Guideboat returns home to Long Lake.

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.

Colleen Smith, granddaughter of George Smith, guideboat builder.

Here is Colleen’s guideboat built by her grandfather, George W. Smith.

Colleen’s guideboat built by her grandfather, George W. Smith of Long Lake.

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.

Tom Bissell’s boat house at Endion.

(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.

Photo of Colleen rowing her grandfather’s guideboat on re-launch day. Photo was taken by Alexandra Roalvig.









Fred Burns-The last of the Long Lake Traditional Guideboat Builders

I came to know of guideboat builder Fred Burns through my friend Richard Dechene.  Fred was Richard’s grandfather, who Richard and his cousins called “Boobah”.  Fred was quite a fellow.  He built a beautiful home in Long Lake at age 75.  He then started building the first of 13 guideboats at age 76.  Richard wrote this about him for Sulavik’s book The Adirondack Guideboat;

“…my grandfather was the type of man who kept everything and recycled it.  My guideboat (built by Fred) has plywood decks.  I believe all of his boats had them but I am not one hundred percent sure.  He built thirteen guideboats , usually in the winter in his shop. His (builder’s ) jig was homemade  using large wire spool ends for his circular ends and drilled holes through them so he could angle the boats however he wanted.  His tools were always in great shape and very sharp.  As a child I knew never to touch them.  The handles were always varnished and commonly colored  rings were painted around the base of them.

I think the most interesting thing about (my grandfather’s) boats was that they were totally built with hand tools.  He owned a few power tools but rarely ever used them.

I can remember spruce stumps in the woods covered with canvas tarps.  He prepared these so that he could cut his ribs from them with his cross cut saw.

My father would usually get the planks for the sides and grandfather would hand plane them into tapered boards.  There were always piles of curly shavings on the floor which made a great fire starter.

In the spring, launching day was always a big event for us.  (Grandfather) would set his new boat on his homemade cart and pose for pictures.  Then he would walk it to the town beach, about a quarter of a mile away, and launch it.  He’d take it for a spin to see how it handled and returned to see if anyone else wanted to test it out.  This was always fun for us.”

I was privileged to have access to family albums that contain photos of Fred building his guideboats.  Here are some of the best showing him at work.

Here Fred has selected a spruce tree to provide stems and ribs for his next guideboat.

The stumps will be dug out of the ground and flitches cut for root stock.

Cutting flitches from a spruce stump.

Fred’s son gave him a chain saw but he preferred to use a cross cut saw and cut flitches by hand.  Richard remembers hearing the monotonous “shish-shish’ going on for what seemed like hours as the flitches were cut.  Richard’s house was close enough to his grandfather’s so that he could clearly hear the cross cut saw at work.

The flitches were allowed to dry for at least a year and then cut into ribs and stems.  Here Fred fastens the ribs to the bottom board.

Attaching ribs to the bottom board.
Finishing attaching ribs.

Planking was done using a rotesserie style builder’s jig.Fred’s guideboats employed seven planks per side rather than the usual eight.

Planking with the aid of a rotesserie style builder’s jig.

Cutting off the nib ends of the ribs.

Cutting off the nib ends of the ribs.

The deck

Then time came for the launching of Fred’s latest guideboat.  The boat shown here was called Snow White because it was so light in color.  It was built in the winter of 1978-1979 and was launched in July 1979. Since Fred was born in 1892 that makes him 87 when he built the Snow White.  Here is Snow white on Fred’s home made cart built from salvaging items from the Long Lake town dump.

The Snow White guideboat on Fred’s home made cart. Off we go to launch her.

Arrival at the lake shore.

Arrival at the lake shore.

In she goes.

In she goes.

A trial spin.

Fred prepares to board the Snow White guideboat.
Ready to row.
Off we go!

Richard tells a rather amusing story about his growing up although was not very amusing from his grandfather’s point of view.  When Richard was nine years old or so his Mom let him learn to drive.  Every morning he would take the family car out for a prescribed route for a short distance from their house.  It would end with Richard backing the car into the garage.  On one occasion there was a guideboat on the floor of garage.  Richard didn’t notice the guideboat.  Car and guideboat had a tragic meeting.  When grandfather Fred viewed the aftermath, an awful look came over his face,  he turned on his heel and left.  Mom and son felt awful.  Richard thinks the boat was salvaged by fiber glassing it.

Richard tells me that a daily ritual for his grandfather every morning during the summer months was to trundle his guideboat down to the town dock.  He would then row it up to the upper end of the lake about 8 miles away and back.  Phew, hard to believe that of an 80+ year old.  Not this kid!


John Homer-New Age Guideboat Builder

John Homer is a good friend of mine.  We met while I was an interpreting at the Museum for Allison while as she built traditional guideboats in the Museum’s boat shop.  John, although not a native Adirondacker, possesses all the characteristics of one.  He is creative and resourceful and not afraid to do things he has never done before.  A local magazine, LOCALadk, recently published an article about him that I will reproduce here.  The article is entitled “I am LOCALadk John Homer of North Creek, Owner: Adirondack Rowboats Paddle and Oar”.  Here is John as he appears in the article.

John Homer, courtesy of LOCALadk magazine.

About two weeks ago I toured John’s shop.  I found it spacious and full of all sorts of projects.   John is indeed a creative fellow.  Here is a general view of his shop.

A general view of John Homer’s boat shop.

The article about John in LOCALadk reads as follows:

“A passion for the rich history of the Adirondacks’ and a desire to learn more about it, eventually introduced John Homer to Adirondack guideboats.  John soon visited the Adirondack Experience in Blue Mountain Lake and spent hours in the boat museum where he  studied the lines, the technique, and the craftsmanship, (used to build guideboats) and knew he wanted to use his woodworking skills to build a boat with similar qualities.  He followed down a path that that has allowed him to follow, learn and ultimately build boats he has come to love.

After serving his country for 22 years on active duty  in the Army (many thanks for serving, John), and having been stationed at Fort Drum, NY, John and his family moved to the Adirondacks.  He built his first boat in 2008 after buying half of an antique guideboat which was used to help teach himself how to build his own.

John with antique guideboat.

He also had some help and advice along the way from several well-known Adirondack boat builders.  He is forever grateful for the knowledge and expertise each shared with him.  The boats John has built are not, however, true Adirondack guideboats because he has made some modifications to them.  He refers to them as Adirondack row boats.  Here they are:

John with one of his boats.


Another view of John’s boat.
John with one of his boats.

(I feel john is being a bit modest claiming that his boats are not Adirondack guideboats.  He has evolved that craft into yet another beautiful creation.  He is following in the footsteps of Willard Hanmer, guideboat builder in the 40’s and 50″s.  Willard recognized that he had to use mechanical assists whenever possible to make a guideboat as economically as possible.  It is good to see that the old art of building a guideboat is not static but has blossomed!)

Aside from the boats themselves, John makes canoe paddles and oars as well as oarlocks.

John with one of his paddles.
John with a guideboat carrying yoke he is making.

John works with Hornbeck Boats and creates all the oars they sell for for their rowing boats.  At Hornbeck, he also works on finishing the hull of the boats once they are pulled from the molds.  This stage of the process involves working with wood for the backrest and seats.  A privilege I am sure he is humbled by is applying the telltale red stripe along the hull that has become a trademark for Hornbeck.

John also designs and makes his own hardware for part of the oarlocks.  He does this using the same time-consuming and tedious procedure called sand casting. This is a metal casting process in which sand is used as the mold material.  The sand is held in a metal box, cape and drag, which John fabricated.

A mold used to cast guideboat straps.

This path eventually led John to the Adirondack Canoe Classic, or as most people refer to it, “the 90 miler”.  Like its name implies, this is a 90 mile paddling (or rowing) race over 3 days.  John participated in his first race in 2009, with a boat he built himself.  He has raced 7 times now and enjoys rowing the race in a boat made with his own two hands.  He has competed solo as well as with friends.  (John told me of one 90 miler where the winds reached  gale force.  The waves in Raquette Lake were whipped up to four feet high.  John said he had to look up one moment to see his friend in the bow and then down a second later to see him as each wave passed them by.)

The perfect Adirondack day for John would  be to get up early and spend it in his guideboat/rowboat, fishing and exploring some remote pond or lake, where it’s quiet and peaceful.

If you are in the market for this type of hand-built boat, visit John’s website or check out his Facebook page : Adirondack Rowboats Paddle and Oar.”

John did make a beautiful oar and paddle bag for me as shown below.  He is also making a carrying yoke for my guideboat Showboat.

Guideboat oars, paddle and bag to hold them made by John.

Next time we plug the leaks in an old guideboat.



Minnow Pond-Part 2

Last time we hiked into Minnow Pond, a pristine body of water that the Adirondack Museum has set aside for a wonderful Adirondack adventure.  In the brand new boathouse are stored antique guideboats and other wooden craft that you can rent for a nominal fee.  Here is a view of the boathouse just as the 3/4 mile trail from the Museums main campus arrives at the pond.

View of the boat house from the trail.

The boat house was designed to reflect the Great Camp style of  Adirondack architecture.

Front view of the boat house on Minnow Pond.

A view of the cedar posts and use of twig architecture.

Cedar post and beams and intertwined twigs reminiscent of the Durant Great Camp style.

I was looking forward to rowing a Caleb Chase Raider that was probably built in the late 1890’s.  I have an affinity for Chase boats having reproduced one of his guideboats that happened to have a rich history.  Raiders were smaller guideboats, about 12 feet long, that were used to get back into remote pond where the fishing was supposed to be better than on the larger lakes.  Here is the Chase Raider.

The Caleb Chase Raider guideboat.


Side view of the Chase Raider guideboat.

Alas, when the Chase boat was launched it listed noticeably to one side.  It was decided to give this old girl the day off and launch a Blanchard Raider instead.  Here is the Blanchard Raider.  It was built by James Blanchard of Raquette Lake in the early 1900’s.

Here’s the Blanchard Raider ready to go.

I found the Blanchard boat easy to row and that she tracked well even in a stiff quartering breeze.  Here I am.

Rowing away from the dock.

Once  got away from the dock and a few hundred yards down the pond I noticed how pristine Minnow Pond was.  There was no evidence of the “insult” man can perpetrate on Nature’s beauty; no waterfront homes or docks.

Next time:  a visit to John Homer’s boat shop.



Minnow Pond-Part 1

This year the Adirondack Museum has added a new attraction.  They built a boat house on Minnow Pond, a small pristine lake that is a 3/4 mile walk from the main campus.  There you can rent (for a nominal fee) an antique guideboat or an Old Town canoe among other small wooden boats.

This past Sunday Fran and I decided to hike into Minnow Pond and rent a boat.  It was a beautiful day, on the cool side with much sun.  The trail is an easy one through woods with much to remind us of the Adirondacks we so love.  The first was bird songs; Hermit thrush with his flute-like song and Red-eyed vireo with his repetitive question and answer call.

Sign introducing the Minnow Pond trail.


The Minnow Pond trail

A reminder of the geologic past that shaped the Adirondacks lay all around us.  These were the erratics, impressive boulders some the size of a house.  These had been dragged south by the mile high ice sheet that covered the Adirondacks during the last ice age.  When the ice melted they were plopped down, helter-skelter.  Here is one.

Some erratics along the trial.

We were amused at one we dubbed the dragon.  Someone had carefully laid some small rocks along its “open mouth” to resemble teeth.

The Dragon

We had not anticipated the presence of signs along the walk.  These were very cleverly done and informed us of a wide variety of Adirondack lore, from the emergence of guideboats, to the early tourists, and those who sought to protect this vast and beautiful wilderness.  I will share them with you with a little commentary.  Let’s start with those on guideboats:

Why the guideboat?

The guideboat, being a rowboat it was easily controlled by one person.  This is not the case with a canoe which needed two paddlers to gain the maximum utility of the craft.

The birch bark canoe.


The Adirondack guideboat.


Woods used in building guideboats.

The boat builder of the 1800’s cleverly used the roots of the red spruce tree to gain maximum strength, yet light weight, in their guideboats.  They shaped the ribs and stems from the roots so that the grain of the wood followed the curvature of the hull.

Guideboat being carried.

Guideboats are carried overhead using a yoke that fits around one’s neck and rests on the shoulders.  This may look easy but I assure you it is not.  The Adirondack carries (portages) are rough, rocky trails.  They are stony and slippery and can be up to a mile long.

Tribute to the guideboat.


Guideboat builder Willard Hanmer.

Here is Willard Hanmer who built guideboats well into the 1950’s.  He used mechanical assists when building his boats.  At that time this was the only way to build these boats and still make a living.

Beginning about 1850, sportsmen were attracted to the Adirondacks by tales of a hunting and fishing paradise.  One of the those who extolled these riches was William H. H. Murray who wrote Adventures in the Wilderness in 1869.  The book was an instant success and became the common man’s pocket guide to the Adirondacks.

Adirondack Murray.

Once railroads laid track to bring tourists closer to the region, they flocked to the Adirondacks.  Large hotels sprang up including the Prospect House on Blue Mountain lake, the first in the world to have electric lights in every room.  Here is an old photo of the Wawbeek Hotel on Upper Saranac lake.

The Wawbeek Hotel, 1889.  Note the guides with their guideboats to the left.


As the region became known, steps began to be taken to preserve it.  Verplank Colvin was sent by the New York Legislature to survey the vast wilderness. Here he is.

Colvin and his canoe.


Description of Colvin’s canoe.


Colvin’s cry to preserve the Adirondack Wilderness.

Others took up the quest to preserve the Adirondack wilderness.

Teddy Roosevelt in a guideboat.


Wilderness Act author.
The Wilderness Act.

Back on the trail.  Here and erratic is shrouded with a mossy blanket.  Over eons moss and lichen will consume it.  Hard to imagine!

Erratic with moss.

Ah, I spot the pond through the trees ahead.  We have arrived.

Minnow Pond in sight.

Next time in Part 2, I take out an early 1900’s Blanchard raider guideboat.



Returning North

Finally the day arrives to head back north to Long Lake.  It seems like a very long time since we were there.  That is mainly because last year was a bummer for me.  I had such excruciating back pain that I couldn’t stand or walk.  That’s gone now so I am looking forward to getting back on the water again.

We happen to choose the summer solstice to head north.  It has been a cold and rainy spring for New England and the Adirondacks.  That has delayed the arrival of spring up north in some startling ways.  That is evident from the high water levels in Long Lake.  And the trees are showing the bright jade green of foliage that has just emerged.  Just look at these hemlock buds.

Hemlock spring buds.

What really astounds me is that the spring peepers are still piercing the spring dusk with their sleigh bell-like peeps.  They stopped peeping in Delaware in April.

My son Stew drove us up.  The first thing the two of us decide to do is get the guideboat out and take a cruise.  The high water means we can get into remote waterways not accessible when summer is in full swing.  Here Stew is manning the oars.  I am in the stern with a steering paddle.

Stew at the helm.

The summer solstice sunset lasts well after nine-o-clock.  That can cause some surprising sunsets.  Here is a photo taken facing north of our dock just after sunset.  A huge cloud over the northern mountain range has been illuminated by the setting sun.

Solstice sunset on Long Lake.

I have learned that the Adirondack Museum has built a boat house on Minnow Pond, a 3/4 mile walk from the main campus.  They will have antique guideboats and canoes for rent there.  What a great idea!  I will check it out and let you know more about it.

Also, a  friend has asked for help plugging some leaks in his antique guideboat built by his grandfather.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

Till next time.






Making a scarf

A scarf is a way of joining two planks end-to-end.  It is used when planking a guideboat because it is impossible to find, much less fit, stock that would span the entire length of the guideboat hull.  To make life easier, we span the hull using two planks joined using a scarf.

There are certain rules governing a scarf.  I didn’t know all of them when I built my first guideboat.  The one I missed was that a scarf should land on a rib.  Mine were located between ribs.  No matter, it hasn’t affected the boat functionally.  It is now twenty years old and you wouldn’t know any difference unless I pointed it out to you.  The advantage of having a scarf land on a rib is that it is hidden from view on the inside of the hull.

Another rule is that the scarfs should be staggered so as not to fall on the same rib time after time.  Masons use the same rule when laying bricks.  The photo below shows staggering of the scarfs on my latest boat.  The scarfs are indicated by the line of tacks.

Staggered scarfs on a guideboat hull.

You must take great care when laying out a scarf.  The two planks to be joined are assigned an upside and a downside.  You must make sure the downsidc spans the rib as shown below.

The downside plank must span the rib.

Then the upside plank is set on top of the downside one and the scarf width marked on it.

The upside plank is laid on top of the down side one and the scarf width marked on it.

Waste is removed from the top of the downside plank to accommodate the overlapping upside plank. My plank scarfs span a width of 7/8″.  That generally falls within the rule of thumb that the scarf width should be six times the thickness of the stock.

To remove the waste I start with a chisel.

Chisel and mallet for removing waste to form a scarf.


Step one of removing waste uses a chisel.

Then I use a block plane.  This gives a flat mating surface.

Removing more waste using a lock plane.

Finally I finish with a sanding board.

The final step uses a sanding board.

I repeat the process on the upside plank by removing material from its underside. The two planks are then temporarily fastened to the hull and the fit checked.  Once everything looks OK the planks can be permanently hung.  The downside plank goes on first.  The scarf is sealed using a row of closely spaced tacks along the edge ( see the first figure ).

The Adirondack Guideboat-The BookCase Boat

I have always been fascinated by the Book Case Boat.  I first saw a photo of it in Kenneth and Helen Durant’s The Adirondack Guideboat.  Here it is minus books:

The Book Case Boat. It resides in the Brandreth Park Camp Good-Enougth.

It is obviously a very old boat and I would claim that it is one the the very first Adirondack  guideboats. Evidence that it is a guideboat is plain to see; an elliptical flat bottom board, roots form the ribs, it is rowed using thole pins, and it was carried using a yoke.

I became obsessed with learning all I could about this ancient craft.  Who made it? Where was it used and how?  At one point Hallie Bond, former Curator at the Museum, and I planned a trip to Brandreth Park to view the boat.  I hoped to obtain as much information as I could including some critical measurements that would allow it to be reproduced.  Our visit was cancelled at the last minute.  So my quest to learn all I could about the Book Case boat was stymied, for the moment.  But my interest in the book case boat only grew stronger.  It became a family joke.  When ever I mentioned the boat, which was quite often, my wife Fran would laugh and say “Are you on that book case boat thing again?”

Fortunately, two recent publications have shed new light on the book Case Boat.  Stephen Sulavik’s book, page 44 reads, ” A very old boat, possibly built by William Austin, was discovered, its stern submerged in  mud on the shore of Brandreth Lake, west of Long Lake.  The name B. Brandreth is stamped inside on a plank near the bow.  At a much later date the year “1848” was painted on its bow deck, not unlikely by the artist Paulene Brandreth.  The stern has long since been removed and the upright boat fitted with shelves for books.  It is obvious that the boat was carried by one person: There are rounded notches on the tops of both gunwales, worn down by the ends of a carrying yoke.  The boat was relatively short, 12 to 14 feet in length, and estimated to weigh about 120 pounds.  It was rowed using thole pins rather than metal oarlocks. (editor’s note- there are two rowing stations just as in later guideboats).  Its most striking feature is that its construction-a flat elliptical bottom board with ribs sawn from  natural crooks-is similar to that of the Adirondack guideboat”

The caption on figure 1-11 of Sulavik’s book (the figure is a photo of the bookcase boat), reads, “The hull is made of four strakes on each side.  There is a prominent stem post, a straight deck, placed between the sheer planks, a clapboard-lapstrake outer hull, a smooth lapstrake inner hull, and a flat elliptical bottom board made from two lengthwise pieces.

And from Brandreth, written by D. and O. Potter, page 252 reads, “In the early days at Brandreth, large guideboats-wide and heavily built freighters-were loaded with people and baggage and rowed up the full length of the lake.  One of these, the oldest boat at Brandreth Lake ( and perhaps one of the oldest in the Adirondacks) has been pressed into service as a book case at Camp Good Enough. ”

So what do we now know about the book case boat?  Surely it was obtained by Benjamin Brandreth at the very opening of Brandreth Park to shuttle family and visitors up and down Brandreth Lake from the point of entry to the various camps.  It was one of the Brandreth family’s “freighter” guideboats.  I assume this from Sulavik’s description of the boat (B. Brandreth stamped on a plank, and that the boat was found at Brandreth Lake).   That would put the boat at the same age as the camp, about 170 years.

Well, who built the book case boat?  A clue comes from the unlikely partnership of guide Honest John Plumley and James Blandford, business associate of Benjamin Brandreth.  If you read my last post you would remember that the the two were sent by Benjamin to scout out Adirondack lands for sale by the State of New York.   Brandreth had heard of these and wished to obtain some portion of them.  Plumley and Blandford apparently found Township 39 that enclosed Brandreth Lake quite appealing and decided to recommend its purchase to Benjamin.

While on the site of Township 39 discussions between Plumley and Blandford probably included where to site camps (living quarters).  That would lead to how to transport people and goods up and down the lake.  The discussions may have gone as follows; James- “So Benjamin will need some sort of watercraft in order to make these lands habitable?”  John- “Indeed, small wooden row boats are indispensable for getting around up here. There are no roads worthy of the term.  Every settler has a boat and we often share them.  We sometimes borrow boats by dropping  off our boat at one end of a carry (portage) and pick up a neighbor’s boat at the other end.”  James- “So where do these boats come from?”  John- “Some settlers know how to build boats and the make their own.”  James-“Are there any boat builders who might build several for a new camp? John- “William Austin is a neighbor of mine on Long Lake.  He builds sturdy rowboats that are well made and last  long time.  He builds about one boat every two weeks and sells them for $50.”  James-“Good!  How many of these boats would be needed to run the new camp?”  John- “I would start with about a half dozen.”  James- “All right, if Benjamin agrees to purchase Township 39 we will have Austin build six of his boats for us.”

So now the book case boat, spared from rotting away because it became a piece of furniture, resides in Camp Good Enough in Brandreth Park.  The boat represents a sort of time capsule,  It was built by an early settler who arrived from Vermont and found his talents as a boat builder to be in demand.  His talent, as well as guides Reuben Cary and John Plumley  were crucial to the building of the Adirondack Great Camps.  There was no culture clash been the native Adirondackers and the very wealthy.  In fact the life style of guides and other settlers was envied by the “city folk”. They represented a kind of free spirit not to be found in the crowded and polluted cities.

So what is to become of the book case boat?  Of course it can continue to reside at Camp Good Enough at Brandreth Park.  There are two main reasons for not continuing housing it there; safety and its status as an artifact of immense value to lovers of the Adirondacks. The first point, safety, is quite obvious, the danger of fire.  Other physical threats like vandalism are not as likely.

The second point, that the book case boat has great worth as a cultural icon is more important.  It represents the entrepreneurial spirit of the Adirondack people that has survived to this day.  They are hands-on people who, confronted with a problem, jump in to solve it.

This may e something of a stretch but I see the book case boat in a similar light as the Wright Brother’s plane or Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.  Shouldn’t the book case boat be on display in a museum for all to admire?  I certainly think so.

The Adirondack Guideboat-Where did it come from?

In part II of Where the guideboat came from? we will look into the contribution of William Austin of Long Lake.  According to Stephen Sulavik we still have an artifact of one of his early guideboats.  Before I get to that I need to give you some background.

Traveling southwest in the Adirondack Park just past Raquette  Lake we come to Brandreth Park.  The history of this oldest family enclave in the Park was recently documented in a book Brandreth, authored by Orlando Potter III and Donald Potter.  It all started when Benjamin Brendreth immigrated to the New World in 1835 from London.

Benjamin Brandreth, from Brandreth, by O. B. Potter and D. B. Potter, page 1.

He brought with him to New York his grandfather’s formulas for Vegetable Universal Pills.  Through a massive advertising effort and acquisition of Allcocks Porous Plasters, he soon outgrew his New York manufacturing capabilities and moved to Ossining, N. Y. (previously know as Sing Sing)  By then he had grown extremely wealthy off his pill and plaster business as shown by his construction of a 30 room mansion with 10 bathrooms there.

Ad for Allcocks Porous Plasters, from Brandreth, page 3, by O. B. Potter and D. B. Potter

He was asked to run and won  election to the NY State Senate in 1849.  There he became aware  that entire Townships were for sale by New York State in the Adirondacks.  These lands fell into the hands of the State as a result of their loss by England as a result of the Revolutionary War.

He sent his trusted employee, James Blandford to scout out these lands to determine their potential.  Blandford, in turn, hired “Honest John” Plumley of Long Lake to guided him.  Honest John appears later in Adirondack Murray’s book Adventures in the Wilderness.  Honest John was highly respected as a guided and woodsman.  Here they are together in a photo.

John Blandford and guide Honest John Plumley.  From Brandreth, by O. B. Potter and D. B. Potter, page 4.

They are posing with the last wolf in the Adirondacks shot by Reuben Cary.  Incidentally, wolves have returned to the Adirondacks (I have seen one).  They are Coy-wolves, a hybrid of western coyotes and Canadian red wolves.

Blandford and Honest John scouted several townships being sold.  They recommended that Township 39 be purchased.  The purchase was recorded on March 21, 1851.  Purchase price was $3605.70 or about 15 cents an acre.

Old map of Township 39. From Brandreth by O. B. Potter and D. B. Potter, page 5.

The prominent body of water is Brandreth Lake.

I have known for some time that guideboats held a special place in the hearts of the Brandreth clan. I was told that only guideboats are allowed on the enclave waters (powerboats only in emergencies).  The Potter brothers go on in Brandreth to say:

“It is with quiet pride that Brandreth owners extol their principal means of locomotion on all the water bodies of the Park: the Adirondack guideboat.  This enduring aspect of our inheritance has its roots in the very first days of ownership, and persists over one hundred and fifty years later.”  In the early days of the enclave so called freighter guideboats were used to haul the family’s possessions up the lake.

I was told that even today only guideboats are allowed on the enclave waters (power boats only in emergencies).  As of the year 2008 there were 41 wooden guideboats in Brandreth Park. They represented craft built by many of the major guideboat builders of the 1800’s; John Blanchard, the Grant brothers, Reuben Cary, Wallace Emerson, and the Parson brothers.

The brothers also give a rather profound statement about the virtues of the Adirondack guideboat that reflects the love of the craft.

“The Adirondack guideboat is like a magnificent piece of furniture, painstakingly crafted by patient and skillful workers who spend months building a single boat.  The keel bottom board is straight-grain pine, the thin ribs are spruce laboriously cut from the roots of a giant stump. The planking on the sides is white pine or white cedar, three inches wide and three sixteenths inch thick, each plank beveled at top and bottom, so as to overlap its neighbor to which it is fastened with copper tacks.  Flathead wood screws hold the siding to the ribs, each of which is precisely beveled as to determine not only the beam of the boat but the shape of her sides.  Viewed from above, the sides converge gracefully to the thin spruce stems at bow and stern.

When completed, the guideboat is a sleek double-ender, whose end-on profile, unlike the oval profile of a canoe, is more like that of a delicate teacup: from the narrow flat keel, sides rise straight up at the bow and stern.  Before flaring out and continuing upward in a broad, gentle curve to the gunnels.  The brass oarlock pins on the long oars, fit precisely into oarlock socket straps on the gunnels, making her very efficient to row from either the middle or bow seat, and some energetic crews have been known to row from both positions at the same time.  Importantly, the caned seats, unlike those in a common rowboat, are set low so that the rower’s legs and knees do not interfere with the oar handles.  The Adirondack guideboat is light in weight, tipping the scales between fifty and seventy pounds, and is readily carried by one person using a handcrafted wooden yoke.”

Brandreth Park holds an Adirondack treasure of inestimable value, the Book Case boat.  I’ll talk about that next time.

The Adirondack Guideboat-Mother Wherry

In the last post we talked about how two boat builders immigrated to the Adirondacks from Vermont around 1850.  They brought with them a wooden boat design that could be adapted to guiding.  The style was known as a wherry.  Wherries were quite popular in the colonies because they could assume many roles from hauling freight (coal) and passengers, to fishing for cod and salmon.

So why do I suspect that a wherry was the mom of the guideboat?  Well, both have flat bottom boards, both were lapstrake or clinker planked, and both are the about the same length, 14-16 feet.  And both used natural crooks, or roots for ribs, stems, and the transom.  The beam of colonial wherries was wider than that of a guideboat.   The reason for the guideboat’s narrower beam was that guideboats were carried over one’s head using a yoke.  The boat was steadied by placing your hands on the yoke cleats on each side of the hull.

Here is the old Adirondack Museum’s logo showing how the guideboat was carried. (I wish they had kept the old logo.  Everyone has mountains, but only the Adirondacks has guideboats).

The old logo for the Adirondack Museum. It shows how guideboats were carried.

Here I am demonstrating the optimum width of a guideboat as to how far apart my arms can comfortably spread to steady the boat while carrying it with a yoke.  It is about a yard apart.  The beam on the Chase boat I am reproducing is 38″.

Demonstrating that the maximum beam of a guideboat depends on how far apart one can comfortably spread your arms. I have a yard stick in my hands,

John Gardner points out that wherries were built by “amateurs” or fellows who made their living doing other things than building boats, like farming and fishing.

In his book, Building Classic Small Craft, he describes how clever the “amateurs” were in putting together a wherry.  It was done in someone’s barn or wherever there was shelter.  No elaborate strong back for them.  A couple of saw horses did just fine.  The bottom board was gotten out and stem and transom fastened to it.  The rocker was put in and this first stage was braced and shored.   Next, a “shadow” or mold was placed amidships.  Once everything was judged “plumb and level”, planking began starting with the garboard plank.  Planks were bent around the shadow and allowed to take their natural curvature as they went around to the stem and transom.  Since there was no talk of scarfing, the planking stock must have been long enough to go from stem to transom.  These builders relied very much on their “eye” to ensure that the hull shape came out true.  The planking stock, cedar, was lapped to butt tightly to its neighbor.  Planks were bound together with copper rivets to render the seams water tight.  This provided a very rugged hull that would last 50+ years of hard use.

The getting out of the transom is of special note.  Gardner refers to Reuben Cary’s guideboat at the Adirondack Museum although not by name.  Transom stock was carefully selected from cedar or spruce stumps,  It required four roots all orthogonal (right angles) to one another.  One opposing pair formed the transom itself.  Of the remaining opposing pair, one formed the stern knee that attached it to the bottom board, and the other formed the  curved stern post.

Here is the stern of Cary’s guideboat built sometime around 1870.

View of the elaborate stern on Reuben Cary’s guideboat. The transom was gotten out of a single spruce stump by careful axe work.

Gardner says ” these had to be hewed out of a single stump requiring much skillful and patient axe work.” He says as the specialized boat shops came on the scene in the nineteenth century they could not afford the time necessary to make such a handsome, functional and integral part of the boat.

Here is another sketch of the early guideboats at the Raquette River Falls carry.

Early guideboats at the Raquette River Carry.

Next time we talk about boatbuilder William Austin and the “bookcase boat”.