The decade of the 1920s is well remembered as a time of rapid growth in the American economy and the development of personal wealth for many Americans. Interest in owning pleasure boats increased throughout the decade and boat builders expanded their production capability just to keep pace with the growing interest in boat ownership. In the tiny village of Alexandria Bay, boat building was a healthy occupation for builders like Fred Adams, Lucious Britton, Fitz Hunt, Bert and George Hutchinson, Alfred Lee, Bernie Fitzgerald, Dan and Fred Duclon and others.
At the beginning of the decade Bernie Fitzgerald was the key foreman in Robert Cranker's Machine Shop. He often encouraged his friend, Alfred Lee, to join with him to open their own business. Lee was a highly skilled and very capable mechanic in charge of Captain Thompson's large fleet of tour boats. Fitzgerald was a personable and a natural salesman. He was certain that with Lee's skills and his persuasive personality, they could establish a successful business of their own. Fitzgerald suggested that their new firm should be known as The Motor Boat Shop specializing in complete marine engine repair service with the potential of expanding into the construction of small boats.
Fitzgerald had his eye on the former location of the Hutchinson Brother's Boat Works on Sisson Street with waterfront access on Mill Point. When Alf Lee agreed to be a partner in the business venture, Fitzgerald negotiated a favorable rental agreement for the former Hutchinson building and they were ready to begin their new business venture. It wasn't long before they hired Gordon Kenyon, a very talented craftsman who would expand their basic engine operation by organizing their boat shop. With Kenyon's boat building skill and his aptitude for marine design, boat sales quickly complimented their marine engine service business. Records show that in the first year, Kenyon was able to build twelve 15-foot boats suited for outboard motor power. During the following fall Fitzgerald took orders for two 24' runabouts; one for Alfred Bourne and a second one for W.A. Whiting. The decision to hire Kenyon and to build boats was looking very promising. In addition to servicing engines, the new firm became distributors for new marine engines from Scripps, Sterling, St. Lawrence and Wisconsin brands. By 1923 they were in a position to purchase the Sisson Street building from the Hutchinson Brothers.
Fitzgerald continued to focus his attention on prominent summer residents encouraging them to have their boats built by Fitzgerald & Lee. Among the customers he attracted were Edward J. Noble, P.T. Sharples, Alexander Thayer, Charles Duke and others. Kenyon's designs favored hulls with beam wider than the local norm. Kenyon also liked hard-chine hulls in order to gain greater speed. Business was good as they built a half dozen custom boats each year. Then in 1926 with the encouragement and help of Edward Noble, Fitzgerald & Lee became the regional dealer for the prestigious line of Gar Wood boats. This franchise provided the firm with an exclusive line of high quality runabouts to compliment their limited output of custom boats. Within two years they became one of Gar Wood's top dealerships. Even during the years of the great Depression, their Gar Wood sales remained strong while many other Gar Wood dealers struggled. When Gar Wood decided to discontinue a particular model to the disappointment of a potential customer, Gordon Kenyon, produced a virtual duplicate of the same 26-foot Gar Wood runabout for the grateful customer.
During the mid 1930s Fitzgerald & Lee began building custom boats for their customers that were designed by John L. Hacker, America's most celebrated naval architect. The working relationship that developed between John Hacker and this small boat shop in Alexandria Bay was extraordinary. In 1934 Charles Lyon, a wealthy summer resident from Ogdensburg, spent his summers at the family retreat on Oak Island. He loved his time at the River and had a fondness for big, fast, attractive boats. He contacted Hacker to design a special commuter that would be fast and comfortable for his trips to the various communities on both sides of the St. Lawrence River. The new boat needed to be attractive, comfortable, fast one that his guests would fondly remember. Lyon had already discussed his plans with Fitzgerald, Lee and Kenyon to be sure they were fully prepared to build this boat. When Hacker's plans were finished they were for a handsome 38-foot, all varnished commuter with an open helm forward, a large comfortable cabin and an aft cockpit. Lyon loved the design and signed a contract for Fitzgerald to build the boat over the winter to be ready for the 1935 summer season. The boat would be named, Finesse, and she soon would be well known all along the River.
Alfred Bourne of Dark Island was so impressed with the design and finish of Finesse, that he quickly contacted John Hacker to design a fast, modern runabout for his frequent commutes from Dark Island to the Thousand Islands Yacht Club. He encouraged Hacker to include features that reflected the current art deco trend. Hacker agreed and was pleased to learn that Bourne would have Fitzgerald and Lee build the new runabout. Hacker expressed confidence in their ability to follow his design requirements. The new 28-foot runabout would be named, Messenger, and became one of the most celebrated runabouts in the Thousand Islands. It was later re-named, Foot Loose, Fancy Free, and the boat is a major attraction at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton.
Also in 1935 Kenyon was preparing a new design for a 26-foot sedan utility. The owner of this boat wanted it to be powered with one of Chrysler's new V-drive transmissions. This special power plant meant that the engine would be located under the aft deck just ahead of the transom. The benefit of the V-drive arrangement is that the boat would have a totally unobstructed cockpit, free of the usual engine box in the middle. This attractive and interesting boat was named Poetica and is still in active service today.
By the end of its first summer, Finesse was destroyed by fire. Undeterred by this unfortunate loss, Charles Lyon was back in touch with John Hacker to replace Finesse with a new and even more exciting commuter. Lyon had read about a new Hacker designed commuter featured in Motor Boating magazine. It was a spectacular 44-foot express commuter built for Jules Stein, Chairman of the Music Corporation of America. Lyon loved the new design and Hacker agreed to design a commuter with similar features for Lyon. Once again, Hacker was pleased to learn that Lyon would select Fitzgerald & Lee to build the new commuter. However, the length of the new boat could not exceed 42 feet because that was the limit of the Fitzgerald & Lee shop.
The new design was simply spectacular. Fitzgerald & Lee were delighted to have the opportunity to build this impressive craft that would be named, Vamoose. It was completed in 1937 and was a crowning achievement for both Hacker and the little boat shop. Shortly after its launching, Vamoose was the subject of a feature story in Motor Boating magazine.
John Hacker developed a remarkable degree of respect for the skill and understanding demonstrated by Gordon Kenyon and the staff of Fitzgerald & Lee. Hacker's designs involved challenging shapes and advanced woodworking skills to successfully achieve the intended results of his creations. Hacker was often moody and difficult for those building boats of his design. However he often expressed praise for the skill level of the men at Fitzgerald & Lee and their ability to implement his work so well.
In 1938 Nils Johanesson, the son-in-law of George Boldt, requested Hacker to design a very special triple cockpit runabout. He hoped it would be so striking that it would be the talk of the Thousand Islands. In his initial conversations with Hacker, Johanesson said that Fitzgerald & Lee would be his choice to build the boat. His choice so pleased Hacker that he was motivated, once again, to challenge their skill. Hacker prepared one of his most stunning runabout designs. The boat would be named, Skol. It was then and still is one of Hacker's most impressive classic runabouts. As requested, Skol turned out to be the talk of the Thousand Islands. She is still in beautiful condition and is one of the finest examples of Hacker's achievements in pure runabout design.
J. Sidney Hammond loved Skol. He wanted to capture that same spirit in a smaller runabout for his young daughter. When he contacted Fitzgerald to discuss his idea, Fitzgerald suggested that he should discuss his thoughts with John Hacker and let him come up with a suitable design. Hacker suggested that 21 or 22 feet would be an appropriate length. They discussed an interesting cockpit plan that would provide a more practical and more social arrangement than the typical twin cockpit runabout. They settled on one oversize cockpit with a unique seating plan. There would be two separate forward seats, a walk-through between them followed by a large bench seat. The runabout would be fully rounded from stem to stern providing an ultra modern appearance and her name would be, Skid. She was started in the fall of 1941 and launched in spring 1942. She was spectacular and would be the last boat built by the Fitzgerald & Lee firm. America was now fully involved in World War II. Materials for pleasure boat construction were no longer available. Hutchinson Boat Works needed all the craftsmen they could find in order to build military craft in defense of the nation. The men of Fitzgerald & Lee joined the staff of Hutchinson's to build military craft through the duration of the war. The remarkable little boat shop in Alexandria Bay quietly closed down to support the war effort. It never reopened. Vamoose, their flagship creation, was donated in an act of patriotism by owner Charles Lyon to the United States Coast Guard to patrol our coastal waters. She never returned. The handful of magnificent boats by Fitzgerald & Lee continue to be admired as pure classics of a golden era.
By Anthony Mollica
Anthony Mollica’s first wrote professionally in his teaching career in communications. Writing for pleasure evolved from his activities with the Antique and Classic Boat Society and the Antique Boat Museum as well as his life-long interest in the history of boat building in American. He has published articles in various marine periodicals including Classic Boating, ACBS Rudder, Gar Wood News, The Antique Boat Museum Gazette Annual, Motor Boating, Lakeland Boating and The Chris-Craft Brass Bell Quarterly. He is also the author of twelve published books, many of which are available in local book stores. In September 2010, TI Life reviewed Building Chris-Craft: Inside the Factories” a book he wrote with Chris Smith, a member of the founding family. (See Anthony Mollica on our Publications page)