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.
I said that I would tell you how William West Durant affected the characteristics of the Adirondack guideboat. Then I realized that another larger-than-life character also had an impact on guideboat design. His name was William Henry Harrison Murray. Neither Durant or Murray had a direct influence on what became the quintessental Adirondack guideboat, but they surely had an influence.
Durant drew the absurdly rich to the Adirondacks by building his Great Camps. Murray was a preacher in Boston who was drawn to camp in the Adirondacks every summer. He became convinced that everyone, regardless of their social or economic status, should experience the wonders of the wilderness. He felt that through such a journey one was brought closer to his Maker.
In 1869 Murray published Adventures in the Wilderness, a book rich with tales of his experiences while being guided down Long Lake and into Raquette Lake. His writing is clear and direct. It neither talks over the reader’s head or talks down to him. Humor, suspense, and mystery are sprinkled throughout the book.
But the book carries through on his wish that the common man have the spiritual experience of being immersed in the natural world. The first part of his book reads like a Fodors of the Adirondack wilderness. It tells how to get there, what clothes to wear, who are the best guides, the best hunting and fishing gear, and so on. The railroads, anticipating a rush to the Adirondacks, began giving the book away.
The public’s response to the book was overwhelming. Tourists, sportsmen, and all manner of humanity flocked to the Adirondack wilderness during the summer of 1869. You can imagine the chaos when several thousand people descended on a wilderness where there was little of everything; food, lodging, and guides.
To make matters worse the summer of 1869 was miserable, rainy and chilly. Those who heeded Murray’s call to follow him became known as “Murray’s Fools”.
So how did these two very imposing figures, W. W. Durant and William H. H. Murray have an effect on the Adirondack guideboat? Before they came on the scene guideboats were a work boat, created by each guide over the winter months. A guide might sometimes make more than one boat to sell to another guide but the demand for these boats was not great enough to make a living building them. Guides built their boats to meet their own needs. First of all they had to be lightweight and rugged. They kept things simple. Their boats were painted and they used planks for seats.
The owners of vast wealth brought to the Adirondacks by Durant and the stable tourist trade encouraged by Murray changed that. The Great Camps owners became enamored by the sleek design of these boats and decided just one or two wouldn’t do. The Pryuns of Camp Santanoni had a boat house on Lake Newcomb, home of their Great Camp, a boat house on near-by Moose Pond, and one at their gatehouse in Newcomb. They had at least eight guideboats scattered about these locations, all built by Caleb Chase. Hotels hired guides by the day to row their clientele about their lakes. My friend Tom Bissell remembers that builder Wallace Emerson would tow a fleet of guideboats each spring up Long Lake to the long gone Sagamore Hotel there. Private clubs, like the Adirondack League Club, took many of the boats.
The increased demand for guideboats meant that shops devoted to building these handsome, but not easily built, craft began to spring up and prosper. Towards the end of the 1800’s there were 72 guideboat builders in the Adirondacks.
With the increase in number of builders came competition. Though easier to plank, lapstrake construction was replaced on these boats by smooth skinned planking. Simple plank seats gave way to caned ones. The middle seat got a hinged back rest that would fold down when not in use. Now can you see any self respecting guide using a back rest? The ultimate in catering to the changes that tourism brought was a grate-like affair that conformed to the inside of the hull. It was meant to protect the thin skinned hull from ladies in high heeled boots. Decks were not immune to being gussied up. Fancy woods were used and each builder had his own idea for a unique design. And that bare hole in the bow deck used to hold the lantern for jacking deer; now adorned with a fancy brass feed thru.
Varnish replaced paint as the preferred finish. Varnish showed off the light honey color of the pine planking. It also showed the vast array of copper tacks used to seal the hull and the lines of brass screws used to secure planks to ribs. Applying varnish to get a mirror-like, run-free finish is tricky business and far more time consuming than brushing on a few coats of paint.
Shops like the Grants, Chase, Parson Brothers, Warren Cole, and others hired perhaps six or more skilled carpenters and soon gained a reputation for excellence. The Grants, father Dwight and son Lewis, built 358 boats, all from their shop in Boonville, NY. The Parson Brothers, Ben and Ira, inherited their boat building business from their father. Here they are in their later years.
Here is one of their boats, a Raider, at 14 feet 3 inches.
I found fascinating a view of their shop taken around the turn of the century.
There are actually six men in this photo. You probably missed the fellow outside the rear doorway. He is carrying a guideboat on his shoulders in true Adirondack guide fashion using a yoke.
So would the Adirondack guideboat have evolved into such an extraordinarily beautiful craft without the upheaval wrought by Durant and Murray? Who knows? I think not,
In the last post we learned that William West Durant created a new style of architecture called Adirondack Great Camp in Raquette Lake NY in the 1870’s. We heard all about Great Camp Pine Knot, Durant’s first venture into this new, bold expression of rustic living. In that post. architecture was the prime focus. In this one we will search for what kind of man Durant was. Like all of us he was both saint and sinner. Here is a profile of Durant as a dashing young man.
This pose would suggest that he was quite a ladies man. Indeed he was. He was especially attracted to young ladies. He married Janet Strop, age 19, in 1884. The Strops were long time friends of the Durant family.
Now I’ll take a tangent and show you an old photo that piqued my interest. It is of guides and guideboats at the Camp Pine Knot landing.
What attracted my attention was the object floating offshore. It must be the houseboat Durant called Barque. Here is a close up of Barque pulled up on the shore at Pine Knot.
What was the purpose of Barque? In the Adirondacks starting in about mid-May and lasting well into June and perhaps beyond, a scourge of tiny insects called black flies appears. They look more like a gnat than a fly. They are relentless in their pursuit of bare human flesh. Their bite is painless but soon a welt the size of a dime rises at the bite site. This welt may last for up to a week and it itches like mad. Insect repellents have no effect on black flies.
One can escape them by getting out on the water, especially if even a slight breeze is present. Hence Barque. Durant supposedly built Barque so that ladies visiting Pine Knot in the spring and early summer would be comfortable. He may have had an ulterior motive.
Here is Durant’s cabin at Pine Knot, a modest affair.
My admiration for Durant went up when I learned he spent the winter of 1875 in a tent on the Pine Knot site. Having spent a full year in the Adirondacks I can appreciate the struggle he faced to keep warm and sane. The landscape turns white, with some splotches of dark green, and the sky is uniformly pewter. It snows every day, often just an inch or so, but it all adds up. We had seventeen feet of snow fall the year we stayed through the winter.
There was another structure on the Pine Knot grounds that had a very low profile. In fact, when the Camp was sold to Colis P. Huntington, it was not even marked on the survey of the property. This building was unusual in that every room in it had a door that opened to the outside. So visitors to Camp Kirby could come and go undetected. It was called Camp Kirby after its owner, a Mrs. Kirby. A young lady, Cornelia, spent her summers with her cousin at Camp Kirby. Cornelia was seventeen.
The docent on our tour of Camp Pine Knot said that Durant kept a bicycle handy for a quick transit to Camp Kirby. So while the ladies were safely holed up on Barque avoiding the black fly menace, Durant was braving them to make his way to other pursuits. His interest on other women apparently became widely enough known that his wife was granted a divorce in 1895.
Durant was a brilliant architect but a terrible business man. He simply could not control the cost of building his Great Camps. In order to avoid bankruptcy he would sell each of his camps as soon as they were completed. As mentioned, Camp Pine Knot was bought by Colis P. Huntington, while Camp Uncas went to J. P. Morgan and Camp Sagamore to Alfred Vanderbilt.
When Durant’s father died without a will in 1885, William was drawn to this new source of money like a moth to flame. He somehow wrested control of the estate and proceeded to cheat his sister out of her share of it. When he granted her a mere $2oo a month while buying a 190 foot ocean going yacht, sister Ella took legal action. After years of litigation she was awarded $750,000. You have probably guessed the outcome, there was no money left in the estate satisfy her judgment.
There is a brighter side of William West Durant. He built two churches on Raquette Lake. Both are still there and in fine condition. Here is St. Williams Roman Catholic Church. The other is an Episcopal Church, the Church of the Good Shepard,
Next time I’ll give my take on how Durant affected the iconic Adirondack guideboat.
Why would you christen your dinner cruise vessel the W W Durant? This steamboat-like vessel was built with your hands and the help of three others. It is spacious enough to hold 70 people and feed them gourmet meals. You constructed it in 1992 on the shores of Raquette Lake, the same shores where wooden steamboats where built and launched by journeymen ship carpenters in the late 1800’s.
Your name is Dean Pohl, and together with your wife Donna, and chef son Jim, you operate a dinner cruise vessel on Raquette Lake. You were born and raised in Raquette Lake and you know its history by heart. On your cruises you relate that history to the delight of your guests. One of my favorites is the story of how Raquette got its name. It goes something like this:
Near the end of our War of Independence, Sir John Johnson, a Tory, was being hotly pursued by the Revolutionary Forces. In March of 1776, he and is party of Seneca and Mohawk braves were fleeing north on snowshoes trying to escape to Canada. A sudden Spring thaw overtook them and they were forced to abandon their snowshoes, called raquettes by the French. They happened to be at the South Inlet of Raquette Lake when shedding their raquettes. This large pile of abandoned snowshoes remained for years and led to the name given to the lake.
The Durants, William and his father Thomas caused seismic changes in the life of the Adirondacks when they arrived on the scene in 1870’s. It is safe to say the changes they caused still reverberate in the North Country today.
Thomas Durant was the VP of the Union Pacific Railroad when the eastern portion of the transcontinental railroad was completed. As a consequence he was given 500,000 acres of Adirondack land to develop. He promptly put his son William in charge of the task of developing this vast region. The first thing they did was to extend the rails from Saratoga to North Creek. Still, it was day’s journey by stagecoach to Raquette Lake.
William then conceived of a style of architecture that was unique to the Adirondacks. It came to be called Adirondack Great Camp. William hoped that these Camps would entice the exceeding wealthy of the day to own them. This summer Fran and I toured Great Camp Pine Knot, Durant’s first Great Camp. We learned much about Great Camps and the man who built them.
Here is the main lodge of Great Camp Pine Knot on Raquette Lake’s North Point. All Durant’s Great Camps have a main lodge. It was in the main lodge that the Robber Barons of of the day were wined and dined and persuaded to invest in an Adirondack venture; a Great Camp.
As far as I know, all the main lodges of Durant’s Great Camps were two stories high and totally constructed of wood. This one was called Chalet. As a youth William was educated in Europe. His style of Adirondack architecture was no doubt influenced by his exposure to Old World building styles and conventions.
Below is the recreation building. Inside, a guest could relax by playing card games or billiards in the game room.
Here is a view of the game room inside this building. The guest is surrounded by objects and other reminders that he is now far away from his familiar surroundings.
You have perhaps noticed the intricate twig work on these buildings, especially the recreation building. It would become a hallmark of Durant’s style and later, of Adirondack design. Here are some further examples.
By now you have realized that all construction in Durant’s Great Camps is of wood and kept as rustic as possible. Buildings were set back away from the water for privacy and were constructed to serve a specific purpose, say recreation hall, sleeping cottages, dining hall, etc. They served to make the guest feel immersed in the wilderness yet not separated from the creature comforts they were so accustomed to. To provide these comforts, servants lived in buildings away from the main complex. The entire Camp covered a wide area as you can see from the view below.
Building interiors reinforced the presence of the wilderness. Here are views of the interior of one of the sleeping cottages.
The dining hall was intriguing. Here it is, a glass house.
What a wonderful view of the lake the guests had as they took their meals. We wondered how hot meals made it from the kitchen to the table without getting cold. Here is a view of the inside of the dining hall.
Next time, in Part 2, we will talk about Durant as a person. It turns out he was quite a scoundrel! I will also draw guideboats into the story.
As explained in an earlier post, the Blue Mountain Lake Flotilla was being held to reenact a parade of lighted small craft held in 1882. That Flotilla celebrated the opening of the Prospect House, the first hotel in the world to have electric lights in every room. As the New York Telegram proclaimed in August, 1882 “It was one of the prettiest and most novel sites ever witnessed in the wilderness”.
So this was the arrangement for towing the small craft electing to join the Flotilla. The vintage motor launch, Toowaloondah, would drag a tow rope. Affixed to the tow rope were shorter rope “branches” coming off at intervals. At the end of these branches were carabiners. Each boat participating in the Flotilla would connect their painter to the carabiner and off we go.
Here is a photo of the Toowahloondah and some of the parade boats.
I was suspect of this arrangement. Some “what ifs” came to mind. What if we were dragged into the main line and got dumped over? Was there enough space between each boat so we wouldn’t crash into one another? As a friend put it “guideboats are to be rowed, not towed”. So we decided not to be towed but to follow the Flotilla under our own power.
Now a second problem arose. The schedule for the day’s events kept slipping. The Flotilla was slated to start at 6 pm. It was long after that and no movement was made to get underway. As shown by these photos of the bonfire taken at later and later intervals, it got darker, and darker, and darker.
So finally the order was given to launch to Flotilla’s collection of small craft and get in line behind the Toowahloondah. It was now about 9 pm. The beach suddenly became a scene of chaos. In the dark, boats headed every which way. I was manning the oars in the bow and Fran had a guide’s paddle in the stern. The decision to arm her with the paddle would save the day for us many times over as you will see.
We shoved off the beach and headed into the fray. As rower I couldn’t see where we were headed. Fran barked orders from her vantage point as helmsman. I got impatient to get free of the “bumper car” melee but she restrained me. “Stop” or “Slow to the starboard” she would say. We finally did get free and, miraculously, did not hit anyone. We headed, slowly east down the lake.
We were suddenly aware of how really dark it had become. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a half moon slide down behind the southern hills. It was now pitch black! We Fishers call this “Adirondack Dark”. No diffused light pierces its inkiness. We tried hugging the shore line but there were no lights onshore to help us. To make matters worse, our flashlights were out of reach in the middle of the boat. Adding to our unease, Blue Mountain Lake was totally unfamiliar to us.
At this point we abandoned the thought of being in the Flotilla and decided a safe passage was more important. As we crept along, ghostly shapes of buoys, moored boats, and piers arose and drifted by.
I insisted on searching out the boat livery ramp where we had launched Frances C. earlier in the day. We simply could not find it. Still I insisted on looking for the ramp. I was like a male driver refusing to ask directions. Finally I gave up and, since I could not see where we were headed, turned over all navigation to Fran and her guide’s paddle.
She said “I see a light and maybe a couple of people ahead.” We decided that was the only option available and headed for the light. As we drew closer Fran began to shout “HELLO, HELLO!” No answer. HELLO, HELLO! Still no answer.
Finally we scraped up on a sandy beach and a man and woman rushed down to help us out of the boat. They must have be astounded when two people dressed in 1880’s attire washed up on the town beach. Back to the future?
Fran asked “Didn’t you hear us yelling Hello? “Oh” they said, “We thought you were saying “Row, Row!” So that’s why sailors shout “Ahoy” when they want to get your attention.
So we took in the fireworks display marking the end of flotilla Day before putting Frances on her trailer and heading home.
One final note. Here is heroine Fran the next day with her guide’s paddle.