondacks which are far away from metropolitan areas. They have their own unique characteristics. We have begun to realize what special characteristics they show. So from time to time, we will highlight how Long Lake, a town of nine hundred people, exhibits its own personality. These essays on Long Lake will be interspersed with the usual boating topics of this blog. We hope you enjoy them.
I had a note from Tom from Wisconsin. “I have greatly enjoyed your book (Guideboat Paddles An Adirondack Treasure”) I got some time back. While I have acquired some interesting Penobscot paddles over the years, I have always wanted an original guide paddle. I was fortunate recently to acquire one. It appears to be a steering paddle at 56.5″. The grip and motif appear to be A. H. Billings much like the ones in the Clark’s Camp find. (Paddle in the Adirondack Museum’s collection from the Clark’s Camp on Blue Mountain Lake). It is made of bird’s eye maple which really makes it a gem. The initials E K are carved on the motif. I feel so fortunate to get one. It came from an auction in Poughkeepsie, NY.
Here is Tom’s paddle.
Here is the grip and motif of the Adirondack Museum’s Clark’s Camp paddle.
There is no doubt that these two paddles were made by the same person. Tom believes the are from the hand of A. H. Billings, a builder of guideboats in the late 1800’s. Here is a photo of Billings.
He looks to be an impressive fellow, one I would like to meet. I couldn’t find any further information on him except the photo below where he is attending some sort of convention promoting outdoor adventure. I am told these sorts of events occurred yearly in New York City.
Tom and I chatted about the development of the Northern Wisconsin wilderness and how it differed from the Adirondack wilderness. Whereas rails were first constructed in Northern Wisconsin to bring out timber, the loggers in the Adirondacks used the natural watercourses to funnel their logs to the great metropolitan hubs. Once they had exploited the timber wealth of Northern Wisconsin the railroads then decided use their rails for a another purpose. They enticed the super wealthy of Chicago and Milwaukee to build camps in the northern woods thereby deriving a second income from tourism.
This was opposite from the Adirondacks. Here the rails were laid down to bring the wealthy and others from a teeming, smoggy, hot summer existence in a big cities to a virtual paradise by comparison.
The fact that the Adirondacks had two major watercourses to transport logs to market gives an interesting sidelight to Adirondack history. The major water highways where the Raquette and the Hudson Rivers. The Raquette was less favorable since logs went to Canada where they demanded a much lower price. Logs bound for the Hudson wound up in Glens Falls where they were sawn into lumber. Their ultimate destination was the great metropolitan cities of the east.
The economic incentive to get logs from the Racquette drainage to the Hudson was a major one. Farrand Benedict, professor at the University of Vermont, spent much of his working life trying to connect the Racquette River with the Hudson. An early scheme would use the Fulton Chain of Lakes, and others to transport timber and mineral riches out of the Adirondacks and agricultural products into it.
When that scheme failed he decided to try to join the Raquette River at Long Lake with the Hudson at Newcomb, a distance of 14 or 15 miles. Work was started in the 1870’s somewhere west of Newcomb to build the canal and necessary locks. It would require damming up Long Lake just below its outlet to raise its height twenty feet! There was great opposition from the Raquette loggers who didn’t want their logs going to the Hudson.
Obviously Benedict’s plan did not succeed (my camp in Long Lake would be under water if it had). However his attempt to join the two mighty rivers can still be seen today by bushwacking or flying Helm’s Aero Service in Long Lake. I suggest the latter.
I finally finished round 4 of planking on my latest guideboat. This took longer than expected because we are preparing to downsize and move to a smaller home. The good news is that I will still have a boat shop. The bad news is that many interruptions occurred during planking because of other higher order things needing to be done. Interruptions break up the rhythm of planking and cause much more trips back and forth between the hull and the bench. Finally, all is ready for hanging a plank. The bedding compound is applied, the plank is fastened with brass screws and the tacks “stuck”. Here is what it looks like just before clinching the tacks.
A little diversion here, Scarf joints are necessary when planking because it is impossible to have a single plank span the width of the hull. A scarf is merely a bevel cut into each plank so that they fit smoothly together. Here I have located the scarf over a rib. That is a good place to locate it because the scarf is hidden from inside the hull. Also fastening it to the rib probably gives it added strength. I didn’t know of this custom when I built my first boat and my scarfs ended up between ribs. After 20 years of use I see adverse effects of doing it this way.
My scarf joints are 7/8″ wide. After laying it out I use a chisel to cut away the excess to form the scarf.
Incidentally I bought the Chinese chisel in the Long Lake hardware store for very little money. It is a great tool.
I use my sanding board to smooth the surface of the scarf.
Before the adjoining plank is fastened down, I make sure the fit is a good one. Then tacks are driven and clinched along the edge of the scarf. Here is a completed scarf. Tacks are driven close together to seal the joint.
Despite the challenge of planking a guideboat, or perhaps because of it, I enjoy doing it. There is great satisfaction in taking a bundle of sticks obtained from the root of a tree, fastening them to a long, tapered board and them covering the whole thing with an extraordinarily thin jacket of wood.
But even more, the guideboat hull reveals its sensuous, feminine nature as each round of planking is set in place. It is indeed a joy to fill space with such a beautiful object that many have called a “work of art”.
Here she is so far;
I learned something while planking this time around. It is a shortcut that avoids spiling. It uses the planks from the previous round as a template for the next round. So here is what you do. Taking round 4 as an example, you have both sides all set to hang round 4. Go ahead and fasten the planks on one side of round 4. Now take one of the planks from the other, unfastened side and hold it up against the fastened down round 4 plank. Obviously, it will not fit exactly to the previous plank but it won’t be too far off. Now lightly mark on the “template plank” how far off it is at several points. The deviations will come at the hood end (stem end) and around the midships.
Take the template plank and lay it down on fresh planking stock. Mark off on the fresh stock where it deviates and where it pretty much matches. Now you have a pretty good replication of where a round 5 plank matches the edge of round 4. Cut off the excess with a band saw and trim it with your block plane. Hold it up against round 4 and make corrections as necessary. Here is what it looks like.
What about the trailing edge of the plank? Slide the partial plank down past the tick mark denoting the end of plank 5. Don’t shift the plank sideways. Now measure the distance from the top of the bevel on plank 4 to the tick mark on the rib for round 5 at that station. Mark that distance on the new partial plank. Here is what is looks like.
Now you just connect the dots using a batten.
Next time I may go back into guideboat paddle lore to conquer up a story.
I promised to fill you in on the Sairy Gamp, a little canoe that carries so much Adirondack history.
The story of Sairy begins with two men who are legends in the North Country. The lives of these men, John Henry Rushton and George Washington Sears, were so intertwined that without one another they could not have achieved greatness. They fed off one another’s talents, one built amazing wooden craft of superior quality and exquisite design while the other was a remarkable adventurer and journalist.
Sears needed a very small vessel to carry him through the Adirondacks for three voyages he planned to take from 1880 to 1883. During these voyages he intended to write of his adventures for the popular outdoor magazine Forest and Stream under the pen name Nessmuk. He challenged Rushton to build him a canoe that was sturdy, yet light weight. Sears was especially concerned about the weight of his craft. He knew that many carries must be crossed during his paddles. He was a small man weighing only 110 lbs. so every ounce counted.
Rushton built five tiny canoes for Sears but Sears favorite was the Sairy Gamp. She weighed 10 1/2 lbs. and was 9 feet long. She was made of white cedar with half round elm ribs, closely spaced to give her additional strength. Rushton warned Nessmuk not to ask for a smaller boat. “Don’t try for a smaller one” he said, “If you get tired of this as a canoe use it as a soup dish”.
Sears was a very well read man and that assures me that he named the Sairy Gamp. She was named after a nurse in one of Dicken’s novels who loved her gin straight and never took a drop of water with it. So it was with the Sairy Gamp canoe who never took on a drop of water.
Nessmuk said that Sairy never let him down and only once did she dump him. Nessmuk took full credit for that capsizing (he may have tried to look over his shoulder to see something behind him as I have done in light weight canoes and flipped over).
Sears was born in Webster, MA in 1821 to a poor family. When he was a small boy he made friends with a Native American youngster named Nessmuk, who taught him the wood lore that would stay with him the rest of his life. Nessmuk means wood duck or drake in the Narragansett language. He adopted the pen name Nessmuk in gratitude for all he learned from the Native American. When he was but eight years old he was conscripted to work in a cotton mill. There he worked from dawn to dusk with little time for rest. What breaks he did have were spent with Nessmuk roaming in the nearby forests and honing his woodcraft skills..
At age twelve he left home for his grandmother’s home on Cape Cod. There he would row a whale boat out to sea almost daily to fish. When nearly 20 years old he signed on with the Rajah, whaler out of New Bedford, MA. He spent three years on the Rajah in the Pacific in pursuit of whales.
Like Adirondack Murray, Sears felt that the common man should have access to the wilderness without having to spend beyond his means. He published Woodcraft, a book that covered all aspects of living outdoors. It would become a much sought after volume and was reprinted in 1963.
In this posting I am grateful for the great treasure of information about Nessmuk found in the book Canoeing the Adirondacks with Nessmuk, The Adirondack Letters of George Washington Sears by Dan Brenan with revisions by Robert L. Lyon and Hallie E. Bond.
Now about John Henry Rushton, a North Country fellow who is renowned as a builder of wooden craft. From 1873 until 1906 Rushton built a variety of small wooden boats; canoes, sailing canoes, rowboats and guideboats, and electric launches. His shop was in the northern reaches of the Adirondack Park in Canton, NY,
In writing this post I am borrowing heavily from the Adirondack Museum’s exhibit on Rushton. This means I am probably taking from the work of Hallie Bond who was the former curator of watercraft at the Museum. I am supposing that she had much to do with planning and setting up the exhibit.
I spent a year working with Hallie at the Museum as a volunteer. Her knowledge of boats and boating in the Adirondacks (she authored a book by that title) is extraordinary. During my tenure we moved the Museum’s boat collection from temporary, inadequate quarters to a brand new state-of-the-art Collection Study and Storage Center in Blue Mountain Lake. Great fun and a great learning experience.
Back to Rushton. Here is a photo of J. H. and his wife Leah.
J. H. was a hands on business man. He was the earliest on the job each day where he make sure stock was milled and ready for his crew of 17 to 20 men who worked year round. Here they are in 1920.
J. H. is standing on the left in vest and tie. His workers earned anywhere from 10 to 25 cents an hour. In 1881 they produced 250 canoes.
Rushton would custom build boats for his clientele as he did for Nessmuk. Nessmuk persuaded him to build small, lightweight canoes, a style not a favorite of Rushton. This line of one man craft became quite popular with “outers”, men who chose to go out into the wilderness without a guide. Rushton named this line Nessmuk, drafting on the popularity of Nessmuk’s journals published in Forest and Stream.
One of these “outers”, William West Durant, wanted a Nessmuk canoe. He was determined to have a Sairy Gamp canoe. The interchange between Rushton and Durant is hilarious. It is captured in the book acknowledged above and authored by Brenan, Lyon and Bond. It goes like this:
“By 1886 Rushton was bothered by all sorts of unrealistic expectations of these (Nessmuk line) boats. “The trouble is,” he wrote to Nessmuk, “every d— fool who weighs less than 300 thinks he can use such a canoe too, I get letters asking if the Bucktail (10 1/2 feet long and weighing 22 lbs.) will carry two good -sized men and camp duffel and be steady enough to shoot out of it. I told one fellow that I thought he’d shoot out of it mighty quick if he tried it.
One such d— fool was William West Durant , the central Adirondack land developer. “he is near six ft. and 170# (guess) ,” wrote Rushton of Durant when Durant visited the shop during construction of the Sairy Gamp. “I had hard work to keep him from ordering a duplicate, as it was he ordered a ‘Nessmuk.’ “. Durant named his boat, built on the dimensions of the Susan Nipper, Wie Lassie“.
Here is Wie Lassie on display in the Adirondack Museum..
The Wie Lassie is 10 ft. 6 inches long and weighs 20 lbs.
To my mind Rushton’s legacy is the Nessmuk line of small, lightweight canoes. Before these boats arrived on the scene the only option for getting about in the North Country was the guideboat or a two man canoe. These little boats were propelled by one seated on a cushion in the bottom of the boat using a double bladed paddle. “Outers” clamored for these boats because they opened up the vast wilderness of the North Country to common folk.
The Wie Lassie hull design has been reproduced or modified innumerable times right up to our times as professional boat builders and amateurs have recognized this near perfectly designed craft.
The first boat I ever built was called the Sairy Gamp. I had no idea at the time why it was called the Sairy Gamp or any of its history. I would learn that later on.
I happened to build Sairy quite by accident. We had moved from Northern New Jersey to Sudbury, Mass. That brought me closer to my Uncle Don who was living in Peterborough, NH, Soon after we moved to Mass I decided to pay a visit to Uncle Don. Uncle Don was a family physician but I saw him more as a Renaissance man. He delved into all sorts of endeavors such as competitive pistol shooting and photography. When he took up one of these activities it was never half-hearted. He won awards for his photography and went to national pistol shooting events where he won prizes for his marksmanship.
So when I came to see him in Peterborough I didn’t know quite what to expect. I hadn’t seen him in quite awhile. It wasn’t long before I was intrigued with what he was up to. First, he showed me his sugar shack where he boiled down his own tree sap to make maple syrup. We went inside to his workshop where I spied a row of various sized rounded boards attached in a row to what looked like a very sturdy work bench. “What is that?” I exclaimed. He said he was building the Sairy Gamp, a small wooden canoe. There was little further discussion and we moved on to other things.
I returned about six months later and inquired about the canoe he was building. He said “Oh, I haven’t done anything more on it, would you like to build it?” “Sure,” I said whereupon he gave me a single sheet of paper with the plans for the boat, the molds for building it, the strong back, or boat builders work bench, and enough Atlantic white cedar to build it. The sheet with the bare bones instructions for building the boat is shown below.
The work bench, or strong back, was a massive affair. Uncle Don said that he had seen it in the cellar of a local burned out mill. He somehow found someone he could ask for permission to take it. They said he could have it if he could haul it away. Here it is below. It has served well in building well over a dozen wooden boats.
With the help of my son Stew we built the Sairy Gamp. The boat is really quite small, only nine feet long. I thought it would be a great little pack canoe for the Adirondacks. I couldn’t wait to try it out.
One May day I decided to take it out on its maiden voyage. The marsh adjacent to our Long Lake home was flooded from the spring runoff so it was a perfect spot for a trial spin. Besides my wife Fran could watch from inside our home.
When I got into Sairy I was startled to see that the water rose right to the gunnels. I gingerly paddled away expecting at any moment to be swamped. Unknown to me, Fran was doubled over with laughter. She said that I looked like I was paddling about in a saucer.
Something was definitely wrong. Some inquiry revealed that Sairy had been built for a man who weighed around 110 lbs. whereas I weighed in excess of 170 lbs.
What to do with my first boat? I couldn’t use it with any assurance that I would say afloat. It was decided that it would occupy a place of honor by hanging it from the cathedral ceiling in our Long Lake home. Here she is.
The real Sairy is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution to the Adirondack Museum, When you visit the Museum during the summer look her up. She has a marvelous history which I will relate to you in the next post.
I avoided continuing to plank my latest guideboat for as long as the warm weather held. We had a very warm, sunny fall that allowed me to spend many hours outdoors. But we are now solidly in winter’s grasp. The bitter cold drives me inside and down to the boat shop.
I left off boat building last Spring completing two rounds of planking. Here they are:
After being away from the task of planking I am rightfully hesitant to get back into it. As John Gardner, the small craft historian and boat builder, put it so well in the Durant’s book The Adirondack Guide-Boat:
“The perfection and delicacy of guide-boat planking is something to humble a boatbuilder’s pride. In making a guide-boat the chief skill, if not the lion’s share of the labor, was the planking. For this the boatbuilder needed a special aptitude as well as infinite care and patience.”
As you already know the hull of a guideboat is covered by a thin, smooth skin made usually of white pine. Planks are joined together edgewise by planing the edge of each mating plank to produce a beveled feather edge. Adjoining planks must match almost perfectly. To add immensely to the builder’s task, planking must accommodate the “turn of the bilge”, that is, the region where the hull goes from being nearly horizontal near the bottom board to practically vertical at the gunnels.
Builders more talented than I fit the planks snug to the ribs in this region by hollowing out the plank on the inside face and then rounding off the outward facing surface. They use special planes to do this. The Old Timers called this backing out. I am greatly in awe of those modern guideboat builders who can pull off backing out. Among them are Allison Warner, the Adirondack Museum’s boat builder, and Rob Frenette of Raquette River Outfitters. I take the easier way out that the pros call “steaming”. But at the end of the day no one can tell whether the planks were steamed or backed out.
Obviously there is a lot of “touch and feel” in planking a guideboat. Matching the edge of a new plank to one already in place is a mammoth job. When I built my first guideboat I new nothing of spiling and simply traced the edge of the existing plank onto the new planking stock that was clamped over the existing plank. It turns out that the Old Timer boat builders did exactly that. They had no knowledge of spiling,
There was a hierarchy in an Old Time guideboat boat builder’s shop among the men who did the planking. The least among them lined off the new plank so that it fit snugly to the previous plank. The new plank then went to the bench where the “planker” took over. His ability to fit a plank to the hull was highly prized among his peers and the shop owner. Very few had the skill to accomplish what he did. He cut the feather edge bevels and “backed out” the inside face and rounded the outside face. According to the Durants little is known about how a planker accomplished his art.
This time around I am using spiling to line off my planks. I find it works very well from the midships up to the final rib but then breaks down completely. I worked around this deficit by using spiling up to the last rib. Then I made sure the nascent plank was extra wide at its hood, or stem, end. This gave me enough stock to play with and produce the true plank shape at the hood ends. This won’t be a problem after I finish hanging the third plank because I will have installed rib#12. This will give a reference point closer to the stem and make spiling that much more accurate,
To review an earlier post, here is what spiling is all about. A spiling batten is placed below and near the last plank and clamped to the ribs. The spliing batten must remain totally straight and true so I made mine of thin plywood. Here it is clamped to the hull and adjacent to the last hung plank.
To spile, a compass is used to draw an arc on the batten at each rib station. The arc originates from a point at the center of the rib and at the top end of the feather lap. Here the arc is being drawn on the batten.
The batten is then removed and clamped over stock that will become the next plank. Using the same compass arc, an arc is drawn from each side of the original arc on the spiling batten. These two arcs intersect at a point. This point represents the same point as from where the original arc was drawn. The photo below shows the compass being used to obtain the original point on the new planking stock.
If we connect the dots, so to speak, we will have a line that reproduces the edge of the previous plank. We connect these points using a batten.
I have found that it is best to concentrate on matching the top edge of the new plank with the previous plank. I use spiling to get a rough approximation of the other edge of the plank. Once I get the top edge matching up, then I slide the new plank down and clamp it so that the tick marks on the ribs for the other edge are revealed. Then I can just measure the distance between the top of the bevel on the previous plank and the tick mark and transfer that distance to the new plank. That gives me an accurate measure of the width of the plank at that point.
I find the cabinet scraper to invaluable in cutting the feather edge bevel. I take the bevel down with a block plane until the bevel is almost complete. Then I finish the job with the scraper. It gives great control over removal and the bevel is always flat and not rounded. Here it is in use.
Next time I will introduce another famous Adirondack wooden boat, the Sairy Gamp.
The choice of oars for guideboats has always puzzled me. It is somewhat an enigma. It is really the choice of how to connect the oar to the hull that seems odd to me, not that the oars themselves are odd in any way. The very earliest Adirondack boats used thole pins to direct the force generated by the sweep of the oar through the water to propel the hull. Thole pins are nothing more than wooden pegs mounted upright on the gunwale. The loom of the oar fits between them. The main advantage is that they allow the oar to be feathered, that is the blade is turned parallel to the water as the oar is being retrieved to begin the next power stroke.
Here is a photo of the very earliest Adirondack wooden craft. I call it the bookcase boat because it was made into a bookcase once its useful life had ended. It resides in Brandreth Park in a compound owned by the Brandreth family. Franklin Brandreth, the patriarch, collected Adirondack boats and this is one of his most precious acquisitions. On the deck of the bookcase boat is this inscription “1848” so this is a very old boat. It would have rotted away out of sight somewhere had it not been made into a piece of furniture.
Thole pins had the advantage of being cheap, lightweight, and allowed the oars to be feathered. The disadvantage was that one could never take their hands off the oars or they would likely go overboard.
This disadvantage was overcome by using pinned oars. Here the oar has a pin connected to it via a “horn”. The oarlock, attached to the gunwale, accepts the pin and is called a “strap”. Here is an example of a horn and strap.
Horns and straps eliminated a major concern of guides. They had to take their hands off the oars from time to time, either to cast a line or take a shot. Thole pins wouldn’t do for that, the oars would be overboard in a flash if you took your hands off them when hole pins were in play.
To get that advantage by using pinned oars you gave up feathering. During days when the wind kicks up with gusts to 20 to 30 miles per hour it is next to impossible to row upwind with pinned oars. It becomes a real struggle to make any progress at all.
A secondary advantage of pinned oars is that they maintain the proper distance from the oarlock to the grip. Because guideboats have such a narrow beam the oars must overlap in order to get enough leverage. Pinned oars automatically set this distance.
Another disadvantage of pinned oars is that they do not cushion any collision with something like a dock or bank. If you try to fend off either one using these oars you will likely capsize or damage your boat. John found that out in the Ninety Miler race when his oar go stuck in a bank. The momentum of his boat moving forward split the gunwale and necessitated emergency repairs.
There is an alternative arrangement, called “buttons and leathers”, that solves just about all these drawbacks. In this case the pin is joined to a ring that can slide up and down the loom of the oar. The ring is prevented from sliding off the end of the oar by a “button”, or ring made of leather. The oar is protected from wear from the ring by a leather sheath called the “leather”. Buttons and leathers allow you to feather your oars and the oars won’t go overboard if you let go of them. However, they do not set the proper distance between the oarlock and the oar grip. But I have used buttons and leathers ever since I built my first guideboat and setting the proper distance has not been a problem. It becomes an automatic sort of thing.
I don’t know why guides did not switch to the buttons and leathers arrangement. It is probably the same reason that every guideboat builder (and there were over 70 at one time) kept scrupulously to the same basic guideboat design. They were so precise in copying the basic design that even experts find it difficult to identify who the builder of a certain hull was.
These thoughts on guideboat oars came about because I just finished a set of oars for the latest boat I am building. They are made of figured cherry and are a beautiful example of it. Some have called it “quilted” cherry while others “flame” cherry. Here it is.
Finally, I wish you all the joy of the Holidays and a great New Year! Thanks for following my posts.