Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Fulton Chain Steamers 101: The Fulton Navigation Years

PC500 Steamers Train at Forge House  165In a letter dated April 19, 1901, Dr. William Seward Webb informed J. Pierpont Morgan in New York City that, on behalf of the Raquette Lake Railway directors, he was accepting the option from the Old Forge Company to purchase the two mile Fulton Chain Railroad and the docks and  boats of the Crosby Transportation Company.

Dr. Webb informed Morgan that the purchase price was $45,000, but additional amounts necessary for repairing the railroad lines and upgrading the docks brought the total costs to $56,000.  Dr. Webb also asked Morgan and the other partners copied in the letter to send him their share of the purchase price.  The other paying partners were Collis P. Huntington, William C. Whitney and Harry Payne Whitney.

Planned improvements for steamer traffic included “extension and improvement of docks, construction of canopies for protection of passengers and baggage, and other desirable improvements which will permit the docking of deeper draft boats, the direct trans-shipment of freight from cars to steamers…” and other upgrades.  Also, the costs included purchasing a dredging machine and pile driver for improving channels and allowing safe navigation by their steamer “Clearwater”, larger than any of the former Crosby Transportation Company steamers.

Webb advised Morgan that the Old Forge Company also assigned the “apparent title to all the lands under water in Forge Pond”, excepting state dam frontage, “without extra cost”.  The courts had not ruled on this during the 1897 “Steamboat War”.  Webb thought that the state would prevail in any ownership question of the waterways, opening them for competitors.  But these opposition steamers could only land on the state’s land at the dam.  Also, competing lines would not build docking structures there since recently existing private structures were or had just been removed by the state.  Webb added that another claim to adjoining waters was lodged by W. S. deCamp who claimed similar title between the pond and Second Lake.  But an assertion of state ownership of the waters would negate both claims.

1907 steamers at navigation dock inlet_0Dr. Webb and his boat experts arrived in Old Forge a few days later to examine the steamers and determine any remedial actions.  The Utica Observer reporter opined that “overhauling and remodeling will practically result in rebuilding” and all of the boats would be renamed.  In May 1901, the “Fulton” became the “Mohegan”, the “Zip” the “Old Forge”, the “C. L. Stowell” the “Nehasane” and “Uncas” became the new name for the “J. L. Connell” which had only received its current name the previous August.  Dr. Webb also initiated the use of cleaner burning “hard coal” in their boilers.

John Sprague received permission from deCamp to use the waterways through his lands but deCamp served notice on Captain J. Gilbert Hoffman advising him that he had no right to use this passage from the Forge pond unless permission was given.  John Sprague lowered his rates to traditional levels from the days of Jack Sheppard and quickly received good business and the residents’ goodwill.  On July 19, the Fulton Navigation Company served notice on Sprague that an injunction had been received preventing him from landing at their docks, asserting their acquired claims.  They added that multiple steamers through the channels from Old Forge Pond and at Third Lake could not pass safely.  Sprague’s attorney filed a motion to remove the injunction until its issues were resolved in court.

In its July 23, 1901 issue, the Utica Daily Press provided detailed testimony of what had to be a reunion of the pioneers of steamboat navigation on the Fulton Chain.  Their testimony could in itself be a history of the early steamboat days of the region.  The following testified in support of Sprague, his character and his experience, while also listing their history of piloting steamers:  Fred Hess, William Sperry, William S. deCamp, Jonathan Meeker, H. Dwight Grant, Alonzo Wood and a  multitude of hotel owners.  Nellie Briggs testified as proprietor of the Forge House that she controlled a portion of the land claimed by the Company.  The above group submitted a petition to the court to raise the injunction.

The Fulton Navigation Company attempted to attack the character and qualifications of Sprague’s staff and questioned the safety of steamers passing in the narrow channels on the Chain.  This was refuted by the pilots named above who could claim years of safe navigation without incident.  The Company also tried to note the disparity between fares but the court refused jurisdiction on rate setting.  In the end, the court raised the injunction, but required Sprague to give the Company a $1000 bond to indemnify them for any possible profit loss.  Sprague’s supporters immediately offered to co-sign it.  With Sprague supporting a large family with only his steamer income, his finances were not in the best shape.

The immediate impact was the Company’s reduction of its rates for a round trip from $1.50 to $.35.  Sprague met this price, but his reduction was only from $ .50.  The rate cuts considerably affected Sprague’s bottom line as well as the refusal of the Mohawk & Malone to sell him coal which forced Sprague to import it from Pennsylvania.  His financier Lewis Joslyn, who funded building the “Adirondack”,  sold the steamer to the Company at the end of the year.  Sprague later hired on as a pilot for the Company.  In 1902, Clarence Rivenburg who had been retained after the change in ownership was replaced by J. G. Thompson.  A year later, after Thompson’s death from injuries suffered during the launching of the “Tuscarora” at Blue Mountain Lake, he was replaced by assistant Maurice Callahan.

While the “Adirondack” injunction was being litigated, Dr. Webb obtained a contract with the Railway Mail Service to permit a railway post office, not just the exchange of camp and hotel mail bags, on the “Old Forge” to service the Fulton Chain.  This service began on July 24, 1901.  While the “Old Forge” was being refitted for this service, the “Mohegan” was used.  In October, the “Mohegan” struck a stump in the Old Forge channel and sank.  It was raised and later repaired for the next season.  The Company held this contract using the “Old Forge” until 1929 when it was awarded to Leon Burnap who used “Miss America”.  Also during 1901, the Company reduced the number of vessels running to Fourth Lake which dissatisfied patrons disembarking at Eagle Bay who needed to reach Fulton Chain locations.  To meet these needs, Inlet’s Philip Haines acquired the “Vera” and launched excursions and passenger charters from his dock.  This may have been the same steamer “Vera” operating on Brown’s Tract Inlet in 1895 according to Dr. Arpad Gerster’s journals.  In May 1908, the Company purchased Haines’s property and built the Inlet Navigation Dock and depot on his former site.

A few years after purchasing the “Adirondack”, the Company shipped it to Raquette Lake for use with the “Killoquah” and it later burned in 1927 in a village fire that burned both steamers and the “Sagamore”.

The Raquette Lake Railroad diverted the patronage previously relying on the Fulton Chain steamers.  But another mode of transportation would seriously impact steamer and railroad patronage.  In 1908, the boats operating on the Chain lakes were “Clearwater”, “Nehasane”, “Mohegan”, “Old Forge”, “Myra” and “Marion”.  The latter two were later transferred to Raquette Lake.  In 1910, the “Irocosia” was shipped from Raquette Lake to the Fulton Chain.  In 1922, Old Forge Village was able to obtain approval for building a dock to the left of the Codling meat plant near the state dam on land leased from the state, twenty years too late for John Sprague.  Agitation for a public dock had been growing for years as campers and motor boat operators had to dock at the Company’s docks or those of private camps.  In 1923, Maurice Callahan and his associates purchased the Fulton Navigation Company steamers from the heirs of the Raquette Lake Railroad and continued to run its operations as well as those of the Raquette Lake Transportation Company.

After 1910, the motor car became the favored mode of transport in the region and across America and to this day has not been replaced.  This reduced the steamers to excursion or freight duties.  They were advertised as being free from sharks, submarines and torpedoes during World War I.  When the Old Forge-Eagle Bay highway was paved in 1926, the “Clearwater” was in its twilight and soon retired with the “Mohegan”, “Nehasane” and a few years later, the “Old Forge”.  When three steamers burned in the 1927 Raquette Lake village fire, there were discussions about moving the “Clearwater” to that location.  But highways soon completed to Blue Mountain Lake removed that need.

A 1934 Boonville Herald article recalling the “Nehasane” indicated that the steamer was scrapped “a few years ago”, the boat cut in half and towed to Old Forge and burned.  Perhaps the “Old Forge” and “Mohegan” were destroyed at that time.

The Hollywood Hills Corporation leased the “Clearwater” in 1930 and ran “Friendship Tours” on Mondays and Tuesdays.  The Fulton Navigation Company ceased operations in 1932 with only the steamers “Irocosia” and “Clearwater” remaining.  A year later, the “Clearwater” was purchased by the Hollywood Hills Corporation, repainted and restored from its “mothballs”.  The organization planned to use it for moonlight cruises from their development’s dock.

A week after this article appeared, the “Clearwater”, captained by Jay Barker, was returning from a night cruise with 125 passengers from the Neodak when it struck a submerged log in shallow waters, stopping in a channel between First and Second Lakes.  The panicked passengers were transferred to numerous motor boats as the steamer settled, submerging its first deck.  Divers later plugged the hole and towed it to the Hollywood Hills site.

Six years later in the spring of 1939, the Hollywood Hills Corporation sold the steamer for its scrap metal and it was destroyed.  The Utica Observer-Dispatch reporter noted “ as her charred embers smoldered and steamed on the beach beside the Hollywood Hills Hotel, it brought memories of the days when the lake business ‘was good’ ”.

Photos: Above, Steamers at Forge House; below, steamers at the navigation dock in Inlet in 1907. Courtesy Town of Webb Historical Association.

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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 is the president of the Inlet Historical Society and presents summer programs on Inlet history at the Town Hall in Arrowhead Park in Inlet, NY. His book, The Fulton Chain-Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels, was published in May 2017. More information is available at www.facebook.com/herrstory . During 2023, Herr was appointed Inlet Town Historian.

3 Responses

  1. Brian Lupinski says:

    I have been enjoying all the articles on the fulton chain steamers and the early water navigation in the Adirondacks. Are there any books published that go through the history of the fulton chain and the steamships?

    • Charles Herr says:

      One of the reasons I did this series of articles was because there are none specifically focused to the Fulton Chain’s steamboat history.

      There are mentions in DeSormo’s Heydays of the Adirondack, a little in Joseph Grady’s The Story of a Wilderness and Harold Hochschild’s Township 34 excerpt about steamboats on Raquette and Blue Mountain Lakes and the railroads. They are also mentioned in parts of other histories.

      I decided to focus on the steamboat history and discovered that the steamboats with Indian names on early postcards had prior histories connected with the first two parts and that will be covered in the concluding third part that will appear soon.

      For the Fulton Chain, I recommend Joseph Grady’s book and Clara O’Brien’s God’s Country. Also Donaldson’s Adirondack history gives some Fulton Chain history.

      Thanks for your comments and question.

    • Charles Herr says:

      Actually, I just noticed the third part is in the Adirondack Almanack above.