Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Lake George Steam Whistle Recalls A Bygone Era

Lake George - The Adirondac - Lake George Mirror File PhotoFor some folks, the bright notes they hear whenever Shoreline Cruises’ Adirondac circles Bolton Bay have a familiar ring.

That’s because they’re piped from an old fashioned brass steam whistle that once belonged to the Pamelaine, the private steamboat of Bolton Landing’s own Mason ‘Doc’ Saunders.

The Adirondac’s pilots blow the whistle in honor of Saunders, who died in 2006. Back in the day, that is, in the 1960s and 70s,  Lake George experienced something of a steamboat revival, and Mason Saunders quickly became its ringmaster.

Mason Saunders aboard the Pamelaine - Lake George Mirror File PhotoStarting in 1973, Lake George was the scene of an annual steamboat race. The winner the first three years, and, in fact, every year in which he competed, was  Saunders.

Racing actually began in 1965, when Paul Eckhoff of Bolton Landing and Ted Larter of Hague raced their steam launches in an “Old Days on Lake George” weekend in Hague.

That race proved to be so popular that the Lake George Chamber of Commerce decided to sponsor a steamboat race in 1973, with the Lake George Steamboat Company’s Minne-Ha-Ha II taking part. A race between electric boats was added to the event, and the Chamber promoted both as “environmental boat races,” since every craft was powered by clean, non-polluting energy.

Dr. Saunders himself may not have expected to win that year; it was, after all, his first race.

A few years earlier, Saunders had bought a 1918 Fay & Bowen. The hull was stripped and re-caulked in Bolton. Saunders then took it home to Albany and began the four-year job of restoring the boat and converting its engine from gas to steam. It sat in his driveway, exciting the curiosity of his Pine Hills area neighbors.

Billie Saunders, Mason’s wife, once  recalled coming out of the house one morning to find perched in the boat the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany, “in full regalia.”

Outfitted with a canopy, a red smoke stack and brass whistle, the boat was christened Pamelaine, in honor of the Saunders’ two daughters.

By the spring of 1972, she was ready to be launched. When it was announced in 1973 that a steamboat race would be held, Dr. Saunders entered the Pamelaine, accepting a challenge Paul Eckhoff had made the summer before.

The Pamelaine racing the Minne Ha-Ha on Lake George - Lake George Mirror File PhotoAs the Pamelaine moved toward the starting gate, Saunders checked his lines and discovered that at the end of one of them a heavy bucket had been tied. Someone obviously had fears that Saunders would prove a formidable competitor, which, as it turned out, were justified, for that year he won easily.

The second race was held off Rogers Park in Bolton Landing, with an audience of over a thousand people.

Dr. Saunders almost missed the 1975 race. A few weeks before the race, the boat overturned, losing its boiler, the canopy, and a prized collection of ship’s lamps, whistles and flags. He won nevertheless, and the trophy, a rib from the original Minne-Ha-Ha, which sank in 1877, became the permanent possession of Dr. Saunders.

In 1998, when I happened to be interviewing Dr. Saunders about his steamboats at his home, a converted barn north of Bolton Landing, he spoke wistfully about that missing collection.

He could not have anticipated the phone call he would receive six years later, more than thirty years after the Pamelaine capsized.

The call was from Joe Zarzynski, a founder of Bateaux Below, the not-for-profit organization devoted to exploring and preserving the shipwrecks of Lake George.

Zarzynski told Saunders that the underwater archaeology team had located the canopy of the Pamelaine and the wreck site.

“It was like a call from Mars,” Saunders told Zarazynski and Bob Benway, another founder of Bateaux Below.  “It was too good to be true.”

Zarzynski and Benway dove to the site and retrieved some of the artifacts that were lost in 1975, among them, one of the vessel’s wooden name boards, the wooden eagle that adorned the bow and a lantern.

According to Benway and Zarazynski, Saunders looked at the eagle and said, “Welcome home, buddy.” And he asked the two if there were any chance that the steam whistle could be recovered.

Doc Saunders with Bob Benway and Joe Zarzynski - Lake George Mirror File PhotoSo, in October 15, 2005, Bill Appling, Benway, and Zarzynski made a dive and retrieved  the Pamelaine’s 2-foot long, 14-pound brass whistle. By the time the whistle had been restored, Saunders had passed away. Bateaux Below therefore presented it to his daughter, Lanie Angel.

So how did the steam whistle come to be on the Adirondac’s wheelhouse?

According to Bob Benway, “Captain Hal Raven and I were discussing his installation of steam whistles on Shoreline’s Horicon and he happened to mention that he’d like to have a much larger whistle; the possibility of obtaining the Pamelaine’s whistle came up. Hal contacted Mitch and Laine Angel to ask if they still had it and, if so, would they consider selling it.”

Photos, from above: The Adirondac; Mason Saunders aboard the Pamelaine; Saunders with Bob Benway and Joe Zarzynski; and the Pamelaine racing the Minne Ha-Ha.

A version of this story was first published in the Lake George Mirror.

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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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