July 22, 2005
RITUALS; Aged and in Wood: Boats From the Gilded Age
By DAVID CAY JOHNSTON
BEHIND the Antique Boat Museum's graceful building in this St. Lawrence River town you can walk back into the Gilded Age and sample, however briefly, what it was like to be rich beyond belief in the early 1900's, when being poor was still the norm in America.
La Duchesse, an elegant floating summer home built a century ago and long owned by a founder of the Rand-McNally map empire, is docked at a newly built pier. From its Tiffany skylight to the upright piano with a painted Mozart gleefully pursuing a maiden to the brass clamshells and sea demons decorating the marble fireplace in the dining room, it is a 110-foot monument to genteel excess.
''Is this not simply marvelous?'' asked John McMath, admiring the detailed woodwork on La Duchesse, which has no motor and, thus, is technically a barge. It was given to the museum by the late Andrew McNally of Chicago.
Mr. McMath is a retired marketing consultant and a tireless volunteer promoter of the Thousand Islands region, who until recently owned one of the many wooden boats that ply the river in summer. His was a 1967 Lyman, an open boat like one on display in the museum's main hall, though at 28 feet somewhat longer.
Since its founding 35 years ago, the Antique Boat Museum has assembled more than 200 antique wooden boats. Half of them are on display, including beautifully restored Chris Crafts, Hackers, Hutchinsons and Lymans, as well as canoes, skiffs and even a few racers driven by men like Gar Wood, the Depression-era raceboat champion, that in their day held world speed records. All come from a time when more than 100 boat builders had yards in the Thousand Islands. Only a handful remain and, for the most part, repair rather than build watercraft.
Many other elegant vessels, all from a time before fiberglass, will join these museum pieces the weekend of Aug. 5-7, when the Antique Boat Museum holds its 41st annual auction (Saturday afternoon, Aug. 6). As many as 40 boats, from canoes on up, are expected to be auctioned at prices from about $500 to $50,000. (To sell or bid, go to www.antiqueboatamerica.com and click the ''Clayton'' button to register.)
The weekend is a floating pageant of classic wooden boats. Among the craft that are likely to be seen plying the St. Lawrence is a wooden high-speed commuter called the Flying Cloud. Some years, antique craft from the 1930's and 40's form a ''V'' and move in formation along the river. The more daring, or foolish, boaters cross ahead of the giant freighters that carry iron ore and grain on the St. Lawrence.
Also out on the river will be the 48-foot Pardon Me, a sleek marriage of mahogany and motoring muscle from the late 1940's. It is said to be the world's largest and fasted runabout, powered by a Packard V-12 1,800 horsepower engine that can hit 70 miles an hour. It was given to the museum by Jim and Tony Lewis, locals who were among the museum's founders. Pardon Me is in the water this summer only and rides go for $200 until the boat is returned to its cradle inside one of several buildings that hold the museum's collection.
Those who make a four-figure gift to the museum can arrange a more genteel ride on the crystal clear waters that flow east from Lake Ontario toward the Atlantic aboard Gadfly, a floating sedan with black leather stretched over its cabin. The basic admission price includes an opportunity to get onto the water in a St. Lawrence skiff and take a rowing lesson.
For just $15, visitors can cruise in the Miss Thousand Islands, a triple-cockpit reproduction of a 1929 Hacker runabout. Demand for the rides, which last nearly an hour, is so high that advance booking is recommended.
Inside, the museum shows old films of boat races and interviews with boat builders. It has a collection of outboards, including a French motor built in 1903 that is believed to be the oldest such engine in existence. It also displays samples of the everyday implements used when several trains stopped here each summer day to disgorge tourists. ''We're basically a museum about the history of pleasure,'' said John Summers, the chief curator.
Robert Osborne Cox, a founder of the museum, takes a less expansive view. He grew up here, often dining and staying on La Duchesse with a boyhood friend, Teddy McNally. ''This is a marine version of an antique car museum,'' he said, ''and it attracts people who can say, 'Hey, looky over there, my daddy had one of those.' It's not for battleships or any of that. It's for people who like antiques.''
Those who venture onto the water can see how nearly every rock and piece of land that make up the Thousand Islands -- there are actually about 1,800 -- has a shack or cabin or cottage or mansion. Heart Island even has a castle, although it is unfinished. George C. Boldt, a poor immigrant from Prussia who had become rich in the hotel business as the manager of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and owner of the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia, was building the castle and outbuildings as a Valentine's Day gift to his wife, Louise. But when she died in 1904, Mr. Boldt abandoned the castle, which deteriorated over decades of harsh winters. Restoration began in 1977, and on most summer days Heart Island is thick with tourists inspecting the complex.
At the Antique Boat Museum, a stone building that once was the powerhouse for a lumber mill is used to build replicas and restore old boats. Aaron Turner, this summer's boat builder in residence, is making a replica of a Roaring 20's skiff putt, a lean open 25-foot boat modeled on the original resting a few feet behind his workbench. The first such boats relied on oars, but once motors fueled with gasoline, naphtha or diesel came in they were fitted with engines to drive a single brass screw.
Displays on the walls tell about the local woods -- the soft northern white cedar used for planking; the hard buttternut and black cherry used for decks, seats and trim; and the harder white oak used for frames and keels. Mr. Turner, who has also designed for Frank Gehry's architectural studio in California, took up a pair of finger planes from a shelf and started working a piece of wood. The planes were made at the Stanley Works in Connecticut in 1894.
He grinned as he contemplated the durable tools in his hands. ''These are probably the original blades,'' he said.
THE ART OF CRAFT
The Sleekest Rides on Water
THE Antique Boat Museum's annual boat show and auction is Aug. 5 to 7. The museum (750 Mary Street, Clayton, N.Y.; 315-686-4104; www.abm.org) is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., until Oct. 11 this year. Admission during the boat show is $15 for adults and $8 for children 6 through 17. Regular admission is $12 for adults and $6 for children.
Clayton is 350 miles from New York City and 90 miles from Syracuse. From Syracuse, drive north on I-81 to Exit 47. Follow Route 12 to James Street in Clayton and turn left at Mary Street. The museum is at the end of the street.
Other museums that feature wooden pleasure craft include:
MYSTIC SEAPORT -- 75 Greenmanville Avenue, Mystic, Conn.; 860-572-0711; www.mysticseaport.org.
ADIRONDACK MUSEUM -- Routes 28N and 30, Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y.; 518-352-7311; www.adirondackmuseum.org.
CHESAPEAKE BAY MARITIME MUSEUM -- 109 Mill Street, St. Michaels, Md.; 410-745-2916; www.cbmm.org.
NORTH CAROLINA MARITIME MUSEUM -- 315 Front Street, Beaufort; 252-728-7317; www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/sections/maritime/.
MICHIGAN MARITIME MUSEUM -- 260 Dyckman Road, South Haven; 269-637-8078; www.michiganmaritimemuseum.org.
CENTER FOR WOODEN BOATS -- 1010 Valley Street, Seattle; 206-382-2628; www.cwb.org.
Other maritime museums are listed at www.constellation.org/member/camm.html.