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About the Skiff…


Editor’s Note: Tad Clark checked TI Life for information on the St. Lawrence Skiff ( the "Skiff" ) and found very little. So, he did his research, and very kindly has provided our first article on the Skiff.  If you have other Skiff stories, please add them to our "Comments" section below.

Our 1902 St Lawrence Skiff “Bobby” was my salvation as a teenager. It was 1961 and our cottage on Comfort Island was easy rowing distance from Alexandria Bay, NY. To wait for a ride with my father in the unreliable displacement launch “Buzz” was to wait all day. The more I rowed, around the bays, channels and islands, the more I appreciated what a superb craft the St Lawrence Skiff is.

Pointed at both ends, its construction is more substantial than that of a canoe or kayak. Moving a Skiff overland, by hand, is impossible for one person. With a minimum weight of about 250 pounds, and a length of 17-22 feet, it is a demanding task for two people to move a Skiff. However, it's a different story when in the water as the Skiff has superior gliding-and-tracking characteristics once the rower gets up-to-speed.

While most skiffs are intended for rowing, many had a removable mast and could be sailed without a rudder or even a centerboard by someone who took the time to learn the proper skills. Some skiffs had the stern end squared off to accept a one-cylinder motor.

Barton Haxall, an expert on Skiffs, and head librarian for the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY, characterized these motorized Skiffs as “wet and not very efficient. People would typically turn off the motor and grab the oars to land.”

The heritage of the Skiff was rooted in “European prototypes” according to Bonnie Wilkinson in a 1985 article written for the Shipyard Museum which was renamed the Antique Boat Museum in 1990. Mr. Haxall, and other experts agree that the design and functionality of the St Lawrence Skiff was more of an “evolution than a single invention. Various accessories and components were improved upon and included as standard equipment over time.”

The Shipyard article identifies Xavier Colon of Clayton as the first “mass producer” of skiffs, probably in1873. In 1878 Colon created a partnership with Alexander Bain, a travelling dentist. In the mid-1880s, Dr. Bain became the sole owner. Mr. Haxall believes that many people built their own Skiffs in those early years. However, the Skiff was very popular as by 1908 there were ten Skiff builders in Clayton and boat liveries were a part of most waterfront communities.

There is a four-panel-painted mirror in our Comfort-Island cottage depicting the popular activity known as the “fishing picnic”. The family's steam yacht, “Mamie C”, is towing three Skiffs on the first panel. The second shows family, and guests, fishing from the Skiffs and the third panel depicts an elaborate table setting, complete with linens for dining on the catch - known then-and-now as a “shore dinner.” The fourth panel shows the yacht and Skiffs heading home, into the sunset.

People of more-limited means often patronized the area's boat liveries to participate in what had become known as a sportsman’s-fishing paradise. The liveries offered guided-fishing outings and transportation – all for a modest price.

In those days the guides were called “oarsmen” and by 1880s and 1890s these rugged individuals would have qualified as elite athletes in present-day terminology.

A 1973 Thousand Islands Sun article portrays these oarsmen as guides of the highest caliber, anywhere! "Most of their skiffs were twenty-two feet in length. . .  they kept their Skiffs shining like a piano . . .  they took great pride in their boats.” The author reports that these guides “are always anxious to do all they can for your comfort and to get you a good catch of fish.” They carried about a hundred pounds of necessities - a 30-40 pound anchor, folding chairs, utensils for cooking and eating, and a folding table for the “shore dinner”.

For approximately $3.00, the early-Clayton “oarsmen” would row, for about 30 miles, a pair of customers around Howe Island, cook a “shore dinner”, and return to Clayton. I am one of the many who have rowed around Wellesley Island, a similar distance, in a single day. However, I rowed alone and had no gear for an elaborate picnic.

Inside the Thomson’s Skiff Livery.  Photo courtesy Pine Tree Point

“Cap” C.S. Thomson ran a livery in Alexandria Bay in the 1890s. Cap progressed from rowing people in his Skiff to purchasing his first tour boat and then to owning a major portion of the town. His grandchildren own shops, the “Uncle Sam” tour-boat line, resort hotels and other businesses. All have their origin in the wealth he accumulated through his willingness to work harder than his peers while building up his businesses.

Original catalogues from the Xavier Colon-Dr.Alexander Bain partnership can be found in the Antique Boat Museum archives and are titled “Illustrated Catalogue of St Lawrence Skiffs”. The 1885 catalogue is in exceptionally good condition and one has to smile when reading its price list. The most basic Skiff is listed for $70 and the top of the line model is $100. Blue Heron Boat Works, on Wellesley Island, currently lists a new Skiff at $12,000 with used Skiffs from $3,000-$10,000.

Testimonials included in the 1885 Bain-Colon catalogue make for entertaining reading and indicate high praise for the quality and workmanship of these early Skiffs. Charles Emery, a tobacco millionaire, had 6-8 Skiffs at Calumet Island, near Clayton, and wrote, “No fault of any kind can be found with them as regards their beauty or strength, and as sea boats they have no superior.” Thomas Carter of Oneida Lake, near Syracuse, wrote, “It is really the nicest and best rowing boat I ever was in, and I can only laugh at my old notions of a row boat.”

 

 

One modern-day group of enthusiastic Skiff owners convenes on the Sunday before Labor Day each year to celebrate the St Lawrence Skiff with a wide variety of races in an event called FIASCO (Famous International Annual Skiffing Competitive Occurrence). 2010 marked FIASCO's 30th anniversary of these races which take place at Laundry Point on Wellesley Island. The races feature men, women, and children's categories and the popular “bag race” - one rower is blind-folded and the rider gives the directions.

St Lawrence Skiffs still thrive and "Bobby” received a "face lift", a few years ago. My wife, and daughter, row her often and although I use her less. I will never tire of the beautiful-and-clean lines of her hull and the quiet contemplation afforded me as I glide, silently, through my River neighborhood.

By Tad Clark, Comfort Island

Tad, a fourth-generation, summer resident of Comfort Island, has been a tennis coach for over 35 years. His growing interest in freelance writing includes commentaries for the TI Sun and the history of Comfort Island: www.comfort-island.com.

Posted in: History, Sports
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Comments

Bob Oster
Comment by: Bob Oster ( )
Left at: 8:03 AM Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Tad Thanks for your article. It was very interesting, and I like that little vignette about the Comfort Isle mirror. Bob
Kathy Halsey
Comment by: Kathy Halsey ( )
Left at: 8:45 AM Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Great article Tad! I still have my grandfather's skiff, retored by Pat Synder some years ago....all are a work of art. Kathy
Judy Kiernan
Comment by: Judy Kiernan ( )
Left at: 9:41 AM Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Tad - Excellent job! I enjoyed your well researched article. When you next row around Wellesley Jim and I will be looking for you from Butts Island as you pass heading for the International Riff. Judy
Deborah Clark
Comment by: Deborah Clark ( )
Left at: 11:36 AM Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Fine job bro! Thanks for your optimism and tenacity restoring the "Bobby" and diligence in your research.
Joe
Comment by: Joe ( )
Left at: 9:02 PM Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Tad,
This is a wonderful article. The information and history on this fantastic little boat is priceless. Your pictures were the icing on the article. Great Job! Joe
Ray
Comment by: Ray ( )
Left at: 10:43 PM Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Tad,

I really liked the pictures that you had with this article added a lot to the historical information that made it very interesting and informative.

Thanks,
Ray
Sandy Thibault
Comment by: Sandy Thibault ( )
Left at: 8:05 AM Thursday, September 16, 2010
Oh, Tad, so impressive. Not only the magazine but your article is superior. I'm proud to be a friend. Later...
Tom Folino
Comment by: Tom Folino ( )
Left at: 10:41 AM Monday, September 20, 2010
Terrific, Tad. Thanks for such a fine story, well told! And the pictures are great addition, as well. I'll certainly look forward to your next piece!
Milton Burtch
Comment by: Milton Burtch ( )
Left at: 4:06 AM Sunday, October 3, 2010
I was born in Alexandria Bay in 1930. All my father's family were from Rockport, CA. I can remember my Aunt Florance rowing her skiff over to The Bay from Rockport to visit quite frequently. Your stories on the skiff reminded me of her.
David Wilson
Comment by: David Wilson ( )
Left at: 9:09 PM Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thanks Tad for the article and the information on CS Thomson. A few years ago I bought a few antique oars at the Clayton boat show to add to my collection that hang from the beams in our great room. I was recently cleaning up an old skiff oar while preparing it for a fresh coat of varnish prior to hanging it up when I noticed that the name CS Thomson had been pressed into the shaft just below the grip. I immediately went to my computer to search for CS Thomson and was directed to your article. The history provided on Captain Thomson has certainly given a deeper meaning and importance to this artifact as a true piece of St Lawrence river history.
Clint Chase
Comment by: Clint Chase ( )
Left at: 8:29 AM Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Tad, Great piece that captures what fascinates me most about boats like the SLRS: how they are indigenous and adapted to a particlar place and people. These boats are quite amazing to row. I have lofted these boats using 3D CAD and built the Bobby and a 15-foot model by Frye in wood-strip-composite construction in my classes at WoodenBoat. Annie, an 18-foot Bain model, and Clotilde, an 18-foot symmetrical Hunt model are in the works. The oars are as important as the boats and my teaching of oarmaking stresses balance and flex as important features. I look forward to a trip to the 1000 Islands region, I have never visited. The only way to come is with a finished SLRS!

clintchaseboatbuilder.com
Keith Hunt
Comment by: Keith Hunt ( )
Left at: 3:43 PM Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Bobby was built by my grandfather, John Damer Hunt. He died 16 years before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to know him, but his handiwork is evident in the the home he built (at least part of) that my sister and I still own. I saw the Bobbby for the first time several years ago and suspect Bobby may be the only remaining example of the small number of boats my grandfather built. I would be interested in seeing Mr Chase's version, should he bring it to the river. Although I have no boat of my grandfather's building, I do have my great uncle Fitz Hunt's Clotilde.
Dick LaVigne
Comment by: Dick LaVigne
Left at: 12:41 PM Sunday, May 10, 2015
I have a St. Lawrernce river skiff that has proudly been on display
in my living room at my camp located on the St. Lawrence. It
is 17'5" long and I believe it was built around 1905. I just sold
my island and think that I'm ready to part with the skiff. How to
you go about selling such a rare boat?

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