Friday, December 24, 2010

Boating Before Gasoline: Kenneth Durant and the Naphtha Launch

In the 1880s Frank Ofeldt invented a small engine powered by a petroleum by-product called naphtha, which proved to be a very useful means of water transport when attached to 16 or 18-foot launches. For a while, these naphtha launches flourished on the Adirondack lakes, transporting passengers and freight between camps, hotels and settlements.

By the turn of the century, naphtha launches were common on Lake George. Some were excursion boats, such as those owned and operated by the father os onetime Lake George Supervisor Alden Shaw. The majority, however, belonged to summer residents. Dr. Abraham Jacobi of Bolton Landing owned one. Harry Watrous, the perpetrator of the Hague Monster Hoax, owned two, as did Colonel Mann, the New York magazine editor who was the butt of the hoax. (Mann’s own magazine, by the way, poked fun at the rich for taking the accoutrements of soft living into the Adirondack wilderness, naphtha launches included.)

The Eva B, the launch portrayed here, was owned by Charles Barker, a gentleman who spent one summer on Lake George in 1892. Barker sailed the craft from New York City to Troy and then came up the Champlain Canal through the locks. The launch was brought overland from Glens Falls to Lake George, where it was paraded in the Water Carnival. When Barked departed Lake George at the end of the season, he announced that he would sill down Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, then on to Alexandria Bay and the Thousand Islands.

The naphtha launch, unlike the steamboat which it replaced, was light and easy to handle. No special license was required to operate it. Thus, the naphtha launch became popular very quickly. Just as quickly, however, it disappeared, supplanted by the gasoline-powered motorboat, which was much faster than the naphtha launch and, or so it was said, much safer.

“It is eighty years or more since the naphtha launch came into the woods. They are gone and the steamboats with them. Handled with good manners, the launch was no threat to anyone and a pleasing service to many,” Kenneth Durant wrote in his monograph on the naphtha launch, published by the Adirondack Museum in 1976. Durant’s monograph remains the single best source of information on the naphtha launch.

Durant himself is best known for his pioneering studies of the Adirondack guide-boat. He had originally intended to incorporate the material which he had gathered on the naphtha launch into his book on the guide-boat, but then decided that it would be too much of a digression. After his death in 1972, his widow, Helen Durant, edited the manuscript and produced the pamphlet that is still available through the museum.

Durant’s knowledge of the naphtha launch, like his knowledge of the guide-boat, was rooted in his own experience. His father, Frederick C. Durant, was the developer of the Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake, the first luxury hotel in the Adirondacks. To accommodate his own family, Durant built a camp on Forked Lake, a tributary of Racquette Lake, in the style made popular by his relative, William West Durant, which they called “Camp Cedars.” Warren Cole, the Long Lake guide-boat builder, was the family’s guide, and Durant spent much of his youth in the guide-boat that Cole built for him.

The family also maintained a naphtha launch, called the Mugwump. For sport and pleasure, there was always the guide-boat, Durant said. The naphtha launch was essentially a service boat. “It transported busts who might have been timid or clumsy in a guidebook. It towed the scow with loads of lumber from the mill or stone cut from the quarry at the head of the lake. It towed the freight boat with a load of fresh balsam for the open camp, or a string of guide-boats for a fishing party to the far end of the lake. Now and then one might make a leisurely cruise along the evening shore, with engine muted.”

Durant’s interest in the evolution of the guide-boat brought him to Lake George in 1960 to study the bateaux that had just been discovered at the bottom of the lake, and he and Helen visited my family often in Warrensburg, usually when traveling from their home in Vermont to Hamilton County, which Durant always called “the woods” and which he believed was the true Adirondacks.

(He once wrote to his friend, canoe authority Paul Jamieson: “When I was half as old as I am now we could say unctuously, ‘There are no venomous snakes in the Adirondacks,’ reciting a bit of nature lore: ‘Rattlesnakes do not advance beyond the oaks.’ Then, when I was not looking, someone moved the Blue Line around Lake George and took in oaks and rattlesnakes–and worse.”)

While he may have been harsh on Lake George, I remember Kenneth as the gentlest of men. And he managed to impart to many, through his books, his conversation and his example, something of his passionate interest in wooden boats and their history on the lakes of the Adirondacks. Those of us who have learned from him had had richer lives as a consequence.

Photos: The Eva B; Kenneth Durant.

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Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.





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