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The Dreamer: Captain Robert Beckstead of GBL


Mix well: Seven months and $400,000. Add one motel owner, a lawyer and partner with a small boat company. Strain and presto – the launching of North America’s first tourist-carrying all-aluminum passenger vessel. George Hancocks ed. AlcanNews No.6, 1972


An early morning dawns in the Thousand Islands with dense fog. Zero visibility. Two men peer anxiously over the windshield of their 23 foot Chris craft Scorpian.

With the engine just above idle, the boat is moving slowly while their squinting eyes try desperately to see ahead, as if by sheer willpower they could penetrate a hole in the thick, white blanket.

Two seagulls, sensibly perched on a nearby rock, probably heard a conversation that went something like this:

“You should be more this way.”

“I’m already too far that way.”

“No, I’m sure we should be more over here!”

“We’re already too far over there. I know just where we are.”

“So do I!”

Whether they did or didn’t, both men knew for certain that to be too far this way or that, pinnacles of rock lurked just below the surface in some nearby areas. Solid, marble coloured granite was just waiting to tear out the bottom of your boat if you let your guard down. Even in clear weather. In the Thousand Islands you could be in 200 feet of water one minute and, the next, find yourself sitting on a rock that seemed to come from nowhere.

The fog parted for an instant. Dead ahead was a sloping wall of solid, red granite rock. With his engine roaring full astern, Bob Beckstead realized it was already too late.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Legends are made of this stuff. Among the Thousand Islands or, as the Haudenesaunee people called them, Manitonna, which means Garden of the Great Spirit, tales of the Great Chief Manitou have been told time and again over many an island campfire. Just as he has for centuries, the Great Manitou keeps a constant vigil over his beloved garden and its people. It is said that after the Great Ice Age, Manitou guided the retreating glaciers in their task of carving out the individual islands, leaving a base of solid, red granite rock that even Bob Beckstead couldn’t penetrate.

However, the Great Manitou saw to it that Beckstead’s boat, a 23-foot Chris Craft Scorpian, was laid gently – or sort of – on, where else? Scorpian Island. When the fog lifted, the bright red bow of the vessel, with its nose pointed at the sky, served as a beacon and both men – and their wives, were safe and soon rescued.

A few years later, the Great Manitou visited Gananoque, located at the edge of his sanctuary, to visit his old friend Captain Bob Beckstead once again. This time to call him home.

James Robert Beckstead succumbed to cancer quietly at home on February 17, 1998.

To those who knew him, the sometimes elusive Robert Beckstead was something of an enigma. A free spirit, he loved life and lived it the only way he knew how. Pedal to the floor in the passing lane. The man whose dreams conceived the idea for a triple decker tour boat – like the former steamers of a bygone era – shunned the spotlight whenever he could. His ideas took the Gananoque Boat Line from the single decked, wooden boats of the 1940’s and 50’s into a sleek, modern cruiser which became the ‘Thousand Islander’ prototype.

Born in Morrisburg, Ontario, the son of Dorothy and Walden Beckstead, Bob moved with his family at an early age to Gananoque where his father, a butcher, set up his shop.

Fascinated by the river, Bob spent every waking moment on it, honing his skills as a boater and fisherman. His countless hours among the islands embedded their image in his head and many will say there probably isn’t one island among the 1,865 islands that Bob hasn’t visited, trod or bumped onto. Indeed, the two greatest compliments that can be conveyed on a Thousand Islands river man is, one, to call him a river rat and two, to say he ought to know where the rocks are... since he’s hit every one of them! Bob Beckstead certainly was a ‘river rat’ and he knew his river well.

In 1951, as a young man, Bob started working on the small, bus-like tour boats of Grant Lucy’s newly formed Gananoque Boat Line, a joint venture of privately owned motor boats originally part of Sam Sedgewick’s boat tour company. Bob’s father Walden and Art Bringlow became partners and formed the line into a limited company with boat owners as profit sharers. The larger, single deck Lynda VII, Lynda IV and Miss Rockport II boats were locally built and became the main fleet. Bob worked as a ticket-taker, deck hand and bilge pumper, anything to be on the river. Soon, however, his roving spirit moved him on and away.

 

Heading north, Bob ended up in Ottawa, where he worked to pay his way on the tour boats of the Ottawa River. From there he headed further north to the mining towns of Northern Ontario, where his technical drawing skills earned him a reputation as a dreamer and a driver. He spent hours at the drawing board until he came up with a better idea of how some mechanical device should fit or work.

Tiring of this, he returned to Gananoque, partnering with Grant Lucy at GBL, after the death of his father. With new ideas spinning in his head, he put his drafting skills to work and designed a split level decked tour boat many will remember as the Miss Gananoque or as she was known locally, the ‘Miss Gan’. Miss Gan II, built of steel, followed.

Soon after, Grant Lucy purchased the Rockport Boat Line in the early 1970’s, selling his GBL share to motel-man Harold ‘Hal” McCarney, 43 and local lawyer Harry Clarke who was 29. Partners McCarney and Clarke; the other half belonging to Bob Beckstead who was now 32. And so, the ‘triumvirate’ was born. Arguably the most successful business ‘merging of the minds’ in recent Thousand Islands history, the partnership would last them the rest of their lives. Working together, with Bob’s drawing skills and dreams, the three decided to build ‘what they described as a riverboat with the efficiency of a Boeing 747 and the looks of a Queen Mary’. Her construction would take place right in Gananoque, employing boat builder Ted Larski. Carrying 350 passengers, she would be powered by three Caterpillar diesel 343 TA engines at 550 horsepower each. And, she would be built from neither wood nor steel. She would be the largest, all aluminum triple decker cruise boat in the world!

“The builder and his son in law both had previous experience in welding aluminum,” said Hal McCarney, “and they were able to train another couple of men. We used Alcan’s marine aluminum in the 5000 series alloys throughout, in extrusions and plate. There was no reduction in the strength of the material after we welded it, and the welds were tested at Queen’s University. We had no real difficulties although we had been led to believe we would.” Four more ships would follow, bringing the fleet to five gleaming white cruisers capable of handling as many as 6000 passengers per day.

Again, shunning the limelight, Bob moved on to other projects. Back at his drawing board, he designed his own deep-sea fishing boat, naming her Bits and Pieces. Like the big Thousand Islanders, the boat was built in Gananoque, entirely of aluminum, and no expense was spared.

She was to be his last major project. Bob’s final incarnation was as a deep sea fisherman, much like the late Ernest Hemingway, chasing the elusive sailfish and marlin off the coast of Florida to the Bahamas. “Bob was very ‘Americanized’,” said friend and GBL shop foreman Wilfred Bilow. “He probably would have had the boats built in Florida if he could.” In fact, Canadian born John O’Neil, a naval architect with Marine Design Associates, West Palm Beach, Florida, was the man they picked for the final specs of the original Thousand Islander.

A special project in Bob’s home involved me one time. As a newcomer to the boat line I was employed in the GBL shop one early spring fitting the boats out. We even did odd jobs around the various properties, too. Bob had a large, special piece of cherry wood that he had planned for a mantle piece in his home. He had it delivered to the shop so it could be modified over at Mitchell and Wilson’s lumber yard when we got a chance. One afternoon, Wilfred asked me to ‘take ‘er over to the saw at Mitchell’s and rip ‘er down the middle, will ya?’

So I went over, carrying the long piece of wood, which measured 6 inches by eight feet or so, to be cut down the middle, I guess. Or at the center.

“Where do you want her cut?” the saw-man asked.

“Right down the center,” I said. He took out his tape measure and measured the piece.

 

“Right about here?” He marked with his pencil. “That’s the center.”

“Yes,” I replied. “Right there!”

Now like Bob himself, navigating in fog, I made a slight error in judgment. Although I didn’t know it, just then. The huge table saw was switched on. We cut the piece this way, right across the center, rather than cutting it (or ripping it) down the center (middle), that way.

When I returned to the shop with two short pieces... well! For my error in judgment the Great Manitou looked after me, too, that day. No, I wasn’t fired – or shot. Bob simply looked at the two pieces and calmly drove away. The pieces may still be in the shop.

I like to think that Captain Bob’s tenacious, but forgiving spirit is still floating among Manitonna, the Garden of the Great Spirit to this day. Maybe searching for another piece of rare cherry at just the right size. Or maybe somewhere, among the islands on some cool summer evening, he is planting ideas in another’s mind, setting dreams in motion as was his way.

By Brian Johnson, Wolfe Islander III captain and Cherry wood-cutter

Former GBL skipper Brian Johnson now pilots the Wolfe Islander III and Canadian Empress. A similar but shorter version of this story first appeared in The Kingston Whig-Standard on March 23, 1998 titled: Capt. Bob Beckstead: The stuff of legends. This is the fourth in a series called: fond memories: GBL celebrities no longer with us.  They are presented to help celebrate the Gananoque Boat Lines 60th Anniversary.  Next month: the conclusion of the Wolfe Island ferry Crises of 1946.

Editor’s note:  Bob Beckstead was a great friend.  One year this editor was given a contract from Parks Canada to complete a photograph inventory of historic sites in the Thousand Islands.   I asked Bob if he would be the “Photographer”.  He agreed and we came up with a great partnership.  I would research and write the text and Bob would do the photographs.  We spent many days out on the River.  When it came time to settle the bill, Bob said, “I don’t want any money, but I would like you to re-write the text for the GBL tours.  I agreed happily, until I discovered that writing that script was much harder than gathering the history!  But I would not have traded that summer for any other, we had a great time. 

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Comments

joanne kruize
Comment by: joanne kruize ( )
Left at: 6:53 PM Saturday, October 15, 2011
Thanks Brian for another look into the past and of the great folks who made everything on the river memorable. Your stories anchor all of us who love the 1000 Islands.
Janet Smith Staples
Comment by: Janet Smith Staples ( )
Left at: 2:31 PM Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Great Story! I have many fond memories of Bob Beckstead, Doug Battems and my parents hanging out on the river! Just the thought of it brings a huge smile to my face.
Ewart Richardson
Comment by: Ewart Richardson
Left at: 2:08 PM Friday, December 1, 2017
Oh the memories. I saw it all happen across the road from M & W. The lovely hardwoods that later went into the Canadian Empress, and then the Trimarines that Hal sent to the Virgin Islands. Outstanding Gananoque industry to this day thanks to Bob, Hal and Harry.
Louis Brien
Comment by: Louis Brien
Left at: 3:49 PM Friday, December 1, 2017
The day after the first article was published in 1998 I met Hal at work, I had a diver drop a special prop nut wrench in 20 fsw. plus 10ft of mud at 30 fsw. you can spend all day in the water - it's all about being a mud-hen.
Isacc couldn't find it no matter what so I call my boss and ask if he can end the shenanigans and get me another wrench, he says he'll call GBL. "Just hang tight." Bob says.
We're finishing our lunch and this huge "personality" show's up with 4 Timmie's and introduces himself as Hal McCarney while distributing coffees.
After a briefing, he decides that he won't make us another wrench.
Hal says, "Figure it out."
Hal says in a calm voice, "No cure, no pay."
I dress in and replace my minion, once neutral I requested a 25-foot heavily weighted line and asked Isacc where he was working when he dropped the (now $1800 dollar emergency day rate) priceless 3-foot wrench.
I wriggled into the mud while I followed the weight dangling from the end of the prop shaft until I was well under the mud, then I switched the hat to free flow which greatly reduced the resistance on exhalation and cleared much of the loon shit up and away resulting in me finally at the bottom of a reverse volcano, in the darkness I began to search around and found "The Wrench", 3 screwdrivers and a mallet.
I ask for the prop nut to sent down.
With the project completed, I gathered my tools and the booty I'd found, I climb the ladder up to the dock and Bob and Hal helped with my kit and hat. I hand him his wrench and asked why he didn't just save us all a ton of money and have his shop make a new one and bring it himself.
He said, "this is how it's done."

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