Women, Boats, and Lake George
By Hallie Bond
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
“As to ‘physical exertion,’ there is no such exertion known here. It is the laziest of all imaginable places….” So “Adirondack” Murray appealed directly to women, even those “fragile or delicate,” in his 1869 Adventures in the Wilderness. In those decades after the Civil War, Murray was not alone in feeling that women—at least upper middle class city women—were delicate and fragile. Not only were they supposedly far less strong than men, but they were supposed to conserve what energy they had for the female functions. Bearing children and keeping a genteel home was her highest and best duty. She could breathe fresh air on gentle strolls, but that was about it for exercise. As Murray pointed out, though, “tramping is unknown in this region. Wherever you wish to go, your guide paddles you.” The Adirondack region was ideal for women. They didn’t even have to walk to enjoy the scenery and breath healing “air odorous with the smell of pine and cedar and balsam.”
Women did come in increasing numbers to Lake George in the 1880s and 1890s. Perhaps they were encouraged by Murray’s book, but also about this time doctors and the popular press began to encourage them to improve their health and fitness, the better to bear healthy children and keep up with their domestic duties. At Lake George, comfortably lodged at one of the hotels or camps now ringing the lake, women began to exert themselves. Rowing a boat was ideal—women could get into the vessel with relative ease in their long skirts, and even mild exertion opened up to them the lake and its glorious scenery.
A century and a half ago, each region in the watery US had its own boat type, built for local conditions by local builders. On Lake George it was a transom-sterned vessel that became known as the Lake George rowboat. Fishing guides used them, boat liveries used them, summer folk used them, and by the end of the century they had become essential for active—and sociable—women.
In the 1880s and 1890s groups of young people would engage a small steamer to tow a flotilla of Lake George rowboats past the hotel, each boat decorated with colored Japanese lanterns. Groups in boats would row out onto the glassy lake of early evening to sing and strum their ukuleles. Both scenes were lovely entertainment for the aunties and grannies rocking on the verandahs as well as the young ladies and gentlemen themselves. Hotel boat liveries and boathouses at private camps were stocked with the craft. Some lucky young women had their own special boats. John Boulton Simpson, one of the Sagamore Hotel’s owners, had F.R. Smith and Sons of Bolton Landing build a custom boat for each of his daughters. Their names, “Helen” and “Fanny,” decorated the elaborately carved stern seat backs.
A few adventurous women adopted a different sort of boat and began, literally, “paddling their own canoes.” One of them was Mary B. Bishop. Mary’s husband, Nathaniel Holmes Bishop, was a cranberry grower in New Jersey, but he was known among canoeists for his trip in a paper canoe from Troy, New York, to the Gulf of Mexico. The Bishops had a camp on Lake George, and it was at his suggestion that a group of canoeists met on the lake in August, 1880 and formed the American Canoe Association. Mary and seven other women, mostly sisters and wives of members, were involved right from the beginning, and by the end of the century the ACA program included races specifically for women.
Even if they came with “their men,” women at early ACA meets had to camp in their own area, and couldn’t visit the other parts of camp between nine in the evening and five in the morning. (Camping apart kept women from catching the men taking their early morning dips in the buff.) “Squaw Camp” became the social center of the camp, especially in the evenings around the campfire.
As they took more active roles in boating, women also simplified their dress. You can hardly imagine a woman trying to win a canoe race restricted by a corset. The “New Women” of the turn of the century abandoned tight bodices and voluminous skirts when out on the water, and by the 1920s sensible active women were wearing straight skirts several inches above their ankles or even (gasp) knickerbockers and stockings or leggings.
The New Woman wanted health, fitness, and independence for her daughters as well as herself. The result was a flourishing of “sleepaway” camps in the Adirondacks where girls could spend the summer supervised by trained female educators. Paddling a canoe with another girl (or seven other girls in a 25-foot war canoe), girls learned teamwork. Paddling or rowing by themselves, girls learned self-reliance. At one time or another in the first half of the twentieth century Lake George was home to thirteen camps for girls. The earliest two, Camp Ronah and Glen Eyrie, were founded in 1910.
As boating became an acceptable sport for “the gentle sex,” some women, just like some men, yearned for really fast boats. The very first time the speedboat championship came to the lake in 1914, a woman owned the winning boat. Paula Blackton, who owned Baby Speed Demon II, was a pioneer woman in the film business as well as a pioneer woman in speedboating. At the second Gold Cup races held on Lake George, in 1934, a woman actually drove a speedboat. Delphine Dodge Baker in Delphine VII couldn’t catch George Reis in the local favorite El Lagarto, but she finished all the laps averaging 59 miles per hour in the first two heats.
By the 1920s outboards were reliable and cheap enough to appeal to boaters of all levels of skill and outdoorsiness—even women. Sexual stereotypes persisted, however. Thinking that female strength (or lack of it) would keep women from outboarding, the Penn Yan Boat Company, touted its little twelve-foot-long, 67 pound Cartopper outboard boat in 1942 by saying “actual tests show that the light end of a 60 pound boat (about 25 pounds) is the absolute maximum that a woman can be expected to handle.” they wrote. People puttering around Lake George in such a rig probably assumed that the man would run the motor, conforming to the old stereotype that things mechanical were beyond women. They would have been confounded if they saw one of the region’s outboard races. Doing very well, thank you, and servicing her own motors would have been Anne Jensen, “nurse at night, speed queen by day,” as a 1951 article called her. Jensen, who was an RN at the Flushing hospital but spent as much time in and around Schroon Lake as possible. She competed against men (sometimes her own husband) and fueled the Evinrude “alky” on her C-Service runabout with castor oil, alcohol and ether—all liquids that were used in her nursing, as one magazine pointed out.
Today, you’ll find women in any and all vessels on Lake George. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a regatta in a time warp? What would Mary Bishop say about the women paddling SUPs in their form-fitting tops and skimpy shorts? She’d probably disapprove of the clothing, but she would certainly approve of the paddling.
Hallie E. Bond is currently the Director of the Kelly Adirondack Center at Union College. She also served as Education Director and Curator of the Adirondack Museum from 1983 until 2012. She is the author of “Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks,” among many other works.
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