Lake George and the Invention of the Auto-Boat
By Anthony F. Hall
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
The fusion of automobile and boat reached its apotheosis in 1959, when Chris Craft released its Silver Arrow in the same shade of metallic blue that Chevrolet applied to its Corvette and added a flared fin copied from a Buick.
That’s what boat builder Everett Smith told an audience last summer when discussing the evolution of the Auto-boat at the Tumblehome Boatshop in Warrensburg, which hosts evening talks about boats and boating throughout the year.
According to Emmet Smith, Everett Smith’s son and until recently the curator of the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, the Auto-boat emerged in the first decade of the 20th century, “driven by new technology and growing enthusiasm for the automobile.”
As Smith wrote in “Auto-Boats: the advent of the modern runabout,” an article that appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Woodenboat magazine, these long-decked, displacement-hull boats “clearly showed the automotive influence in design and lay out, with their engines forward, passenger compartments with built-in, forward-facing seats situated behind windshields, automotive steering wheels and controls and often convertible tops.”
Auto-Boat Example Number One: The Number Boat
An perfect example of the early Auto-boat is the Number Boat, described by Everett Smith as “an elegant gentleman’s launch.”
Designed in 1909 by Charles D. Mower and built by Leyare Boat Works, the boat was commissioned by members of the Thousand Islands Yacht Club for one-design racing.
Twenty boats were completed (each one identified by its number – thus the name, Number Boat), allowing the club to sponsor races that hinged on the skills of the drivers rather than on the relative merits of the competitors’ boats.
Races were held in 1910, 1911 and 1912. Of the original 20 boats, only a few survive.
Everett Smith, however, has begun building replicas of the Number Boat, and one of those, Number 22, has been purchased by a Lake George resident, John Kelly of Assembly Point.
Auto-Boat Example Number Two: The Silver Arrow
Lake George boaters can also view the Silver Arrow, “the sports car of the waterways,” as Chris Craft termed it.
Although only 92 of those boats were manufactured, one of them happens to be owned by Bolton Landing’s Buzz Lamb.
“During the winter of 1998, I found out that an airline pilot in Phoenix, Arizona owned nine Silver Arrows, so I gave him a call. I bought the boat sight unseen. In November of 1999 I began a complete restoration and launched the boat at Norowal Marina in the spring of 2000 and took it for its first ride on Lake George,” said Lamb.
Origins of the Auto-Boat on Lake George
In fact, Lake George residents have had the opportunity to see almost every iteration of the auto-boat, as well as its precursors and its successors.
That’s because Lake George was “the cradle of motor boating,” as Herman Broessel, an owner of the boat and car manufacturer Simplex put it.
In 1906, the Lake George Regatta, which in previous years had featured row boat races, sponsored a contest between motor boats owned by Broessel, his neighbor on Bolton Bay W.K. Bixby and LeGrand C. Cramer. Two years later, the Lake George Mirror boasted that practically every boat house on the lake had a motorboat.
Broessel and the other Lake George boat owners would have been familiar with one of the inspirations of the auto-boat, the Ellide.
The Ellide: Forerunner of the Auto-Boat
The Ellide, built in 1897 for Sagamore investor E. Burgess Warren, was a steamboat built for speed, capable of reaching 40 miles per hour. Her 80 ft hull demonstrated clearly that speed was a function of length. As late as 1904, the Ellide still held world speed records, and Warren was still exhibiting her at local regattas.
That same year, Broessel’s company built an engine for the Vignt-Et-Un, a gasoline-powered speedboat whose hull resembled the Ellide’s, and according to Everett Smith, one of the first speed boats to be called an auto-boat.
Lake George Launches
Broessell, Bixby and the others were no less familiar with what Emmett Smith calls “the small power launchs that preceded auto-boats – with displacement hulls powered by steam, electricity or naphtha, well-suited for seeing sights and socializing.”
“One way to sum up the differences between auto-boats and the launches that preceded them is this: the early power launch was about being somewhere; the auto-boat was about going somewhere – and fast.”
Those launches, like Bixby’s electric-powered St. Louis, featured open cockpits that possessed, according to an Elco catalogue, “all the comforts of a summer cottage piazza.”
Lake George was also home to naptha launches. Unlike the steamboat which it replaced, was light and easy to handle. No special license was required to operate it. Thus, the naphtha launch became popular very quickly.
By the turn of the century, naphtha launches were common on Lake George. Some were excursion boats, such as those owned and operated by the father os onetime Lake George Supervisor Alden Shaw. The majority, however, belonged to summer residents. Dr. Abraham Jacobi of Bolton Landing owned one. Harry Watrous, the perpetrator of the Hague Monster Hoax, owned two, as did Colonel Mann, the New York magazine editor who was the butt of the hoax. (Mann’s own magazine, by the way, poked fun at the rich for taking the accoutrements of soft living into the Adirondack wilderness, naphtha launches included.)
From Auto-Boat to Modern Runabout
The early auto-boat was characterized not only by distinctive automotive features, but also by their displacement hulls.
Once those hulls became obsolete, the auto-boat was transformed into the modern runabout, a historical moment that can also be said to have occurred on Lake George.
In August 1914, following the victory of “Baby Speed Demon” over “Ankle Deep” in the first Gold Cup races to be held on Lake George, the racing world was introduced to boats that plane above the water, rather than moving through it. The inventor of the planing hull was none other than Chris Smith, the founder of Chris Craft and the designer of “Baby Speed Demon,” who, in response to a remark to the effect that his boat were not long enough to displace enough water to travel at top speed, said, “Displacement? I don’t care about displacement. All I need is enough water to cool the engines, that’s all.”
Little more than a decade later, George Reis added a shingled bottom to one of those new boats to create El Lagarto and bring three Gold Cup races to Lake George.
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