When Time Stands Still
The wooden boat capital of the world bursts with stories, secrets and a whole lot of varnish.
I grew up watching old wooden boats gracefully ply the aquamarine waters of Lake George, New York. My dad and I looked on with envy as single- and double-cockpit runabouts cruised along the rocky shore, their American flags whipping in the wind. We dreamed of what it might be like to own one. “Some day,” my dad would say. But it was never more than a fantasy.
Recently, when I gingerly stepped aboard a 42-foot reproduction Hacker-Craft in Alexandria Bay, New York, it was like déjà vu. Only this time, I was the one on board and everyone was staring at me.
Peter Mellon, founder of Antique Boat America, a brokerage for classic and antique boats, gets this a lot. A gregarious man with an impeccable memory who has lived in the Thousand Islands Region all his life, he meets the open-mouthed stares of marina passerby with a warm smile and a wave. He jokes that it’s his two golden retrievers that people are staring at, not the painstakingly varnished hull or the roar of the engines.
In the late 1990s, when Mellon wanted to buy his first wooden boat, he says antique boats were difficult to find. “You had to know somebody who knew somebody who had one,” he says. One day, he received photographs in the mail of a beautiful boat being sold five hours away. He drove there, only to find a tired, gray boat sitting in the seller’s front yard. Mellon was confused. “I came to see this boat,” he said, pointing to the photographs. The seller responded, “I wanted to show you what it looked like when it came out of restoration.”
Gallery: Classic Wooden Boats
Disappointed that there wasn’t a better way to buy antique boats, and having wasted his entire weekend, Mellon returned to work on Monday and told a web designer colleague of his woes. Within a week, the colleague had designed a web platform for buying and selling antique boats. Mellon started visiting marinas in the Thousand Islands to see if anyone wanted to list their boat for sale on his new website, AntiqueBoatAmerica.com. Soon he had hundreds of boats listed, and today there are over 1,700, a hundred of which are on display in the Clayton, New York showroom. Mellon sells boats in all stages of repair, from those needing a complete overhaul to pristinely restored runabouts ready for launch. His phone rings non-stop.
The showroom’s high, industrial ceilings and dozens of antler chandeliers play host to a dizzying array of wooden boats packed tightly on trailers. The deep mahogany glitters, and the luxurious leather seats appear inviting. Mellon shows me a 1918 Canadian-built Launch, a Gar Wood with a double cockpit forward, a 1929 Hacker-Craft previously owned by Alan Jackson and of course, a 22-foot Chris-Craft Sportsman like the one in On Golden Pond. There are boats with famous owners, boats with deceased owners, boats used to smuggle alcohol during Prohibition. There are race boats and workboats. Some have a third cockpit aft of the engine: The “mother-in-law seat.”
Many of the boats were built in Michigan, including Gar Wood, Hacker-Craft, Century and Chris-Craft. The automotive influences are notable in the bench-style seating and the steering wheels equipped with a throttle lever. After World War I, 12-cylinder Liberty aviation engines made their way from the air to the water, and in the 1940s some boats were equipped with marinized Ford flathead engines. Mellon says there are only about six mechanics in the country who can rebuild these engines.
As I wander through the maze of boats, running my hand over the beautiful barrel-back transoms and the dashboards carved from a single piece of wood, it’s like being a kid again. I marvel at the antique roll-up windows on a reproduction of George Pullman’s servants’ boat and a manual windlass made of lead. It all feels vaguely familiar.
Mellon says nostalgia is one of the primary motivators for antique boat buyers. “Everyone remembers the sound and the look of these boats,” he says. “It’s a visceral feeling.” It’s the same feeling that makes it hard for owners to part with their boats when it comes time to sell. Customers want to be certain their boat is going to a good home, to someone who will cherish it like they did. Mellon says many people think of themselves as “custodians” of the boat, rather than owners. They’re just taking care of it for future generations.
Back on the water, we slip out of the marina and onto the St. Lawrence River, where mansions and castles dot the rocky shores of the Thousand Islands. The original inhabitants, the Iroquois and Ojibwa people, called the area “Garden of the Great Spirit.” There are 1,864 islands in total, straddling the U.S.-Canada border and standing like beacons for mariners of all stripes: pontoons, kayaks, cargo ships, wooden boats and more. As we closely skirt the islands—the St. Lawrence near the mouth of Lake Ontario is remarkably deep—Mellon rattles off the history of nearly every home.
The most famous landmark is Boldt Castle, built by the hotelier George Boldt, who once owned the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Boldt owned 3,000 acres of islands in the early 20th century, which he used to grow produce that was shipped to the hotel. The Waldorf-Astoria was the only hotel of its time to offer ice in its cocktails; the ice was cut from the St. Lawrence and shipped to New York packed in cedar shavings. Other magnates, like George Pullman of the Pullman Company and Frederick Bourse of Singer Manufacturing Company, took up summer residence in the Thousand Islands.
Today, the perfectly manicured Victorian homes are owned by the founders and heirs of some of the country’s most preeminent brands. An average boathouse has one or two antique wooden boats, a 20-foot center console and a small Whaler. The islands lie in stark contrast to the mainland, where outdated motels and abandoned buildings nod to a tourist destination past its prime. Alexandria Bay and Clayton, two waterfront towns dotted with tourists, are laid-back and lack even the slightest whiff of pretension.
The Antique Boat America showroom sits along Highway 12, the main thoroughfare between Alexandria Bay and Clayton. Just down the street is a restoration yard run by Mike Mahoney. Stocky, with a gray beard, a baseball cap and a quiet demeanor, Mahoney has been restoring wooden boats for 30 years. “Every boat is a little different. It’s a challenge,” he says, pointing to a 22-foot Chris-Craft sedan that a customer recently bought from Mellon. This boat will require a replacement of all 3,000 of its mahogany fasteners. Mahoney will remove every hull plank and fastener, then painstakingly replace the fasteners with glue and a hand chisel. It will take hundreds of hours.
Mahoney, like many antique boat owners and restorers, tries to keep the boats as true to the original as possible. He uses cotton caulking and layers on as many as 12 coats of varnish. I gawk at Mahoney’s patience for this time-consuming work, and at the price tag that I assume comes with it all. But Mellon corrects me, noting that the sedan in Mahoney’s shop cost just $9,000. Add a $50,000 restoration, and the entire endeavor is still remarkably accessible.
One of Mellon’s main missions is to show how affordable antique wooden boats can be. He says half the boats he sells are less than $30,000, while boats over $100,000 only account for 10 percent of his business. “People think this is a millionaire’s hobby,” he says. “It’s not.” I quickly scan my brain for boat manufacturers that offer the same level of craftsmanship at this price point, and come up short. Mellon nods. “Thirty thousand dollars doesn’t even get you an appointment at the Sea Ray dealer,” he says.
Back on the river, we dock the Hacker-Craft (it’s retrofitted with a bow thruster) at Boldt Castle and meet up with two locals who bought their boats from Antique Boat America. Jim Holden, owner of a 26-foot, 1915 Launch that he learned to waterski behind, wears a straw hat and Crocs. He proudly tells me the boat has been in the family nearly its entire life. Just down the dock is Drew McNally and his daughter Wellsley, 9. They arrived in a 1926 Hutchinson, Vagabond King, which is known around the islands for her seductive curves and triple cockpit design. Wellsley practices her knots and tells me she only has to wait one more year to get her boating license.
In the short time that the three wooden boats are tied up at the public dock, a crowd of onlookers amasses. Even in a place as storied as the Thousand Islands, and on the Boldt Castle island, no less, which is equipped with a tower specifically designed to house exotic water fowl, the wooden boats steal the show. It’s the familiar tug of summers on the water in grandma and grandpa’s boat, or that old friend’s dad who restored one in the garage. It’s the same story, told a million different ways.
The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton keeps these stories alive. In one of a handful of buildings, visitors find a replica of the 1929 New York boat show. Each boat is accompanied by a smattering of old photos and advertisements. Another building houses dozens of race boats carefully arranged in a timeline of the quest to break the world speed record. And across the perfectly manicured lawn is a stone woodshop, its beams partially burned by a fire in the early 1900s. A handful of volunteers are hard at work restoring an 1895 Launch named Past Time. In the adjacent boathouse, a 33-foot “Baby Gar” with racing roots is being reintroduced to the water.
The folks in the Thousand Islands have proudly claimed the title of the wooden boat capital of the world. It seems like a fitting moniker for a destination steeped in the history of business tycoons yet equally loved by the most ordinary folks. The boats are only the beginning, bobbing on the surface and offering a rare glimpse of all that’s below.