In December 2010, The Finger Lakes Chapter of the Antique Classic Boating Society published this article written by Tony Mollica in their newsletter, "Brightwork". We are pleased to have the opportunity to republish Tony’s article as it provides more important information about our St. Lawrence Skiff and the impact these craft had in the boating world.
Note: Click to enlarge all photographs.
Connecting the St. Lawrence River Skiff to the Finger Lakes
Classic boaters often express a deep fondness for the attractive contours that fine wooden hulls possess. Designers and builders of wooden boats understood that the strength and seaworthiness they desired to achieve often provided their craft with naturally pleasing forms and shapes. The first priority for a marine designer is to create a hull that achieves the craft's intended purpose. Additional success is achieved when the new hull travels through the water as effortlessly as possible. With non-powered craft, design efficiency is absolutely vital to achieving peak performance Ultimate success is realized when the hull's pleasing design and its superior performance are so perfectly integrated that the design requires no change.
A classic non-powered boat that perfectly combines pleasing design with practical purpose is the venerable St. Lawrence River Skiff. This superb craft, in its present form, emerged more than one hundred-fifty years ago in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River. The craft became the principle means for personal river transportation and serious fishing during the mid 1800's during the golden era of River development. The skiff proved to be an ideal boat for local fishing guides who routinely covered long distances in a day's outing. They required a stable craft to haul in their regular large catches. By the 1860s St. Lawrence skiffs had evolved into a truly graceful form that would become universally accepted as the standard design among the River's builders.
The popularity of the St. Lawrence skiffs grew steadily as commercial skiff building shops prospered on both sides of the River in southern Ontario and northern New York. Some of the better known builders were Xavier Colon, Wilbur Wheelock, and L.E. Frye in Clayton along with Charles Estes and A.E. Furness in Alexandria Bay and William Andress in Rockport, Ontario. In 1872 American's sitting President, Ulysses S. Grant, spent three days fishing in the Thousand Islands as the guest of George Pullman. As President, his fishing trip was well-publicized and helped reveal the virtues of the skiff to thousands of visitors.
There was a time when the Spalding St. Lawrence Boat Company of Ogdensburg, NY claimed that they were “the original designers and builders” of the St. Lawrence River Skiff. Little credence was given to the claim and most conclude that the skiff, as we know it, was an evolutionary design from a multitude of sources. Respected marine historian, Howard Chapelle, believed that the evolution of the St. Lawrence Skiff was the result of local boat builders borrowing ideas from each other until the ideal design was achieved.
The St. Lawrence Skiff can be described as a double-ended, lap strake rowboat with a flat plank serving as its keel. The skiff was usually offered in lengths from 14 feet to 22 feet and always with a beam of 42 inches. There are normally six or seven planking strakes from the keel to the gunwale on each side of the hull. The sheer line curves gracefully where it is low amidships to facilitate the landing of large fish. The 18-foot skiffs generally weigh about 200-pounds. In spite of their weight, they are actually very light on the water.
To provide pulling power, skiffs normally use 7 ½ oars with grips that overlap. Overlapping grips provide the skiff's oarsman the advantage of rowing with one hand over the other. It is said that one pull of the oars will send the St. Lawrence Skiff gliding more than twice her length. They are faster than a canoe of similar length. Skiffs are naturally sea kindly and virtually impossible to capsize. Advertising illustrations often demonstrated the skiff's inherent stability by often showing a man standing on a gunwale without the craft being swamped. Ease of rowing is a very important feature of the skiff's design because it was not uncommon for the skiff's fishing guides to travel twenty miles or more during a single day's quest for fish.
When skiffs eventually evolved to their most successful configuration, the design was simply adopted by nearly every builder in the region. It wasn't long before the skiff became the most common craft on the St. Lawrence River. Refinements to the design continued into the 1890s as the boats were increasingly accepted as the pleasure craft of choice. Each of the fine hotels and River resorts purchased numerous skiffs for the enjoyment and recreation of their guests during their stay. The sheer volume of skiffs on the River continued to increase well into the 1930s. It wasn't until the following decade that outboard motor boats finally began to outnumber skiffs on the River.
The marvelous qualities of the St. Lawrence River Skiff were clearly recognized by the owners of the Skaneateles Boat and Canoe Company in Skaneateles, New York. Their boat building firm was the successor to the Bowdish Manufacturing Company that included skiffs in their basic boat production. It is believed that Nelson Bowdish learned his boat building skills in the early 1870's during the time he lived in Clayton, New York. It was in Clayton that Bowdish was exposed to the superior characteristics of the St. Lawrence skiff where it enjoyed great popularity. In 1876 Bowdish decided to settle in Skaneateles where he and his twenty year-old son, Edward, were sure that that they found the ideal location to build and market small boats. Although records of their productivity are scarce, it is believed that right from the start, the St. Lawrence River Skiff was a standard Bowdish offering. The skiff quickly became very popular on Skaneateles and other nearby Lakes. Its stability and ease of rowing made it an ideal craft for boat liveries, resorts, fishermen and cottage owners. The Bowdish's small boat business grew rapidly and prospered. Soon Bowdish was ready to expand and built a large two-story shop in Skaneateles to increase the firm's output. Clayton's major skiff producer, Dr. A.L. Bain, was hired by Bowdish to provide his expertise to increase production of their popular St. Lawrence Skiff models.
In 1893, after seventeen successful years of boat building, Nelson Bowdish sold the business to Sedgwick and George Smith. The Smiths changed the firm's name to, The Skaneateles Boat and Canoe Company and would continue to feature the St. Lawrence River Skiffs along with small sailboats, canoes, and power launches.
Steadily the Skaneateles Boat & Canoe Company grew into one of America's premier builders of small craft. The new owners continued to recognize the strong sales potential that the St. Lawrence Skiff provided. Over the years that followed, the Skaneateles Boat Company offered several versions of the St. Lawrence Skiff in five popular lengths from 14 feet to 18 feet. Their most deluxe skiff was simply known as Model Number One. It was supplied with two pair of 7 ½ foot spoon blade oars that were leathered and tipped with copper. The skiff was also equipped with a deluxe wicker boat chair on the aft seat and a carpeted floor. The sturdy red elm ribs were planked with clear white cedar. The shear strake was mahogany. The decks, gunwales and coaming were mahogany trimmed with black walnut. This beautiful 18-foot, top-of-the-line skiff included a mahogany rudder and had a hefty list price of $235 in 1920.
The Skaneateles Boat Company's least expensive St. Lawrence Skiff was the 14-foot Model Number Five. This basic model had oak breast hooks rather than fancy decks. The hardware was galvanized, a pair of straight blade oars, cypress seats, painted interior below the seats and priced at $75. Prior to the company's extensive production of Comet, Snipe and Lightning sailboats, the St. Lawrence Skiff was their volume leader. Although the wood and features varied in each model, the quality of their skiffs was excellent and many of the Skaneateles skiffs have survived and frequently appear in Antique Boat Shows. The Antique Boat Museum and the Finger Lakes Boat Museum have Skaneateles-built St. Lawrence Skiffs in their permanent collections.
Professional fishing guides in the Thousand Islands often became skilled skiff builders during the winter months. They shared sets of molds and helped each other in their backyard shops. They used molds (stout wooden forms) that were a series of four or five cross-sections of the skiff hull. Individual molds were bolted to an elevated strong back at specific locations. The oak keel is the first piece to be fastened to the top of the center molds. The second step was to attach the two stems to the keel. The bottom planking began at the keel where the garboard strake was fit into the groove in the keel and the stems. Going from side to side the strakes, or overlapping planks, were fastened with the hull upside down. These steps are all completed without any ribs in the hull.
The next step was to lift the hull from the molds, turn it over, and begin the process of ribbing. Steamed strips of elm or oak are used for the ribs and spaced every five or six inches apart inside the length of the hull. Ribs provide the strength necessary to maintain the hull's shape. A typical 18-foot skiff would have about forty ribs. A skilled builder, working mostly alone, could build two skiffs over the winter months. A small commercial shop would build a skiff every two weeks after they have gathered the necessary lumber.
The trim on the skiffs would vary depending on the builder's style and the desire of the intended owner. Fancier skiffs had exotic wood decks, seats and trim. Some had wood lining to cover the ribs and many deluxe skiffs were outfitted with optional sailing gear.
For six decades, from 1876 to the 1930's, St. Lawrence River Skiffs were an important product of the Village of Skaneateles that provided this Finger Lakes community with a significant connection to the Thousand Islands.
By Anthony S. Mollica Jr.
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, MotorBoating, Lakeland Boating and The Chris-Craft Brass Bell Quarterly. He is also the author of eleven published books, many of which are available in local book stores. (See Anthony Mollica on our Publications page). His most recent book, “Building Chris-Craft, Inside the Factories”, was reviewed in the September, 2010 edition of TI Life.