The Adirondack guideboat-guideboats and Steamers

Whenever I view old photos of steamboats in the Adirondacks I almost always see guideboats in the photo.  Why is that?  What is the connection between the two?  Well let’s see what role steamboats played in the the history of the region and see where that leads us.

Steam power caused a revolution in the development of our nation.  Travel by train opened large areas of previously inaccessible territory.  Now, many could afford to travel to wilderness areas like the Adirondacks.  Railroad tycoons like the Durants seized on the opportunity to capture this new source of revenue by expanding their network of rail lines.

There is a fascinating diorama at the Adirondack Museum that cleverly depicts how the steam revolution shaped the history of the Adirondacks.  To travel to Raquette Lake from New York City, travelers boarded the New York Central train at Grand Central Terminal in the evening.  Sleeping cars were provided since the train would not arrive at the destination until the next morning.  The New York Central train arrived at Old Forge, NY in early morning when it was switched to the Raquette River Railroad which went on to Raquette Lake.  The heavily loaded train pulled these cars over steep grades until they arrived at the Raquette Lake terminus.  On weekends the arrival was delayed some three or four hours because of the extra sleeping cars required to carry all who had bought tickets.  The photo below is taken of the diorama.  It shows two steamboats waiting to take travelers to their lodging after they have had breakfast in the terminal.

View of the diorama’s depiction of a portion of Raquette Lake with the railroad terminal in the foreground.

The two steamboats waiting at the terminal are the Kiloquah and the Sagamore.  The Sagamore has a green guideboat on its upper deck.  In the diorama, the Kiloquah steams off to the Antlers Hotel on the point and then east up the Marion River which is almost directly across from the terminal.  When it reaches the source of the Marion River passengers disembark and take a very short ride on a narrow gauge train that traverses Marion River Carry.  Here is a depiction of the carry by the diorama.

Diorama depiction of the Marion River Carry.

Fortunately, the narrow gauge train used on the carry was rescued after years of use and is now in the Marion River Pavilion at The Adirondack Museum.  Here are some photos of her.

Narrow Gauge locomotive used on the Marion River Carry.

An open car on the Marion River Carry

Rear of the Marion River Carry train.

Before we leave the Kiloquah, here are some old photos of her.

Steamboat Kiloquah with a guideboat on her upper deck and one in tow.  Photo courtesy of The Adirondack Museum.

Kiloquah at a pier. A guideboat is at the ready. Photo courtesy of The Adirondack Museum

On the far end of the Marion River Carry another steamboat, the Tuscarora, boards the travelers.  This steamer will traverse the Eckford Chain of lakes (Utowana and Eagle)  before entering Blue Mountain Lake, its final destination.  It will stop at several hosteleries including the Prospect House, the first hotel in America to have electric lights in every room.  Below is an old photo of the Tuscarora.

The steamboat Tuscarora at the east end of the Marion river Carry.

The Tuscarora was bought by by a camp owner on Blue Mountain Lake.  She was dry docked there and converted into a guest house.  There was talk of restoring her and bringing her to the Adirondack Museum.  However, it was felt that the expense to restore her was too great to justify doing so.  As far as I know she is still in dry dock on Blue Mountain Lake.

Here are two other steamers stopping at the Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake.  Note they both have guideboats on their upper decks.

Steamers at the Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake.

We left the steamboat Sagamore at the train terminal at Raquette Lake.  Remember, it had a green guideboat on its upper deck.  The Sagamore steams up into the north end of Raquette Lake.  It must have stopped at various lodging places as well as the carry between Raquette Lake and its northern sister, Forked Lake (pronounced Fork Ed).  Here is a clue as to why guideboats hung around with the steamboats.  They must have been used as water taxis. Forked Lake provided access to Long Lake but there were no steamboats operating on Forked Lake.

But a guide and his boat could row you down Forked to the carry around Buttermilk Falls and thence into Long Lake.

So early on guides welcomed the advent of steamboats because it brought a new clientele.  These travelers were more of the sightseeing type rather than sportsmen. But the relentless thrust of technology always causes disruption of old patterns and ways of making a living.  We will see how this played out in an uprising by the guides as the steamboat encroached on the their livelihood.

Next, the steamboat Buttercup.



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Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Paddles and Changes at the Museum

This summer the Adirondack Museum celebrates its 60th year of being a vast reservoir of Adirondack history.  Many have told me what a fine Museum it is, one of the best they have ever visited.

It is fitting that the Museum is changing in response to our ever changing world.  The Adirondack Museum will no longer go by that name but will now be called “the Adirondack Experience, the Museum on Blue Mountain Lake.  Coincident with the change in name is a new exhibition entitled Life in the Adirondacks.  As explained in the press release, this exhibition will feature “wonderful artifacts, media and digital technology, hands-on interactive experiences, and stories of work, life, and play in the Adirondacks.”  Planning for the exhibition has been underway for several years.  Last year the Roads and Rails building was closed while the new exhibition was created in 19,000 square-feet of space.

It is an exciting time for the Museum and I am honored to play a small part in the official opening of the new exhibition on Saturday, July 1st.  I have been asked to display my collection of guideboat paddles along with their history while I demonstrate guideboat paddle making.  With our departure for the North Country coming right up I started to scurry about to finish long forgotten projects.  I discovered two reproductions of Caleb Chase guideboat paddles done last summer that needed varnishing.  Here they are:

Chase paddles being varnished.

Here they are being varnished.  I lay them flat and do one side at a time to avoid runs.  It takes longer but avoids the hassle of having to rework paddles wherever the varnish has run.  Here are the finished paddles.

Finished guideboat paddles.

Close up of two Chase guideboat paddles.

The paddle on the left is a steering paddle and is made of figured cherry.  The one on the right is a hunting paddle and is made of Spanish cedar.  Both exhibit chatoyancy, or the “cats eye” effect found in gem stones and certain species of wood.

You can see the original steering paddle being used at Great Camp Santanoni somewhere around 1895 in the photo below,  The women are out for guideboat ride.  The oarsman is being assisted by her friend who is using the original of the paddle above.

A Chase steering paddle in use at Great Camp Santanoni.

Hunting paddles were used when a guideboat was used to hunt deer at night.  The guide would propel the boat from the stern using a paddle like the one above.  The so-called “sport” would be in the bow with a rifle and candle lantern.  The guide would silently glide the boat along the lake shoreline.  Upon the sound of a feeding deer the sport would quietly light the lantern and take a shot at the dazed deer.  Jacking deer was outlawed in 1905 in New York State.

If you are in the Blue Mountain Lake area on July 1st drop in and say hi.  The paddles will be for sale as well as one of my guideboats.

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Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Tacks….again

Two years ago I promised not to mention tacks again.  But then I had second thoughts.  The following proverb brought new thinking to the value of tacks in building a guideboat.

“For want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For want of a horse the rider was lost,

For want of a rider the battle was lost,

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

It says that small things of seemingly little value can have great consequences in the stream of history.

So could a guideboat be built without the many small copper tacks that seal the seams between planks.  Nowadays, of course.  We have all manner of synthetic materials that are used to build guideboats, canoes, kayaks and other small craft.  Back in the early 1800’s definitely not.  Guideboat builders back then relied on tiny soft copper tacks, about 4000 in each of their boats, to obtain a water tight seal between each plank.

What would have been the history of the Adirondacks if there had been no guideboats, hence no guides, and therefore no city “sports” to take back the tall tales of a magnificent, trackless wilderness abounding with fish and game?

I talked to John Wilson, Boxmaker about tacks.  John makes a living teaching people how to make Shaker oval boxes and selling the materials to make these beautiful creations.

A Shaker oval box.

John acquired two machines to manufacture the small tack sizes used to make the boxes from the Cross Co. after they went out of business in 1991. He said these machines are quite old going back nearly to the Civil War.  He sells about 300-400 pounds of small tacks each year.  Tacks this small have limited use; for making Shaker boxes, guideboats, and for use in securing the leather flap in certain models of pneumatic organs.  Here is John displaying his wares.

Most guideboat builders use planking that is 3/16″ to 1/4″ thick.  They use a size No. 2 1/2 tack which is 7/16″ long.  This gives enough length to clinch properly.  Below are two versions of a No. 2 1/2 tack.  One has head diameter of 1/8″ and the other is 3/16″.  I like to use the larger head size because it shows off all the work done in constructing a traditionally built guideboat.  “When you got it, flount it.”  I think Joe Namath uttered those words.

Two versions of a size No. 2 1/2 copper tack.

I have just hung the second round of planking on my latest guideboat.  Here is a view of the “stuck” tacks on that round ready to be clinched.

“Stuck” tacks ready for clinching.

Back when I first started building guideboats I was on a shoe string budget.  Unable to afford a fancy bronze clinching iron, I used one of those antique flat irons.  Back before electric irons, women had several of them that they used to iron clothes.  They heated them over the wood stove so that while one was being used the others were being heated up again.  Here is the one I use with its fancy cousin.

Clinching irons, new and old.

I find that the old flat iron is perfect when hanging the second and third rounds of planking when the hull is relatively flat.

It is getting near that time when we head back to the North Country.  I hear the black flies are out in force there.  We are hoping for some really warm weather between now and mid-June to drive them out.



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Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Hanging the Garboard Plank

The nascent hull is just about ready to begin planking.  Hanging planks on a traditionally built guideboat is the most difficult task when building one.  Since it has been three years since I built my last boat I feel a bit rusty.  Will the nuances in planking that I learned by trial and error back then come back to me?  My apprehension is well founded as you will learn as we go along.

Before I start planking I must attend to some final details of preparing the hull for the planks.  The ribs and stems are now attached to the bottom board, the spline is in place, and the hull is braced.  Now I must shave away the leading edges of the higher numbered ribs so that the planks will land on a flat surface and not a rib edge.  I start with a spoke shave to knock down the leading edge of every rib that needs it.

Shaving away the leading edge of a rib to provide a flat landing for the planking.

Here is where my sanding long board comes in handy.  It spans several ribs and ensures that they are all in line when receiving a plank.

Using the sanding long board to ensure that the higher numbered ribs are all in line to receive planking.

The final effort before planking is to lay out the position of each plank on every rib.  I have a series of “tick tapes” do do this.  They are paper strips for each rib with the location of the trailing edge of each plank marked on them.  Here I am laying out the plank trailing edges using the tick tapes.  The Pony clamp is holding the tape to the rib.

Using tick tapes to layout the planking.

The garboard is the first plank to be hung.  I was puzzled by the term “garboard” so I searched for its origins on the Net.  The term comes from the Dutch words “garen” (gather) and “boord” (board) which when combined became gaarboord.  By the early 17th century it had evolved to garboard.

The garboard plank is the easiest to hang on a guideboat for two reasons.  First you don’t have to fit it to a previously hung plank, an enormous plus.  You need only to cut one bevel on the side of the plank opposite the bottom board. Since the next plank must conform to the garboard you don’t have get its width just right.  Any deviation in the garboard plank’s width of up to an 1/8 inch or so will be made up by the next plank.  The second reason is that the bottom board side of the plank gets planed down to the level of the bottom board.  That is easy to do since it doesn’t have to be exact.

So I laid out the garboard shape by spiling.  I found that spiling didn’t allow for enough upward sheer near the stems.  This is probably because the last rib where you can strike an arc when spiling, number 11, is some distance from the stem.  So my first attempt at laying out the plank didn’t work,  The next time around I accounted for the amount of sheer and I was successful.

Fitting the stem end, or hood end, of the plank takes patience.  It must fit as closely as possible into the stem rabbet. I get a close approximation to the shape of the hood end using my template for the stem rabbet.

Checking the hood end with the stem rabbet template.

I use my sanding long board to shape the hood end until it fits.

Shaping the hood end with the sanding long board.

Next, I cut the bevel.  I layout a 5/8″ line down the plank and then cut away the majority with a block plane.  I finish up with a cabinet scraper.  It gives me more control and takes off any rounding that may come from using the plane.

Cutting the bevel with a block plane.

I then hang the plank temporarily and cut away as much of the overhang of the plank on the bottom board side as I can.  Here I am using a small flush cut saw which didn’t work very well.  I tried using a chisel too but I didn’t find the perfect way to do this.  You just have to be patient.

Cutting away the excess plank on the bottom board side.

Now I walk unsuspectingly into a trap.  All four planks are ready to be hung but I must provide a scarf joint to join them.  The position of the scarf is always on top of a rib.  This hides the interior side of the scarf and provides a nice landing for it. I was unaware of this tradition when I built my first guideboat so the scarfs on that boat lie between ribs.  After almost twenty years of hard use their location has not been a problem.

So I marked off where the scarf was to fall on one of the planks and cut it along the line. Remember up front I said I felt a bit rusty.  Well I marked off the plank on the trailing edge rather that the leading edge where it should have been.  So when the plank was hung it was left flapping in the breeze, so to speak.

What to do? Well, there is nothing to do but scrap it.  Hours of work down the drain.  Then I remembered Bunny Austin’s advice to his nephew Keith who had just tried to hang a plank and had it crack on him.  You might remember that Bunny is a fine guideboat builder who comes from a line of six generations of guideboat builders.  Bunny told Keith to find himself a “crying chair” and get it out of his system.  Here I am with my crying stool getting my dumb mistake out of my system.

On my crying stool with the scrapped plank.

Not all was lost.  I had a perfect pattern for the successor plank.  And I might just be able to modify this plank for the number eight plank round.  It takes three planks on each side for that round and this might serve as the middle plank.  We’ll see.

Finally comes the time to permanently hang the garboard planks.  I apply a line of Sikaflex 291 LOT bedding compound to the bottom board and stem rabbet and fasten the planks with screws located at the center of each rib.  Screws are also located at the hood end and along the bottom board edge at 1 1/2″ intervals.

Bedding compound has been applied to the bottom board and the step rabbet.

Here I am laying out the screw positions along the bottom board edge using a compass.

Laying out screw locations along the bottom board using a compass.

Then the screws go on.

Fastening screws along the bottom board edge.

So here is the garboard plank hung on the hull.

Garboard plank hung on the hull.

And here is the scarf done correctly.

Scarf on the garboard plank.

Next time tacks!  There are about 4000 of them in a guideboat.

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Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Brian’s Boat

The reason I decided to write my book “Tale of an Historic Adirondack Guideboat and How to Build One” was because of someone like Brian.  I volunteer in the boat shop at the Adirondack Museum.  While Allison builds boats I answer questions posed by the visitors.  They are fascinated by the process of building a wooden boat that goes beyond description.  It is a marvelous piece of art.

Some visitors decide that they would like to build such a craft.  They often ask me how I learned to build a guideboat and if there are any books on how to do it.  The answer to that question 10 years ago was no, there was no book on building such a craft except for the Durant’s book on guideboats.  That boat gives plans and a general outline of how they are constructed but does not give the step-by-step instructions that these folks were looking for.

I decided that as I built my second guideboat I would document each step with the intent of writing a how-to manual for building one.  In the course of writing the book I learned of the romance that revolved around my friend’s boat the Queen Anne, the boat that I had reproduced.  So my book contains not only how to build such an extraordinary small craft but a bit of Adirondack lore as well.

This writing adventure was entirely audacious of me.  At the time I reproduced the Queen Anne guideboat I was a rank novice when it came to guideboats.  I had never ridden in one (and wouldn’t until I launched my first boat).  Fortunately I had some previous experience building wooden boats and had the advice of some old-time Adirondack guideboat builders.

Writing the book took an immense amount of effort.  When I finished the book I always had nagging doubts.  Was what I had written not useful?  Did I leave out some important part of construction?  So when I got the following email from Brian I felt that all the effort was more than worthwhile.  I had enabled someone with little or no prior woodworking experience, but with an overwhelming desire to build a guideboat, to do so.  Here is what Brian had to say:

“Maybe ten or more years ago I spoke to you at the Adirondack Museum about my desire to build a guideboat.  You were holding a beautiful paddle in your hand, which I could not help but admire.  As it turns out, with a few encouraging words from you, I am building my second boat now.  I would like to thank you for those words and your book on construction.  My path towards completing number one sounds a lot like yours.  It’s even named for my wife Jacqueline.

Hope to meet you again.”


So I asked Brian to share some of his background with me and photos of his boat.  Here is some more about him.

“I am a retired Master Plumber from the Albany NY local #7.  I have no woodworking experience but I’ve done many multi-year construction projects and used this experience to break down projects into many individual jobs.  I set up to build this boat after retiring (buying tools and making plans and patterns and a builder’s jig).

So here are some views of Brian’s boat under construction.

Brian’s boat under construction.

Brian’s boat under construction looking into the hull.

Brian’s boat is of a Grant design.  He laminated the ribs but otherwise the boat is traditionally built.  The planking is of eastern white pine with cherry trim.  He made the floorboard of ash and the oars of maple.  Brian says that it took him six years to build his boat from start to finish.  Now that is perseverance!

Here he is in his shop.

Brian with his boat.

Brian’s shop intrigues me.  It brings back memories of the shop where I built my first boat.  We had moved from Northern New Jersey to a town west of Boston, Sudbury.  We moved into an old farmhouse built in 1895.  The basement, where the shop was to be located, had a dirt floor when we moved in.  My son Rob removed load after wheel barrow load of dirt from the basement so that we could pour a cement floor.

The shop had a low ceiling, so low that my youngest daughter’s friend Big Mike’s head extended up into the rafters.  The lighting was poor and the heating non-existent.  I envy Brian’s spacious and well lit shop.

View of Brian’s boat shop.


Brian is apologetic about his first boat saying that his boat is not for show but for use.  It looks mighty good to me.  Here is a photo of construction at one end of the hull.  Notice the reverse curve of the ribs.  Now that is something I would hesitate to attempt. Planking a hull with this sort of rib construction looks exceedingly difficult.

Hull construction near the stem.

Brian took an adult course in caning so he could cane his seats.  Here are the seats while he canes them.  I have always admired the “snowshoe” design of the Grant stern seat rest.

Seats for Brian’s Grant guideboat while caning.

I caned my seats the first time around.  I found that I was not destined to be a caner.  Maybe it is just because my fingers are too big or some mental lapse thing but I just am not cut out for it.  It’s too bad because most lay people, when admiring one of my boats, will ask if I did the caning.  If I say yes they are greatly impressed.  I feel like telling them that caning has to be one of the simplest tasks in building a guideboat.

Finally, here is Brian out on the water enjoying his creation.  Being out in any boat you have built yourself gives profound joy.  After nearly twenty years out and about in my first guideboat I never grow tired of the bond between me, my boat, and what the old-timers called that beautiful sheet of water.

Brian out for a row in his creation.

Next time: we start planking.


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Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Attaching the ribs and Stems

This gallery contains 12 photos.

In the last post we prepared the bottom board to receive the ribs and stems.  The board was beveled so that there would be a smooth transition when going from the bottom board to each of the ribs.  Holes were … Continue reading

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Building an Adirondack Guideboat-The bottom board

This is the first time I have built a guideboat where I have had long enough stock so that I can cut the bottom board out of a single plank.  Always before I have had to scarf two planks together to get the required length.  Problems always occur when you go to glue the scarfed planks together.  They always want to slide apart at the scarf.

So I obtained a 16 foot plank of quarter sawn white pine 10″ wide from Blue Line Hardwood in Long Lake.  It was just what I needed but a bit unwieldy.  I laid out the dimensions of the bottom board on the plank and then got my son to help me run it through my band saw to rough cut it.  Here we are doing the rough cutting.  We had to turn the saw 45 degrees and run the plank out the window to get enough room.

Rough cutting the bottom board plank

Rough cutting the bottom board plank

The next step is to trim the board with a bench plane to to bring it to its final shape.

Trimming the rough cut bottom board to its final shape.

Trimming the rough cut bottom board to its final shape.


The hard part comes next.  The board must be beveled so that the bevel exactly matches the angle of each rib between its foot and lower arm.  You start by laying out the distance from the edge of the bottom board inward to where the bevel ends.  You will end up with a rolling bevel, one that starts out amidships with a gradual slope but that becomes steeper as you move towards the stems.

To get the width of the bevel at each rib stations I went to my reference book, Tale of an Historic Adirondack Guideboat…, Table 4 .  Then I took my bench plane in hand again and started removing material until I got close to the final slope.  You have to be careful because if you take too much you will cut into the top of the bottom board and it will not be a pretty sight!  When I get close to the final shape I switch to a cabinet scraper.  It gives me more control of removal and eliminates any rounding that comes about when I use a plane.

Using a cabinet scraper to finish off the bottom board bevel.

Using a cabinet scraper to finish off the bottom board bevel.

I always check my work by putting a rib at its station to see if the angle of the rib matches the bevel.  I do this before I get too close to the final slope.   The bevel at each rib station was off by enough to make a difference.  I was really puzzled by this.

So I went back to the drawing board and to a method I use to lay out the bevel that is fail safe. It relies on the geometry of right angles.  Here it is below.

Obtaining the proper bottom board bevel.

Obtaining the proper bottom board bevel.

What you do is to clamp at its station.  Back the rib away from the board so that a straight piece of stock held against the lower arm of the rib just touches the top of the board.  This forms a right triangle with hypotenuse formed by the stock, the distance Y is the bottom board thickness, and X is the distance you are looking for.  It is the distance back from the edge of the bottom board to the back edge of the bevel.  If you use this distance for each rib you can’t go wrong.   I did this for each rib station and these are the half-widths for the bottom of the bottom board.

 Station Number      Half-width, inches

0                         2  11/16

1                           2  11/16

2                           2  9/16

3                           2   7/16

4                           2   1/16

5                            1    13/16

6                            1    11/16

7                             1     3/8

8                             1    5/16

9                              1   1/4

10                             1   1/8

11                               15/16

12                               13/16

Here I am checking the slope against a rib to make sure we are now OK.

Checking the slope of the bottom board bevel using a rib and straight edge.

Checking the slope of the bottom board bevel using a rib and straight edge.

That hurdle passed, we now lay out the holes for the screws that will fasten the ribs to the bottom board.   I wanted to make sure that the holes were perpendicular to the plane of the bottom board since any deviation off perpendicular one way or another could cause a problem.  The ribs are not very thick and we don’t want screws coming out the sides of them.

There are such things a screw centering devices so I ordered one.  It cost about $12 and was very nice.  The problem was that it would not take a screw as small as a #6.  So I made one of my own from a small block of cherry.  I drilled a hole in it with my drill press so I knew any holes drilled using it would be square.  Here I am using it.

Using a squared-up hole in a cherry block to drill true holes for fastening the ribs.

Using a squared-up hole in a cherry block to drill true holes for fastening the ribs.

I would check to make sure the holes were true every once in awhile.

Checking for hole trueness.

Checking for hole trueness.

I put the drill bit in the hole and checked for perpendicularity with my small square.

So now the bottom board is ready for attaching the ribs.  We will tackle that next time.



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