Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Fulton Chain Steamers 101: Beginnings 1876-1895

Steamer Clearwater Fulton ChainMuch has been written of the steamers that operated on the Fulton Chain from Old Forge to the “head” of Fourth Lake. Regional histories describe the first steamboats introduced as well as those of the Fulton Navigation Company’s service at the beginning of the 20th century.  After examining the newspapers covering early happenings in the region, I learned more about early public passenger and freight steamers.

Having covered the pickle boats and mail boats in other articles, they will not be included here.  This work will be confined to only the steamers catering to passenger and cargo transport on the lower Chain lakes.  I am going to divide this discussion into three parts: Beginnings, the Crosby Transportation Company years and the Fulton Navigation Company years.  This narrative covers the first period.

The earliest mention I found of bringing a steamer to the Fulton Chain was in a May 1876 Oswego Daily Times report about legislation just enacted that incorporated the Fulton Lake Park Association.  The corporation owned a large hotel, a sawmill and over 1000 acres of land.  The company was the idea of Alexander B. Lamberton who had just purchased the Forge House and Forge Tract.  The article mentioned that the next winter would see a steam yacht brought to the Fulton Chain.  The association did not last and a steamer did not arrive until seven years later.

Dam and boat landing at the foot of Seventh Lake, Fulton Chain of LakesIn 1879 and 1880, Henry Stanton of Long Lake provided information about guide boat building to Boonville’s H. Dwight Grant who then started a shop in the fall of 1881 for this purpose.  Grant was a state Assemblyman and long time caretaker for the Lewis H. Lawrence camps.  One of the carpenters helping him was Theodore Seeber, already an experienced boatbuilder.  The shop built many row boats for the first campers and guides at the Fulton Chain.  For years these boats became the standard mode of lake travel to Fourth Lake and beyond.  Grant’s wife was Jane Meeker whose brother was Jonathan Meeker.  Meeker was a guide who also kept camps for sportsmen in the area and envisioned the possibilities a steamer could bring for the region.

A February 1883 article described a thirty foot long steamer being built in Grant’s shop for use on the Fulton Chain.  Its owner would be Jonathan Meeker and the craft would be used on the lakes that summer.  Its name was given as “Champion”, probably assigned by its builders which included Seeber.  But Meeker named it “Hunter”.  At the end of March, the boat was put on a log sleigh and driven by Charley Phelps and R. H. Ward to Moose River Settlement where it was left until the snow melted.  Next, it was taken to Jones Camp (later Minnehaha) and later poled up the Moose River to the “Forge” where it was skidded over the state dam.  The engine was brought later and the steamer launched.  According to Grady, Meeker fueled his steamer from wood cut by him and Fred Hess in the area of present day Eagle Bay where he built a cottage nearby to be occupied during the summer.  During winters, he stored the “Hunter” at his camp on the north shore of Alger Island.

Meeker’s monopoly ended at the end of 1886 when guide and camp builder William Sperry leased Theodore Seeber’s steamer “Ettie S.” named for Seeber’s wife.  Sperry was the son of the Forge House’s first proprietor C. Sanford Sperry whose drowning in 1872 he witnessed as a young boy.  The “Ettie S.” was built originally for use on the Black River and Canal.  According to the Boonville Herald, Sperry’s boat was smaller than the “Hunter” but tried with its noisy boiler to make up the size difference.  The “Ettie S.” made its first trip on May 10, 1887 and the “Hunter” opened its season a day later.  But the competition was stopped at the end of June when, to the joy of guides who despised the noise and smoke, the “Hunter” blew its boiler and the “Ettie S.” was withdrawn for repairs.  While Grant and Meeker sought a new engine, Seeber and Sperry retired their vessel at the end of July for being a “losing investment”.  Though rumors started that the ”Ettie S.” would be placed on Sixth Lake in 1888, the steamer returned to Black River service where it later collided with a coal barge and was retired permanently.

Meeker’s monopoly permanently ended when fellow guide Jack Sheppard launched the first locally built steamer, the “Fulton”.  The steamer was built in a temporary shed on Old Forge Lake near the state dam during the winter of 1887-1888.  The “Fulton” was placed in the water on May 4, 1888 by her builder, Theodore Seeber, and towed to its anchorage where its boiler and engine were soon placed in position by its manufacturer, J. H. Mallinson of Utica.  On May 10, its engineer, builder and owner took the ship on its inaugural run to Fourth Lake.  Sheppard hired David Pierce as his engineer; John Sprague would be a pilot for Sheppard.  Sprague would assist Seeber with building the “Fawn” which connected with the Peg Leg Railroad at Minnehaha in 1889.  Another passenger was Sheppard’s competitor and friend, Jonathan Meeker.  In May 1889, Meeker sold the “Hunter” to Sheppard who now controlled steamer traffic on the Fulton Chain.  Meeker remained Sheppard’s friend and piloted both steamers for Sheppard.

Evidently, no new steamers came to the Fulton Chain until 1893.  By 1889, Seeber moved to Old Forge and built a house at today’s Codling Street.  John Sprague also started a home and Seeber’s fellow Grant shop builder Riley Parsons moved to the growing settlement at the Forge.  Seeber and Parsons began a carpentry shop on the third floor of the Garmon & Crosby sawmill (on the state’s land) in 1890.  Established for building camps, it became the genesis of the boat industry on the Fulton Chain.  John Sprague would partner with Will Sperry in the steamboat business.  In September 1890, Sheppard’s engineer David Pierce went to New York to work as a fireman for the New York Central.  John Sprague replaced him on the “Fulton” for two years and Meeker continued as steamer captain for the two steamers.  Using Grant’s patterns, the Parsons & Seeber shop soon experienced a brisk guide boat business.

In July 1892, access to the Fulton Chain received a huge boost when service inaugurated on the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad to Arnold’s Clearing.  With this new avenue closer to Raquette Lake than the North Creek terminus of the Adirondack Railroad, Charles Bennett of The Antlers began upgrading the series of carries and boats from Brown’s Tract Inlet to Fourth Lake.  In July 1892, Edwin McAlpine, acting as Bennett’s agent, purchased the “Fulton” and another steamer Sheppard was building.  It was expected the new boat would be used at Sixth Lake.  Bennett soon purchased a right of way through the lands of the Fulton Chain Club from Inlet to Seven Lake.  Bennett retained Sheppard as manager of the two Fulton Chain steamers.  After finishing in this role for the 1892 season, Jack Sheppard surprised friends and fellow guides when he moved to Portland, Oregon in mid November 1892, ending a long career as a famous guide and steamboat captain.  Sheppard’s “Fulton” had been the first steamer to deliver mail bags to camps on the Chain.  David Pierce returned from New York to operate the “Fulton” for the 1892 season, continued its successful, popular service and would soon own the vessel.

In 1892, Seeber & Parsons built a boat shop adjoining the dam on its north side, also on state land, and moved their operations from the sawmill loft.  1892 ended with rumors of large steamboats being built for the lakes.

New steamers arrived during 1893.  Gilbert M. Woolworth, Port Leyden merchant, purchased the Black River steam yacht “Ben Hur”, renamed it “Beulah” after his baby daughter and brought the steamer to the Fulton Chain in May 1893.  In the same month, Woolworth’s neighbor, John H. House, who owned a general and drug store at Glendale, brought another steamer, “Minnie H.”, named for his wife Wilhelmina’s nickname.  Both “Beulah” and “Minnie H.” operated from the new dock built by George Van Dyke who would later build a camp known as Balsam Grove.  Another steamer was added by Merritt A. Plantz who purchased the Lewis Sherman steam yacht “Victor”.  It would be renovated for passenger transport.  I  found no other mention of this vessel but it is possible that it was renamed “Old Forge”  An August 1893 Boonville Herald described the route for visitors requiring walking through the Parsons & Seeber “boat factory” to step aboard one of  the four steamboats: “Fulton”, “Minnie H.”, “Beulah” or “Old  Forge”.  It appears that the “Hunter” had been retired.  Jack Sheppard wrote Boonville friend Ed Snow to send beans to his new address in Riddles, Oregon since that favored vegetable was scarce “on the western slope”.

The 1894 year started with the establishment of the Fulton Chain Steamboat Line by John Sprague and William Sperry.  They leased the “Minnie H.” from John H. House and bought a small steamer, new to the Fulton Chain, but already with years of service.  The “Zip” was formerly owned by William A. Walker and operated at Sylvan Beach for several years.  Sprague & Sperry refurbished the “Zip” and began its operations in coordination with the “Minnie H.”.  The “Old Forge” is mentioned at the start of the season but seems to have soon gone out of public service.  The “Beulah” also was no longer mentioned in newspaper articles and may have been reduced to private charter.  Both the “Zip” and “Minnie H.” encountered problems during the year, the former’s gear shaft broke and the latter suffered a minor fire.

George Sweet and his son Vernon were popular boat builders and captains of the steamers “John Thorn” and “Maynard” on the St. Lawrence River.  The Sweets now came to the Fulton Chain with a newly built steamer from Watertown, shipped and finished on location by the Sweets with help by Theodore Seeber.  Their double-decked, twin-screw steamer “C. L. Stowell” became the largest steamer on the Fulton Chain and would serve for decades under different owners.  Too late for a profitable impact during 1894, the “C. L. Stowell” was launched with ceremony at the beginning of August and its size impressed all who viewed it as she made a trial run in mid August.  The Sweets also leased smaller craft from Watertown’s George Spicer for use when patronage did not warrant using the large steamer.

During 1894, Jonathan Meeker purchased a lot between Lawrence Point and Emil Murer’s and in October was moving his Alger Island cottage to the new lot.  He may have taken the “Hunter” with him.

William McConnell of Glendale purchased the “Minnie H.” at the beginning of 1895 and operated it as a passenger steamer that year while his son John peddled groceries from a row boat to camps on the Chain.  The “Zip” was piloted by James H. Soper and this ship as well as the “C. L. Stowell” and “Fulton”, now owned by David Pierce, attempted to coordinate their services with the Mohawk & Malone trains whose passengers and cargo were carried by stage and omnibus to the steamer dock.

On an evening in June 1895, George’s son Vernon fell off the “C. L. Stowell” while his mates Erwin and Kennedy slept and he was found drowned in the water next morning.  Though only age 40, he suffered heart problems and a post mortem seemed to support this as the cause.  But George Sweet who was at Remsen when he heard of the death thought foul play was involved.  Though there was competition among the steamers, George felt that guides were especially angry at his line due to his practice of hiring small steam yachts when the “C. L. Stowell” would not run.  This apparently robbed guides of the traditional patrons they could still row remaining for them in this steamer age.  Bruises on Vernon’s face and a missing watch raised George’s suspicions.  Vernon Erwin succeeded the younger Sweet as captain.  In September, George Sweet partnered with David Pierce (“Fulton”) for market share of the passenger and freight service.

When Benjamin Harrison appeared in mid July 1895 for his summer vacation at Dodd’s Camp and arrived by stage at the Forge dock, he was escorted onto David Pierce’s “Fulton”.  The Lowville Journal & Republican noted that it was “with some impatience that Gen. Harrison awaited the arrival of his baggage which delayed the departure of the boat”.

This statement was indicative of the problems noted by Victor Adams whose steam launch would ferry Gen Harrison about that summer and by Forge House owners Dr. Alexander Crosby and Samuel Garmon.  These individuals knew that for the Forge Tract to remain popular, the present state of steamboat affairs would have to be remedied quickly.  These individuals would begin by incorporating the Crosby Transportation Company.

Illustrations: A postcard featuring the Clearwater; and the and boat landing at the foot of Seventh Lake (NYS Archives).

Related Stories


Charles Herr

Since the early 1980s when Charles Herr purchased a camp in Inlet he has been interested in the history of the Fulton Chain region of the Adirondacks. He has been contributing history articles about the times and people of the Fulton Chain, covering transportation, steamboats, hotels and most importantly, the people to the Weekly Adirondack of Old Forge since November 2006.

His ambition is to uncover local and regional Fulton Chain history about people and events prior to 1930 and little covered in the histories of the region. He was the first president of the Inlet Historical Society and presents summer programs on Inlet history at the Town Hall in Arrowhead Park in Inlet, NY. His first book, The Fulton Chain-Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels, will be available May 2017. More information is available at www.facebook.com/herrstory .




4 Responses

  1. Teresa Rozycki says:

    Great chronology of the steamboats on the Fulton Chain. Thank you for pulliing it together and making it so interesting.

  2. Paul K says:

    Ahh, the days of steam power,Lake George, i believe, still has a steam paddle boat in use, along with the Chautuaqua Belle on Chautuaqua Lake. For those steam lovers, there is the Pageant of Steam in Canandaiqua

  3. Mark Sherwood says:

    I believe Sanford Sperry drowned while crossing Limekiln Lake during hunting season. As he was trying to beat a storm that was closing in on him and his son. Very rough waves capsized the boat.

  4. Charles Herr Charles Herr says:

    I was aware of that and his being the first manager of the newly built Forge House at the time. But since my subject was confined to steamers , not guideboats or canoes, I didn’t make the details of it part of the narrative. I did find his tombstone at Boonville Cemetery as well as his wife and her second husband Andrew Alexander. Son Will, a kid at the time, is the Will Sperry who witnessed the drowning as described in Joseph Grady’s “Story of a Wilderness” He is buried at Riverview in Old Forge. You can see both tombstones on findagrave.com .

    Thanks for bringing Sanford up. Also, the story of the drowning and subsequent events is in newspaper articles you can find on http://www.fultonhistory.com and http://www.nnyln.net sites.