My earliest recollection of River Runner, our spectacular 1926 Hutchinson Brothers sedan, was of a gray painted work boat used to ferry 100 gallon propane tanks around the Thousand Islands. I can still see the gas delivery man rolling the empty tanks off the seawalls and docks into the old boat, with little regard to the damage being done to the elegant old lady. A fresh coat of porch and deck gray paint to the topsides and deck every spring, along with some bottom paint, was the only maintenance the old sedan received for many years in her livery as a supply boat for Archie Chalks Plumbing business located in Alexandria Bay.
River Runner was ordered in 1925 by Illinois Governor Frank Oren Lowden and his wife Florence Pullman, of Castle Rest Island, just off Alexandria Bay. The Lowdens, longtime Thousand Island summer residents and boating enthusiasts, desired a small sedan similar to the large sedans built by Hutchinson Brothers Boat Works of Alexandria Bay. The boat was required to make an elegant statement as it pulled into the many social occasions attended by the Lowdens. Governor Lowden and his wife were positioned at the pinnacle of American society in those days, having twice run for the Presidency of the United States. Their island home, Castle Rest, was famous throughout the area for hosting many famous dignitaries, including President Ulysses S. Grant when the island was owned by Florence’s father George – the inventor of the Pullman Railroad car.
Delivered in 1926, River Runner, the only 25’6” sedan ever built by Hutchinson Brothers, was an immediate success. She was able to pull into small bays and up close to the irregular shoreline for fishing, or to deliver the Lowdens and their guests at small docks for picnics and social events. With the hull being built of cedar, the owners chose to have her sides painted a dark color to complement the varnished topsides and lighter colored top. A specification of the Lowdens was to have the decks made of tongue and grove mahogany, eliminating any screw fasteners and wooden plugs in the main decks. With her six cylinder Chrysler engine, she had adequate power to cruise the islands at a good rate of speed, making her owners quite proud. The roll down side windows, along with operable front windows, kept the occupants cool in the summer and warm and dry in inhospitable weather.
After many years of use by the Lowden family, River Runner was sold to the Barkley family of TI Park, when she acquired the name Sally B. A few years later, she suffered the fate of many of the Islands great wooden boats when she was sold as a work boat to Chalk’s. Along with her use as a plumbing supply and propane delivery boat during this 1950- 1960 era, River Runner was also used as a fishing launch by the owner’s wife, Florence Chalk. It was not unusual to see River Runner drifting down in front of our home on Manhattan Island as Mrs. Chalk and friends fished one of their favorite spots for pike and bass on a summer evening.
By the late 1960’s, the need for propane deliveries in the Islands was diminishing as more and more of the Islands obtained electricity supplied through underwater cables. Full time electricity meant islanders no longer relied on propane – or ice - to cool their refrigerators, and River Runner lost one of its main missions. In need of ever more serious repairs, the old gal was offered for sale. She spent years sitting on the blocks in an old storage building – with the ever present threat of being hauled off to the dump (a common occurrence in the days when fiberglass boats were replacing old woodies at an alarming rate).
Luckily for us, Bill Northrup and his wife Jane discovered River Runner prior to her disposition to the local dump, and immediately recognized the need for a major restoration project. Bill was fortunate to engage Ron Waterson of Fisher’s Landing to undertake the extensive restoration of River Runner, stripping her down to the bare wood and replacing the interior mahogany plywood. It is a powerful testimony to the quality of workmanship performed by Hutchinson’s skilled boat builders almost 85 years ago that only a very small amount of the bottom and keel needed replacing (a fraction of keel and stem and eight feet of one plank). River Runner today retains about 95% of her original wood, and has an amazingly tight bottom once she soaks up in the spring.
Relaunched by the Northrups in June 1995, River Runner was an immediate success at the local antique boat shows. Winner of Antique Boat of the Year and Best Antique Hutchinson at Clayton that year, she won Best Sedan and Best in Class in Alex Bay in 1996. The Northrups enjoyed River Runner for several more years, making sightings of her in the Alex Bay area and Summerland Group of Islands a regular and much enjoyed event.
My love of wooden boats had always included a desire for a Hutchinson sedan, so when I heard River Runner was on the market again in 2005, after being sold by the Northrups to a resident of Fairyland Island, I could not resist taking a look. My lovely wife knows these “looks” often lead to purchases, but she admits she loves riding in our antique boats on River evenings as much as I do. However, this “look” was a real eye opener!
When we pulled into the boathouse on Fairyland, accompanied by Rich Jury, a good friend and superb local wooden boat restorer who had previously worked on River Runner, we were greeted by a vision that would give most boating enthusiasts pause. River Runner had two extension cords plugged into two battery chargers powering two batteries and two bilge pumps – both pumping steady streams through their discharge holes in the side. Something was seriously wrong with the bottom or transom! Not to be deterred, we pushed off with the owner’s brother for a test ride, after a liberal application of ether to get the engine to fire. Of course I was so in love with the boat that I was willing to overlook it took 2 bilge pumps to keep even with the incoming water. Harder to ignore when we pulled the floor boards after docking was the water spurting up in the air! The bilge plug had backed out of its fitting while docking, and the boat was quickly taking on more water than she could handle. Luckily, we found the plug and got it back in the hole before any serious damage ensued!
I think at this point my wife thought we could scratch River Runner off my most desired antique boat list, but I knew it had great potential. After negotiating a mutually agreeable price with the owner, we took her over to Van’s Motor Marine for a haul out and pre-purchase inspection. Rich, and Steve Keeler from Van’s, agreed that most of the incoming water was being caused by an improper caulking job at the seam between the transom and the bottom. The owner and I agreed to a final purchase agreement (I am sure he was horrified at the prospect of the boat sinking in his boathouse), and we went to work repairing the caulking and tuning the engine.
Today, after some major spiffing up and replacing the flooring with the battleship linoleum actually used in the original old boats, River Runner is again in regular use in the Thousand Islands. She is a regular award winner at the local boat shows, and in 2008 was awarded the prestigious Renaissance Cup Award for most historically significant boat in the Alex Bay show. Every spring, as I peer down into her bilge (exposed to allow the wood to dry out over the winter) and view fish swimming in the slip through her wide open seams, I am amazed that with a few days of soaking this 85-year-old relic of boating’s wooden boat glory years will be ready for more River Running.
By John Peach
Author’s note and question: Much credit is due both Bill Northrup and Tony Mollica for research they did for their earlier articles on River Runner. And, Nobody has ever been able to determine the Lowden's name for River Runner. Do you know the name? If so, let us know… Some one must remember...
John Peach and his wife, Pat, live on Huckleberry Island near Ivy Lea from May through October. The rest of the year they reside in Princeton , NJ, although John continues to make frequent return visits to the Islands throughout the winter. Their children, Sara and John Jr. visit as regularly as their careers allow. John retired several years ago from his career in international business. His family has owned a place in the Thousand Islands for over 50 years. John is a past president of Save The River, and is still active on the Save The River board.