The Smith Rowboat: A Craft Perfectly Suited to Lake George
By Anthony F. Hall
Monday, February 28, 2011
There is no such thing as dead wood. Any wooden boat, even one as modest as my sixteen foot rowboat, will teach you that. Wood is moody; it swells and contracts; it looks and feels different on different days. But wood also gives you the impression that it is collaborating with you; you have an undeniable sensation that your boat is actively supporting you as you row, keeping you afloat (aloft, even), pulling you onward. Given the relationship that develops between an owner and his wooden boat, it’s not surprising that an owner feels that it was the boat that found him, not vice versa.
That’s certainly true in the case of my 1921 Lake George rowboat.
I knew about Lake George rowboats long before I owned one because Frank Schneider wrote about them for my father’s weekly newspapers in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Schneider taught would-be shop teachers at a New York State teachers college in the 1940s and 50s. But he spent his summers on Pilot Knob, working at the Pilot Knob boat shop, building scale models of gold cup racing boats and restoring wooden rowing boats.
One of those boats was the Helen, a deluxe model of the Lake George rowboat commissioned by John Boulton Simpson, one of the founders of the Sagamore, as an 18th birthday gift for his daughter Helen.
The boat was later acquired by Granville Beals, who hired Schneider to restore it; as the work progressed, Schneider’s appreciation of the boat’s design and construction grew. He decided to research the history of the Lake George rowboats, and the results of those researches were published in the Lake George Mirror, the Warrensburg-Lake George News and an early version of Adirondack Life. That was the beginning of my interest in the Lake George rowboat.
In 1999, I saw Black Bass Antiques owner Henry Caldwell driving through Bolton Landing with a boat strapped to the roof of his van. It may have been a rowboat built by F.R. Smith, the best known builder of Lake George rowboats, but it was difficult to say with any certainty. The hull was sheathed in turquoise fiberglass; the interior had been painted the same color. Most of the pieces and fittings were missing.
Nevertheless, I bought the boat and put it into storage. Slowly, and fortuitously, missing pieces began to appear, and Caldwell finally was able to identify the boat as a Smith boat that had once belonged to Schneider himself.
Once the fiberglass was removed and the boat stripped of paint, Paul Jordon of Saw Mill Wooden Boat Works began the process of restoration.
According to Jordon, my boat was in worse condition than any of the other ten Smith boats he has restored.
The distinctive wine glass shaped transon, the fender wales and many of the ribs and planks had to be replaced.
He says he spent about 150 hours restoring the boat – the same amount of time it took to build one in Smith’s boat shop.
“It’s unlikely anyone who wasn’t on Lake George would have thought it was worth the effort,” said Jordon. “Here, Smith boats are special. They don’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t care about Lake George.”
The origins of the Lake George rowboat will never be known with any certainty, says Reuben Smith, who oversees wooden boat building and restoration at Hall’s Boat Corporation in Lake George.
“People refer to traditional boat building, but the only tradition in wooden boat building was constant, continuous adaptation,” says Smith, who went rowing with me one recent Saturday.
“The builders were designers; they were always making note of things that could be adjusted to make the boat a better one,” he says.
The most likely antecedents of the Lake George rowboat lie in the Whitehall, Smith surmises.
Whitehalls, according to Adirondack Museum boat curator Hallie Bond (who happens to be Smith’s step-mother) “emerged as a distinct type in the 1830s for use as a ferry boat and tender in the harbors of New York and Boston… they were soon in wide use as pleasure boats. They handled well in the choppy water sometimes found on large lakes.”
By 1889, Whitehalls were common on Lake George.
According to Smith, those who vacationed on Lake George were probably accustomed to seeing Whitehalls, and expected their rowboats to resemble them.
In her authoritative 1995 book, ‘Adirondack Boats and Boating’ Hallie Bond sees in the construction and design of the Lake George rowboat elements not only of the Whitehall but of the more famous Adirondack guide-boat.
On Lake George, of course, a boat did not have to be so light that it could be carried by one man. If anything, it had to be more stable and sit higher in the water than a guide-boat to suit the larger lake and rougher waters.
On the other hand, no one on Lake George was rowing through ocean swells. Lake George required a boat with a freeboard high enough to protect a rower from a lake’s big waves, but not so high that it couldn’t be rowed comfortably. And since Lake George needed a leisure craft rather than a work boat, speed and ease of rowing were pre-requisites. Those could be accommodated by a stream-lined design.
The Whitehall and the Adirondack guide-boat, then, had to be adapted to suit the conditions of this lake, and the needs of those who boated here.
Hotels like the Sagamore needed stable, seaworthy boats that their guests, many of them inexperienced boaters, could use without the assistance of a guide.
F.R. Smith’s Lake George rowboats answered those needs.
Between 1885 and 1926, his workmen built between 500 and 600 of them. 200 went to the Sagamore, 80 to the Mohican, and the rest to hotels in Hague, Kattskill Bay and Lake George Village, as well as to private individuals.
Born on French Mountain in 1865, where his father operated lumber mills, F. R. Smith grew up in Bolton, attended local schools and worked as a carpenter and builder and a pilot on steam boats before turning to boat building.
He made his rowboats with red or white strakes or planks riveted to oak ribs with copper nails.
The first Lake George rowboats were lapstrake sided. But those would have been difficult to repair, says Reuben Smith, which is why the builders began making smooth skinned, carvel constructed boats.
Initially, the planks were wide rather than narrow.
According to F.R. Smith’s son, Jim Smith, who was interviewed by the Mirror in the early 1970s, wide planks were used until it became clear they had a tendency to split. After that, the now familiar narrow planks were used.
The workmen used white oak for for seat knees, breast hooks and fender whales. Smith’s stopped making rowboats in 1926.
According to Reuben Smith, the introduction of lightweight motors and engines crushed the market for wooden rowing boats.
“The zenith of the rowing boat was the late 19th century,” says Smith. “After that, you don’t see any further innovations in design and construction. Anything built after that date after is essentially a replica.”
Today, perhaps fifteen to twenty Smith rowboats remain on Lake George.
Most of them were brought together in 2001 and 2002, when, thanks to Paul Jordon, Kate Baker, Doug Houghton and Trinket Mason and Susan and Peter Cady, among others, we were able to organize two Smith Rowboat Regattas in Bolton Landing.
Nothing like our regattas had been seen on Lake George since the 1890s, when hotels like the Sagamore sponsored their own one-design rowing regattas.
Not surprisingly, the audience was composed almost exclusively of local residents.
As Paul Jordon says, Lake George rowboats mean little to anyone with no associations with Lake George.
But for us, they’re a legacy from the lake’s past, one to be preserved for the future, when the boats will find their next stewards.