The Scratch Built Collection

The Boats of Hell's Kitchen

Frigate Under Glass
Boats of Hell's Kitchen
The Votive
The Honey Fitz
Higgins Boat
Da Vinci's Dilemma

                    By Dean A Beeman

                                             Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved




Manhattan Island has had various names, and its neighborhoods each have their own storied and well-deserved history. A constant in these histories is an inevitable creation, destruction and resurrection. Each and all of these have been described by writers, musicians and, among others, total strangers.


Water built the place. Some prefer to think of the ocean, some others the rivers, and still others are comfortable with the superiority of its drinking water. But tap water does not explain its success.


Boats, not armies, have been building empires since there was such a word as empire. Probably even before the word existed. Selective intelligence being what it is, very few of the people who today are arguing for dedicated limousine lanes on Manhattan’s West Side recall or understand that this magnificent rockpile owes its fame and fortune to just a few of these boats. Two to be exact.


New Yorkers didn’t invent these boats but they built them. They didn’t particularly enjoy them but accepted them as necessary. Yet New Yorkers continue to worship the fortunes associated with names like Vanderbilt, Astor and Cornell. And some recall names like Livingston, Fulton and Clinton. All of these names and the people attached to these names trace back to the same two boats.


Thousands of men, working with dirt, preceded and followed the year 1844. As did thousands of boats. Each, like a date, has a rich history of its own, and that year is just as unimportant as any other, But that year is also as good a fulcrum as any other in understanding the leverage that caused Manhattan to rise above its cousins.


To those who might argue that the wheel, or fire or something else was more important than these two boats I stand corrected, as it should be. Nonetheless I have set out to make my case. So, just as I have done, I hope you explore and build models of these two boats as a reminder of what other men and other boats have contributed to what, like it or not, we call America.


Studying the history of the Erie Canal from the perspective of various writers, societies and state agencies is very much like discussing a brothel visit with a priest: you will get a very detailed and complimentary description of the lobby, but probably not an enlightened understanding of the business at hand.

Looking at a terrain map of North America there are only two eastbound water routes- the Mohawk and Saint Lawrence rivers. The Mohawk River merges with the Hudson in Albany, and by the time the Erie Canal was opened, Fulton's steamboats were regularly carrying cargo from Albany to New York City.

At about this time the Irish in coffin boats and the Scandinavians in marginally better ships were heading west. Nobody really knew what west meant or how far west was: many of the families traveling to what we now know as the Midwest passed through New York, Albany, Buffalo and Bridgeport (Chicago). From Chicago they might have gone overland or down the Mississippi to St. Louis. The linchpin in this route west was the Erie Canal.

Even by today's standards the canal was an engineering gem. Calling the canal a ditch in those days would be very much like calling a laptop computer a screen.

And the twin financial bonanzas of toll revenue and land value created a gold-rush fever to build canals on all major and quite a few lesser Eastern rivers.  The cargo headed east and the settlers headed west generally followed these water routes. Pick any canal you want, but a 75-ton boatload of flour unloaded at Albany resulted in an empty 75-foot boat headed home to Buffalo. Unless, of course, you could fill it with settlers and their household goods.

In a very short period, life in the cities along the 365-mile route reflected the attitude of politicians, speculators and investors:  thieves, prostitutes and con men flourished. Teenage thugs, burglars and armed robbers formed into small armies who preyed on the unwary (or unarmed). A hardworking longshoreman in Buffalo could earn a dollar a day- that bought six gallons of whiskey. A seamstress could earn twice that: a prostitute could earn ten dollars a day.

The official (recorded) lifeblood of the canal was, of course, the commerce that flowed along it- eastbound raw materials (such as furs, lumber and flour) headed to New York City, and finished goods and settlers headed west. The imbalance in cargo was roughly a thousand to one in favor of the eastbound tonnage.

While the settlers generally carried their household goods and implements on westbound (otherwise empty freighters), other travelers could choose from a variety of small companies who provided passage on packet boats. Nathaniel Hawthorne provided a view of his experience while on an 1835 passage, and other authors and diary-keepers did as well. They all seem to reach the conclusion that the voyage was, above all, numbingly boring. (Given the alternatives, boring was considerably safer and more comfortable.)

Perhaps for that reason, but more likely because of the railroads, packet boats enjoyed a fairly short life on the Erie Canal and no life at all on the inland canals. By the time most states caught up with New York, (and in the case of smaller canals within New York itself), passengers (except settlers, immigrants and the indigent), were generally traveling by train. In some of the early railroad franchises, the states forbade rail freight traffic in order to maintain the toll revenues from the canals.

Political and monetary fortunes were based on the canal; frequently by selling the land on either side of the canal. Andrew Jackson's portrayal astride a pig probably understated the financial involvement of, among others, New York's governor, William Marcy ("to the victor belong the spoils"). To put it in economic perspective, New York City was rescued from the crash of 1837 by the Bank of England and the Erie Canal Fund. The canal was one of the (if not the only) public investment in the history of New York State that promptly paid for itself. Generations of politicians did their best to correct this anomaly.

Typically, Manhattan residents choose not remember the sources of their wealth, so while the Erie Canal created much of it, many of the details are part of that selective memory. And it took more than a century for politicians, speculators and more refined criminals to bury the canal underneath office buildings and pavement in all the cities that it created. Some of the land along the waterways, of no value as commercial properties, still exists and still attracts tourists taking a break on their way to somewhere else.

While the sinners of the Erie Canal may seem outrageous, this was a period in American history when visitors to the White House carried guns, western states were still part of Mexico and nobody knew the full extent of the Louisiana Purchase. Many of the immigrants pouring into America brought a culture based on lying to and stealing from various kings, so whether the canal was a frontier or not, any wild behavior that you may attribute to Americans in general was found on the canal.

Neither the canal nor the boats happened overnight. The 16th century technology of the mitered lock (an angled door facing the higher water) has been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci who was an avid student of hydraulics.  In the 17th century, the Canal du Midi in France dropped boats from a height of 206 feet over one 32-mile stretch. By the time of the Erie Canal, the British had a well- developed network of integrated canals, as did the Dutch. The Bridgewater Canal, for example, (1761) featured a massive elevated aqueduct that carried the duke's coal to Manchester.

Unlike our canals the British continue to use theirs for a wide variety of boating activities on their "narrowboats". This except from one tutorial is instructive:

"Narrowboats are owned and operated, in England, exclusively by retired marine engineers who have higher degrees in both Obsolete Engineering and Theoretical Catastrophics. This particular combination of skills is almost essential to be able to keep the damned things working. Members of the public who lack these qualifications - i.e. 99.9995% of the human race - are occasionally allowed to hire narrowboats from qualified owners, for vast sums of money. It has been discovered that, provided these hirers are completely drunk at all times, they are able to overcome the inherent improbabilities and just drive around bumping into things and apologising to bollards. Physicists explain this by drawing on very large whiteboards and using upside down triangles a lot, while ordering lots of pizza and occasionally muttering "w00t". - Uncyclopedia

The Chinese were building canals and canal boats in the 6th century B.C., and the technology of sailing ships and boats was even older. By the time the first Erie Canal boat was launched, all the major US seaports had a thriving ship building industry, some of which survives today. Boats on the rivers that flowed to these ports were generally built by the same craftsmen who built the ships: given their tools and skills, they invariably built boats much like they built ships. Probably the first canal boat of any note in this country was the Durham Boat- these boats, ranging up to about 65 feet in length, were extensively used as freighters on the Delaware River, and some made their way to the Erie Canal. Washington and his troops attacked Trenton from Durham boats.

So building a worthy model of anything is not nearly as much fun as understanding the people and the historical periods that they represent. There are many great stories about boats and ships, but a rowboat, for example, is not very interesting, even if it was used in some notorious crime.

The canal boat itself was a pretty dull affair, mostly due to the fact that it didn't have to contend with storms or battles at sea or even sails, for that matter. The maximum speed on the Erie Canal was 4 mph, which sounds like standing still in a car, but is a dangerous speed in a busy marina. Or at a lock, explaining the canal's version of crash barriers. So any model-maker is faced with the quandary of how to render what was generally a workaday vehicle into something more exciting than, say, a floating brick.

In our case there is hope. Not only were the shipwrights all too familiar with European art, fashion and thus decorative ships, but so were the potential passengers.  Even the lowly stagecoach was often a very colorful and sculpted vehicle with its tradition dating back to the chariot.

Given all of that, the only reasonable approach is to invent an interesting boat, much like inventing a fictional character. This boat could have and probably did exist. Since it was not brown, black or square, it was a packet boat. It may or may not have been attacked by hoodlums, housed prostitutes or served cheap liquor, but it could have. It is a certainty that it was towed by something, and in the earlier days had fairly strict dimensions. It provided living quarters for a collection of people, and made money for its owner. It probably never made it onto Lake Erie, was towed (probably to New York City) in winter, and when it had served whatever purpose, it was refitted or torn apart and made into something else (perhaps a tavern or a house). Or just left to rot and sink, like most other wooden ships.

Most of the models on my walls can be traced to specific designers, builders or other well-known sources. Bear in mind that many tradesmen at the time were, by law in their native countries, illiterate. The boatwrights who had served apprenticeships were equipped with model-building skills, wooden templates and sharp tools, but when they died these vanished. So the design and construction of the boat we are undertaking is much like the first safety match-very important in its time, but gone.

This boat's design is based on a combination of Illinois archeology, Greenwich Village art, and solid speculation. As we build it, I assure you that your imagination is every bit as useful as mine in creating a pleasant and valuable model. Probably more so because I'm also writing a text and you're not.


                                             Design Considerations

Since there are basically no uniform (or any) plans for a packet boat, the first step is to design a worthy specimen. A solid first step may be to study the periauger- a flat-bottomed boat that was quite common in inland waterways. It was a smaller boat with little or no bowsprit, usually a lapstrake hull, and two masts carrying gaff-rigged (fore-aft) sails. These were quite common on the North (Hudson) River.

Given the depth of the original canal (4 feet), the draft of a fully loaded boat was no greater than 3 ½ feet. Given the slope of the canal's original 40-foot banks, the boat's width (beam) was no greater than 12 feet. The length at the waterline (LWL) was dictated by the early locks, so no longer than 75 feet. These dimensions result in a rough displacement of 1 ton per linear foot, or 75-100 tons. (By shipbuilding standards these boats were tiny.) The heights of the early bridges, many constructed by farmers, were determined by the lowest height of the berm (the bank of rubble) or the landscape. This dictated a height of about 6 feet from the waterline, or 8 feet from the bottom of the keel to the highest object on the upper deck.  

A canal boat's hull was shaped much like that of a merchant sailing ship- flat from the keel to the chine (where the sides of the hull rose vertically) with a minimal (blunt) bow and stern: in many canal boat designs the bow became the stern on the return trip. In the case of both the ship and the boat, a quick design prototype can be built by crushing one end of a shoe box: this might explain why no retail kits of merchant or packet boats exist.

Another problem is security- with criminal populations in all of the major ports of call along the canal's length, protecting cargo, particularly more valuable finished goods headed west, was a problem. Not to mention would-be settlers who carried their life savings with them, and the captains who carried the crop receipts or bartered goods. There being little or no organized law enforcement (since there were few or no laws to enforce), what we know today as crime was just another facet of everyday life. Hawthorne's casual description of a passenger using his walking stick-cum firearm to blast away at woodpeckers is a reminder of what you might have packed on a business trip.

And of course, the weather. These boats could operate comfortably during three months of the year, uncomfortably for another four, and not at all during the coldest five. Residents of upstate New York joke about cold, wet and worse: being outdoors every day for seven months on a body of water that is cold year-round presents a major acclimation problem.

The largest freighters carried their power and crew onboard- teams of mules or horses were generally stabled forward. (This must have presented a problem to people who preferred farm animals be kept someplace other than the living room.) Mule drivers, (hoggees or boys), were typically housed, along with the livestock, in the bow section, leaving the aft section available as the captain's family quarters. Space between these areas was filled with cargo or settlers. Smaller freighters, or line boats, contracted for power along the way, as did the packet boat.

Mules are often depicted towing freighters, but horses pulled packet boats.  Most packet boat companies either purchased horse power from entrepreneurs (farmers) along the way, or employed boys (hoggees) to work teams of three horses in shifts. Economic theory would conclude that a mule that was not owned by the freighter captain was more valuable on the farm than on the canal. Whatever they rode, the hoggees were more valuable on the canal than on the farm, and driving was one alternative to a life of crime.

Of some importance is the decade that sets the stage for this particular boat. It would be convenient if Colt's revolver were in production (1835); it followed the New York financial crisis (1837), and preceded the Civil War and subsequent passenger rail service. It would also help if the social and political climate enthusiastically supported corruption (the Tammany Society, Albany Regency, etc.).

With the imminent annexation of Texas, the US Navy was preparing for war or something in 1844. That year the first screw (propeller) - driven warship, the U.S.S. Princeton, was armed with the first breech-loading naval cannons. In his first demonstration of this high technology to our first unelected President, the economic sponsor and political commander of the Princeton fired one of these cannons, killing, among others, the Secretary of the Navy. (The Irish and Germans flooding our shores at the time hardly took notice.) In terms of maritime history, this seems like a reasonable year for our boat.

At the time, a seaworthy bare hull or boat could have been built at either end of the canal- Buffalo or Albany. But certain towns in Central New York were closer to raw material (the Adirondacks) and power (water) even though the technologies and skilled builders existed downstream in New York City. It was common for a steamer to tow rafts (cities) of boats on the Hudson laden with raw (food, timber, coal) or finished goods.

If brown and square fit your plan, you could just as easily pick the type of boat that Abraham Lincoln piloted to Chicago and forget about our packet boat.

Since we're building a model we have to assume that in all cases it will be built from scratch materials, with a range of tools and technology not unlike the boatwright's.

                                                Tools and Materials

By this time you have had enough tool discussion. Those that were used in building the whaleboat and the frigate will be used.

You should have plenty of scrap and spare left over from either or both of the previous models. If you want to build all or parts of your boat (or the real thing for that matter) from specific or exotic woods, the place to start is Constantine's Wood Store (online). Their catalog is also a good source for studying full-size things, like clamps. As we go you will discover that we will continue to apply the principles of full-sized tools at the miniature level.

If you need it, a local hobby and/or craft shop will have basswood in stock sizes, and a good one will also stock some mahogany, but if you prefer 1/16th or thinner sheets of black walnut, ash or oak (or pretty much any other wood) it is getting difficult to find and, as you might suspect, expensive.

There are many tools and gadgets that can be purchased at a local hobby shop, but a more complete selection can be found on the Bluejacket and Micro-Mark websites, among others. The point is that I don't invest a lot in tools and raw materials. Some of my colleagues do, so they must enjoy that aspect of this hobby.

                                                Mr. Henry's Packet Boat

A very reliable but somewhat unheralded artist, Edward Lamson (E.L.) Henry (1841-1919), was a contemporary of Winslow Homer.  He created numerous paintings and sketches of 19th century American life, and his work is a treasure trove of detail, all of it very pleasant, often humorous, and always dimensionally accurate. His wry and deeply-expressed opinions are often less than obvious.

One of his paintings, entitled "Early Days of Rapid Transit" is the major source for this model. (Mr. Henry's sense of humor is more obvious on a better copy.) The original of this painting was last sold at auction in 1994: the auction house has chosen to not disclose the buyer or communicate with them, so we are limited by what is publicly available. It is obvious that a number of authors and artists have used this painting as a model for various other depictions, since it is one of a very few that is not, like the canal, necessarily unattractive.



This version doesn't do the original work any favors, and much of the detail is lost, but this is where the model is headed. An online appreciation for the original work is available at a number of websites.

It isn't possible to create this boat exactly without detailed schematics, but Mr. Henry has provided us with a number of carefully crafted clues into the boat and its passengers..

Based on the position of the towrope and the boat's position in the channel, this packet boat is headed west on a wide section of a canal. Since most other canals at the time ran north- south, and none were this wide, this appears to be the Erie Canal. The immature trees and brush near the towpath suggest a 5 year growth, so 1840-1850 is a reasonable decade. There are no crops in sight, so the fence section below the berm is probably meant to keep riders and livestock off the towpath.

The sun is casting shadows and reflections from behind and to the left of the boat, so it is mid-morning and the boat is heading generally northwest. Ahead there is an empty or lightly loaded line boat (smaller than a freighter) on the starboard bank. That boat is apparently moored to a wharf, directly in front of a large, roofed structure- much larger than a keeper's cottage.

The water could be gently flowing east or west, but the shape of the wake suggests west. Ahead there is a church spire rising above a sizeable village located on or above the canal; the hills on the right could be part of the Onondaga Formation. This is clearly an excavated section, and the turning basin and rock wall ahead suggest that a lock is hidden around the bend.

A line boat in the distance is high in the water so it's standing by for cargo of some sort. The smoke rising from town implies a factory or mill: the white smoke implies a wood, rather than coal furnace. Since the lock would have been located at a rapids, this is probably a small grist mill. Very large mills were located near both ends of the canal, and this stretch is neither of them.

A higher berm appears on the right of the canal, held back in places by the rough timbers along that bank. The boat is close to the left bank, so either the canal channel has a steep slope at this point or the packet boat is drawing about a foot of water or less.

The rudder on the boat is substantial, and the fenders and tackle at the stern may be Mr. Henry's suggestion that navigating was not a totally simple matter. Rub rails and hanging fenders protect the sides of the hull from chains hanging in the locks. The bow stem (the post in the bow) is a two-piece affair, with a lower section that rises midway up the stem post. The bow was a very sturdy structure on all canal boats for the simple reason that they had no brakes. This may seem insignificant until you consider that a 100- ton freighter that had coasted down to a speed of 1 mph at a lock was going to hit something head-on with the same force as a passenger car doing 50 mph. The stem on this boat, like the keel on a ship, is the boat's main shock absorber. The small pennant on the bow was useful as a pointing, maneuvering and, probably, ownership flag.

The riddle of the towrope is solved by the bitts (posts) on the upper deck. They are only needed on the starboard side, as captured by Hr. Henry.

If a boat approaches our boat from the west, it is the give-way vessel, and will steer a course away from the towpath. Our packet boat becomes the stand-on vessel, and will maintain its course. The give-way boat, (if a freighter or line boat) will slacken its rope, causing it to sink. The packet boat will then glide above and over the give-way vessel's towrope.

These rules also apply if the towpath is on the other side of the canal. The rules were developed on the sensible assumption that a boat headed east would most likely be sitting much lower in the water than a boat headed west, and, on the longest sections, would usually enjoy a slight current in its favor, making the resumption of load easier on the horses or mules.

If our boat is headed east and becomes the give-way vessel, the towrope, held in place inboard by the tapered forward bitt, will keep the center of the boat on a line with the channel, and the height of the deck will allow most freighters to pass under what is probably a dry section of our boat's towrope.

This format doesn't work as well with other packets unless those boats used the same long pole used by freighters in the locks and on wharfs: it had a bent hook that also performed a rope-raising function. The lanyards draped around the straight aft bitt on this boat would have been looped over bitts at the lock by the same pole (which is not obvious on the deck). Rope was very expensive, so any opportunity to get it out of the water was welcome.

Muddy water was the result of the constant rubbing of hulls against the stone and soil mix that lined the canal's sides. The many maintenance crews on the canal are not our concern, but that part of the hull (chine) that could be caught, or at best slowed, by this material is a design parameter for the model.

Likewise the top deck is sloped for rainwater runoff, but more importantly as a yielding (sliding) surface for the towropes from the other boats. As the boat was sliding over the muddy sides of the canal, towropes from higher boats might have slid across its upper deck, explaining the lack of railing, even at the stairway.

The curved aft (rear) strakes, deck and gunwale (lower rail) add a pleasant line to the boat's overall lines (sheer), but the aft deck also provides a practical platform, allowing the boatman at the tiller to see over the roof (top deck).  The boatman has the tiller rested on his hip, and appears to have his right leg braced on the hull, so the predominant swing of the tiller is against the force of the rudder.  This is consistent with the slack in the towrope and the direction of flow. The tiller is graceful, and its length would be needed for the substantial rudder, which was essential to maneuvering in close quarters.

The towrope itself would have been treated Russian hemp, probably 1 inch diameter, giving it a breaking strength of about 3 tons. The rope's loop over the bitt is an eye splice that was undoubtedly served (protectively wrapped with leather, cloth and cord) - knots were generally not used anywhere on a ship or a boat at the time. This rope would have sunk like a stone in the water, and its weight is obvious in this and many other drawings. The short lanyard loosely draped around the towing (aft) bitt appears long enough to temporarily keep the boat from moving fore-aft inside a lock, protecting the gates.

Topside on our boat, the salesman in the light suit has a traveling satchel- a leather or carpetbag, probably a sample bag. He may be examining something in great detail or is sipping something from a small cup. Based on the reaction of the couple seated forward and glaring at him, he is drinking something, most probably whiskey or a remedy for something (which would, in all likelihood, contain mostly grain alcohol).

It is not likely that the lady with the parasol and small shawl is his traveling companion, but that's a possibility. The veins in her delicate parasol were undoubtedly baleen.  The ladies' skirts are not flounced, so the period is Victorian, prior to 1850 or so. 1844 is looking better as a good date.

The four passengers are seated on rope stools- these collapse for easy passage under bridges. The gentlemen at the front are seated on a hinged and roped dining bench- also collapsible. Note their position on the port side, staying clear of the towrope.

The men's hats are flat-brimmed silk- this is contrasted with the coxswain's slouch hat, which is timeless farmer headgear, but clearly not an Irish or German immigrant's hat. He may be a farmer but his vest, tailored shirt and trousers argue otherwise. This may very well be Mr. Henry.

The woman in black peering out a window is a widow a young boy leans out another window. The windows themselves are standard 24 x 32 inch. The forward windows are stained glass- these are in the ladies' quarters and provide light, privacy and color. The remainder of the windows are hung with rain curtains, probably canvas, allowing ventilation and protection. These will be held tightly by stiles at night or during a storm.

A strong hint into the cabin's construction is given by the window frames. Unlike a normal casement window, the frames appear raw, with little or no trim (casing) covering the interior sides: the interior of the cabin does not appear to be ceiled (paneled). The visible ladder-like structures mounted on the starboard walls suggest an 8-foot long area, forward of the window where the widow is standing.  A normal passenger boat would have had long seating benches along its sides that would also have been used as sleeping benches- these would have kept the widow and the boy much further back from the window. This all argues for removable sleeping bunks, probably rolled-up canvas and wood frames that fitted into the ladder's slots or rungs.

The other passengers inside the cabin are seated facing aft- this argues for the same type of seating that is being used on the top deck, or perhaps a comfortable chair. In any case, probably not a bench.

These other passengers are particularly interesting in that they are not wearing hats or bonnets. This is a strong hint based on the great sadness and anger that Henry expressed in other, more famous paintings,  on the subject of race.

The small cabin area in front of the coxswain is another puzzle. The Charley Noble stovepipe suggests that an iron stove is used to cook or heat meals. This leaves the question of where the privy might be located. Many packet boats featured a stairwell between two smaller aft sections- one used for cooking and the other as a small washroom. The outhouse function on this boat would have been a copper-lined chute affair, like a ship's, but located toward the stern. The only candidate suggested by Mr. Henry is the area directly behind the louvered window. (This detail on the model is optional.)

The stovepipe itself is provided by Mr. Henry as another strong clue.

The aft stairway (with no upper newel) might or might not have been matched with another on the forward deck. The women's compartment on this boat is typical- there is no interior wall, so the area was divided at night and when needed by a heavy curtain that can be seen through the third and fourth windows.

The small windows on the transom are curious. They appear to be glazed and placed so that they might be visible from the deck.  

These details argue for an upscale packet boat designed to carry only a few respectable travelers or tourists: Mr. Henry has provided us with all the basics for building an interesting packet boat. (Or at least one that is less than boring.)

Revisiting our earlier attempt to locate the boat on the Erie Canal, it was never there. The boat, canal width and some details place it there, but the hills and village don't.

Based on the location of Mr. Henry's studio in upstate New York, (Cragsmoor) it is more likely that the village of Ellenville, on the Delaware and Hudson Canal, provided many aspects of the painting. This is consistent with Mr. Henry's intimate knowledge of New York history, his many sketches of both canals, and the view from Canal Street in Ellenville. (There still may be a very good restaurant downtown.)  Likewise, the obscured passengers are part of a composite he chose to create or a point that he wanted to make. Or both.

On with the model.


A scale of about 1:75 (4mm of model equals one foot of actual) is standard, and simplifies the schematic. This results in a model that will be about 10 inches (265mm or so) long- comfortable for a shelf. I'll be using metric construction measurements to simplify scale changes for other sizes and presentations, and fractional inches to refer to standard wooden stock found in hobby stores.

Mr. Henry's boat turns out to be about 66 feet in actual length: that's about standard for a packet boat. The maximum beam (width) is a given- 48mm (12 feet, although it could have been wider by 1844). The boat is 32mm (8 feet) from keel to top deck, with a cabin length of 185mm (46 feet). There is plenty of room to comfortably accommodate these passengers (4 women, 4 men, a boy, and 2 others) overnight. Some rougher boats carried and slept 30 or more passengers in the same space.

                                                            Major Revision Notes

Important Note: I finished this boat using the original schematics. The result was, to put a good face on it, not all that ugly, but compared to classic designs, was like marching a pig through a garden. Mr. Henry would probably have held the match as we set it on fire.

Since I spent quite some time on certain pieces I decided to disassemble it and store them. That was over a year or so ago, and I recently took out the pieces (for the second or third time), spread them out, and here's what's left of that model:



The excuse I invented at the time was that I had tried to fit a pleasant packet boat into a hull that was intended for a freighter or line boat. It was functional but, like the canal, not very attractive.                  

As a matter of fact I like some of the pieces better than the completed model. So from this point forward the text may seem awkward because I'm going to restart  from scratch and reuse any parts that still  make sense.

In the meantime all the pieces are going back into the box, and I'll pick and choose as I go.

Ribs and Beams (Frames)

The keel on a wooden sailing ship  provides longitudinal strength, some directional stability and most importantly, a solid base for the frames (ribs and beams). 

The packet boat did not have to contend with waves, wind, or even much of a navigating line. Unlike the freighters that were usually towed down the Hudson, the packet never saw rough service, so the sole purpose of its frame, much like a canoe or rowboat, was to keep it afloat.

By this time cut nails were becoming common (but expensive), and shaped (boat) nails would have been used on the hull, but wooden pegs were a cheaper and stronger alternative on the frames. Wood (metal) screws might have been used on some fine furniture hinges but not on boat hulls.

I'm now building a packet boat, so I'm going for pleasant, so goodbye functional. The beam (width) will stay the same, but the lines will mirror the ribs found on sailing ships and steamboats of the time. As a matter of fact, I'm using the original plates from the book "Memoir on Steamboats of the United States of America", by Jean Baptiste Marestier, original printing by the Royal Press, Paris, 1824, Translated by Sidney Withington , 1957 for The Marine Historical Association, Inc., Mystic, Connecticut, 1957. (You  now know that latter organization as Mystic Seaport.)

I'm compelled to add a (footnote) quote from what is otherwise a technical journal:

"* It has been said in criticism of the usefulness of this canal that sooner or later Canada will belong to the United States and that later commerce will flow more easily and naturally through Quebec. But first, the date when the British will cede Canada is perhaps a long way off..."

And as a nod to canal history I'm adapting the hull profile and sheer from the Chancellor Livingston as documented by Marestier:



Obviously we're going to have to create a hull that is about half the Livingston's length ( 154 feet). But the lines and offsets are a useful reference. In addition to some very interesting engine details, Marestier provided sets of schematics that did not reproduce well in the paperback version of his memoir, but can be a guide to any number of interesting steamboats if you prefer to focus on cities other than New York.

I'm going with a plank-on-bulkhead model. This isn't much of a sacrifice since the interior of even the most elegant packet boat was not that elegant, and, as a matter of fact, didn't contain many details that couldn't be found on a stagecoach. Except, of course, the privy, and I'm not going to include that anyway.

So using the Marestier plate as a starting point ( but absent the paddle wheel, staterooms and pilot house), and  adding Mr. Henry's whimsy, and then indexing the hull profile to the frame sections I wound up with this schematic:



To say the very least, this is quite different from our original packet boat model.

To create the mold for the mid-section I'm using a paint paddle that has seen better days.

First, capture and print the schematic on card stock. I think my sketches are symmetrical, but once you've cut one out, bend it in half and trim both halves. While we're on the subject of card stock, it never hurts to test each piece with a scrap of card stock (cheap) before cutting wood (expensive).



The paint paddle is about ¼" wider than the height of the mold frames, and that's just fine- it provides wiggle room when I fit the planking to the mold.

I included one of my original paper mockups in the photo as a reminder that if you get stuck because my instructions are incomplete ( or incorrect, for that matter), it isn't difficult to cut and paste paper versions and build your own mockup for the hull.

And if you stray into totally different territory with a different boat, my advice is to build it first with a pair of scissors and a hot glue gun.

Back to work.

Cut and clamp 3 frame sections together ( I'm using #1, without the cutout) and then use the coarse wand to fair-up the edges, then cut off the corners and sand down to the trace lines:



I estimate the mid-section to be about 153mm (6 inches) long, so I centered the sanded sections on a scrap of another paddle, and I'm ready to steam and fit the mid-section:



That's the mold. The blank sheet I've cut is 94mmx153mm x 1/32nd basswood. After soaking it for a minute or so in an aluminum cake pan of boiling water I've rolled, flattened, and taped it to the mold:



I taped the scrap braces to more or less insure that a hard, flat chine emerges from the mold. After drying overnight, the hull section should emerge looking like this:



There are a few minor wrinkles in the hull blank, but keep in mind that we're going to add stiffening (straight) frame members as we go. If the symmetry is way off, or the wrinkles are major, my advice is to use a much deeper pan and re-steam/form the entire blank.

The bow stem is formed pretty much like the whaleboat. As a matter of fact you could probably use the same bending form.

I've cut (3) 6.75mm x 100mm x 1/32 basswood strips and another (2) 3.5mm x 100mm x 1/32 strips to form the bow stem. After tracing and cutting the bow shape into one of the forms that I used for something else (that I don't recall), I steamed  and clamped all of the pieces and let them sit for a few hours. Then I hade a sandwich, with the wider strips on the outside and the narrower strips on the inside, centered on the wider set. I returned these to the bending form, and the sandwich looked like this:



Note that I got lazy and used a wedge to force the strips against the mold instead of carefully measuring the dog (peg) holes.

After that assembly dried overnight, I traced the hull profile (elevation) from the stern to frame#2 onto a scrap of 1/8" sheet basswood and cut it out. Like the whaleboat keel, I angle-cut through the stem assembly and that keelson piece, ( it doesn't matter exactly where the cut is made), applied some wood glue and clamped what is now the entire keelson/stem together



We can now begin to button-up the hull.

First, center and glue the keelson assembly to the molded hull section, lining it up to the space between #2 and #1:



On the schematic, measure the distance from the hull to the end of the deadwood (#6). This distance should be about 37mm.

Break the middle bending form from the mold platform and mark a line 1/16th from each side. Line up the paper template and trace a set of lines inside the originals. (We're moving the sides slightly inward at the transom.) Cut and sand to the new lines. Subtract about 1mm from  the distance in the previous step, measuring from the outside of the outer mold form, and mark it. Center, square and glue the new form, lining up the inside of the new form with that new mark.

Crosscut a sheet of 1/8th  basswood plank equal to the width of frames #1 and #2. Trace and cut thwarts #1 and #2 (after testing your paper cutouts to be sure they're the equal width).

Cut out the notches with the saw and knife and then sand and fit #2 at the bow end and #1 at the stern.

( The notches on the schematic are undersized to allow for trimming to fit.) Clean out any sanded corners with the knife.

Thwart #1 should fit snugly on all sides and result in about a 1/16th overhang into the "A" area. Glue in to the hull, keelson and "A" area. This may a a little tough to imagine, so it should look like this when you're done: That overhang is the gluing surface for the stern hull section.

Trace, cut and fit #3 using the 1/8th basswood piece.. In this case, sand an angle into the notch bottom so that it matches up and takes glue where it meets the curve of the hull.

To construct #5, trace and cut the outline (full, without the indented cutout) on a scrap of 1/16th basswood. Trace that outline on a scrap of 1/64th plywood and glue and clamp the pieces. When that's dry, trace and cut out the indent, and sand a curve (see the schematic) into the outside verticals (sides). Fit and glue #5 to the keelson.

Find a couple of  1/32 x ¼ x 2 ½ inch scraps  ( the edges don't have to be exact). Cut about a 30-degree angle in each end, steam them and while they're wet, CA glue them into the bow stem rabbet about ½ inch below the highest point:



Tape or clamp the aft ends to the hull, lining up the top edges, and let the first planks dry a bit before trimming:



While those are setting, trace and cut out #6. Fold it exactly in half, and trim the edges to create identical sides. Mark and cut a 1/8th basswood scrap, sand a slight bevel onto the sides to match the bevel shown on the schematic and drill a pilot hole dead center in #6 that will fall about halfway up the stern. With the top of #6 about 3/16th above the top of the stern, through-drill the pilot hole into the stern, and then finish-drill a hole that will accept a wooden pin. (I'm using a 1/16th pin). Glue the pin and #6 to the stern.

Cut off the pin flush to 6A and it is now the transom support.

Trial-fit a ¼ inch card stock strip to fit the angle that will carry the sweep (curve) from the main part of the hull to the top of #6.. Cut two 1/14 inch strips of 1/32nd basswood, and CA glue the planks at the transom:

The glue at the bow should be set and the pieces ready for trimming. Using the knife, cut each strake so that it fits flush to the main hull section and against the forward bulkhead. CA glue it in place- a seam line is fine, so long as the plank (strake) is glued solidly. Repeat on the other side.

Then measure, cut, steam and fit a second set. This set does not have to fit perfectly with the first set- this is a rough-planking layer.

Repeat at the stern- these strakes shouldn't need steaming. When this set is in, cut 1/8x 1/32 x about 2/ ¼ inch strips (3 to a side), and lay these from the edge of the hull to the bottom of #6 (the transom) on either side of the keelson. Fill in the area behind the keel with a 1/8th scrap.

Cut card stock templates for triangular pieces that will fill in the hull curve to the lower transom- there will be some twisting involved, but not enough to warrant steaming. Trace, cut, fit and CA glue these pieces in place, then repeat this to complete the bottom.

Fill in the upper transom area between the transom and frame #1 the same way.

At the bow, fill in the area that is still open with  1/32nd scraps. Make card stock templates, or glue pieces and then trim them with the knife. Since these pieces will have to curve, cut the wood on the bias ( grain running side-side).

When all is dry, use the wands and fair (smooth) all of the pieces so that the entire hull structure is smooth to the fingertip. Sight along all the various lines, and except for the weird sweep at the transom, everything should be flush and smooth. There may be gaps between the planks, but that doesn't matter so long as there are reasonably solid gluing surfaces from stem to stern.

In other words, your hull should look something like this:



Now we're going to use the hull as a steaming mold as we apply the second layer of planking.

Use the knife and the razor saw tip to clean out a thin rabbet in the stem-strake joint on both sides. Cut a ¼ x 1/32 x about 11 inch strip, fit it so that it is level with the top of the hull and angles for a fit into that rabbet. Sand a chisel-point into the stem end of that plank, steam the bow end ( about 6 inches from the angle cut), and insert it into the rabbet. Then clamp it the entire length of the hull:



Repeat on the other side and let these dry somewhat. You should notice that over the length of the plank any sharp curves and angles, seams and bumps have disappeared. When we get to the gunwales we'll also have a much beefier edge for forming and gluing.

Remove the clamps, spread white glue on the backs of the strakes and re-clamp. Clamping to the curved stern section is pretty easy if you use masking tape. When these are dry, repeat on the next lower set on both sides, forcing the strakes together at the seam. This seam will be covered by a rub rail, but it should be as tight as possible.

The nastiest curves on the whole boat are the next two strakes. This area curves and twists aft, so the easiest way to fit this area is with narrower strakes- I'm going to use 1/8 x 1/32nd strips. Sand, steam and fit these on both sides- the hull should now be double-planked to just below the water line.

Fit triangular pieces at the aft end of the cockpit area. Then use the wands to smooth the flat and curved sections of the hull. It should now look like this:

I haven't decided whether or not to plank the bottom. Since I plan to install a false keel (skeg), that can wait ( the boat will sit squarely without the keel, so there's the tradeoff).

                                                            Cabin Frame

I'm building the cabin as a separate assembly, and I've cut out the hull plan as a pattern. After gluing it to a scrap of foam-core, I framed the interior outline with a couple of long pieces of straight scrap.

Mr. Henry's boat has more than a few subtleties, but the cabin sheer, shape and rise are more a matter of taste and interpretation than any actual measurement. So if your idea of the cabin are different than mine, have at it- we're both going to be correct.

I'm going with cabin sides that tilt inward at about a 15-degree angle. I've forgotten everything I learned about calculus, so a 10mm rise equates to a 3mm run. That's the angle shown on the schematic bulkhead templates.

In order for the bulkheads to work, I'm going to cut them wide (on the outside of the printed lines), and trim them down to allow the sides to sit on the thwarts that are already in place.

I must admit that I printed everything first on card stock and taped it more or less together to make sure that the hull, the ribs and the sides all fit properly.

(And I'm going to double-plank the cabin, too, using 1/16th sheet basswood for the underlayment and a 1/8th inch pre-scored  (1/32 x 3 x n24) deck planking sheet for the cabin walls and the decks.)

If you're planning on a single-planked cabin, jump ahead to the windows template discussion and cut out the windows before building the cabin frame in the next few steps.

Cut out the ribs (bulkheads) on the schematic and glue a cutout copy of the rib pieces to a 1/16th scrap sheet:


Ditto for the cabin sides. (I'm using a glue stick for the paper-wood bonds, so the paper will peel off easily.)

At this point, test-fit another piece #1- it should fit the hull and support piece #9.

.Trace, cut and fit piece 2A. This is the support frame for the forward deck, so the top of 2A should be parallel to the top of piece #5.

Sighting the rough-in with Mr. Henry's painting, the shapes and dimensions make sense, so since everything fits, (with about 1/8th inch wiggle-room fore-aft), I'm going to prime the hull and give it a coat of what I believe is a reddish-orange tint that come close to the painting..

The hull color is obviously a matter of taste, and yours is every bit as good as mine. I think the point that Mr. Henry was making with his choice of colors was that a packet boat was its own advertisement. As I looked at various versions in a number of sources, packet boat colors were clearly chosen to convey a sense of carnival, or light fun. Anything to set the boat apart from the brownish gray that dominated the freight carriers and line boats.

This philosophy carried through to the shape of the hull and cabin. As best I can make out, his choice  of time and shadows softened what I believe was an orange hull, a white cabin, black rub rails, and probably brown or black decks. This was about the time that rough decking was either covered with varnish-soaked canvas or heavily varnished, so the upper deck on a well-built packet boat would have been smooth, waterproof and indestructible. I'm going with a medium gray for the upper deck and as a blocking color for the windows.

On to the cabin and windows.

                                             Cabin and Windows

The cabin frame is a matter of choice. On the prototype I left the cabin open to view, but as I looked at it I had to wonder what was interesting about the cabin interior. My conclusion was that I had gone to a lot of trouble to create a view of what would have been a very uninteresting space.

I believe the people in the painting are sitting on portable (collapsible) chairs, so chairs in the cabin are out. The bunk beds that were probably hung from the sides of the cabin would have been rolled up, and any table would have been folded away during the day. Leaving a large empty space.

You may create a way to spice up the cabin, but I'm going to treat it with the same respect as the cargo hold on a clipper ship and plank over it.

So here is how I laid out the enclosed cabin frame:



I'm using 1/16th sheet basswood for the sections. I glued long scraps port and starboard to a schematic cutout, and then used pins and masking tape to hold everything in place as the glue set.

Fit the deck to the hull so that the forward end of the cabin sits flush to the forward edge of piece #2, and place and glue a second piece #1 so that it is directly beneath piece #9.

Multiple windows are always a problem on any type of model: there may be easier ways to line up and cut these, but this is how I do it.

First, square-cut about 1 ½ windows from a printed copy of the schematic, keeping the gradient lines. Find a piece of thick scrap ( I'm using a 1/8th scrap of basswood), and a narrow scrap. Use these to build a T-square. Glue the paper to the T-square on the same side as the narrow (alignment) piece.

With a pin, mark each corner of the complete window, and the bottom right corner of the ½ window. Drill through the marks with a drill that is slightly smaller than the pins you'll be using. This is now a drilling template:



Remove the pins, turn it over, and line up the full window where you want the first window in the series, lining up the T-bar to the straight (bottom) edge. Press down on the 4 window-outline pins- this is the cutout area. Remove the pins, then insert a pin in the single hole (lower left) , press that into the farthest right hand hole of the previous cutout area, and then insert the other pins to outline the second cutout area.

Keep repeating until all the corners of all the windows are marked.

You can connect the holes with a knife blade, but since I always wander, I'm going to sacrifice a couple of single-edge razor blades. I used a wire cutter to score the first blade and then I broke the blade at a spot that looked close to one axis. After testing the width I broke the blade again until it fitted between the corner holes. I then destroyed a second blade the same way:



Using the blades as markers, I pressed them into the window outline. These scored lines work pretty well as knife guides, so after testing them on a piece of scrap I cut out the cabin windows.

This was obviously a test piece of scrap- my advice is to test your cuts on scrap or card stock before cutting into final material- if the template or the blades are a slight bit off, toss them and start over.

Trace and cut pieces 12A and 13A. Since these are overlays I'm cutting these out of a sheet of 1/32nd decking ( with a 1/8th repeat). Using the template on the straight (lower) edge, cut in the windows on those pieces. Outline and cut out the small (galley) window using the template but without the square.

Piece 11A (bow opening) is a mystery on Mr. Henry's boat, but a number of other pictures clearly show a wide door opening toward the bow. This makes a lot of sense on the Erie Canal, since the boat is following the sun's path almost perfectly, and openings fore and aft would be the best way to let in direct sunlight. Not only for illumination, but as a welcome source of heat and as a bonus, a way to defeat the dampness that goes along with water, valleys and cold mornings.

This may seem like a minor point except that the distaff quarters were usually located in the forward part of the cabin. This area was separated from the male area by a heavy draw curtain, and as Mr. Henry clearly shows, the windows were opaque. So I'm going with that opacity carried into the windows in piece 11A, along with a doorway. Piece #9A will also get a doorway, and piece 8A gets a window.

I've cut a scrap of aircraft (1/64th)  plywood to fit the cabin profile, and trimmed it with 1/32 x 1/32 strips. After painting the pieces, gluing and clamping them in place the bare cabin looks like this:



                          Gunwales, Rails and Companionway

These are four separate assemblies, but they all follow the hull lines, so only one bending form is needed.

The gunwales are the hardest, so let's start there.

I've glued a half-hull schematic to a paint paddle, traced and cut out the bow and stern profiles from some scrap pieces that seem to have once been part of another paddle. So far the steaming form looks like this:



As usual, I've pegged it to its profile. The gunwales will have to be steamed and formed on the width, so the wood strips are going to want to warp. I'm using 1/8 x 1/16th basswood strips, and after using hotter water than usual, and letting the strip get thoroughly wet and hot, I'm using planking clamps to keep the warp out and wedges to gradually bend the wood. Each gunwale should dry before it comes off the frame.

The rub rails are more cooperative, since these are being bent on the thickness. Do a matching set of these. When they're off the frame, sand a quarter-round on the outboard edges.

The companionway from the aft deck to the mail saloon involves framing a box between pieces ( Both #1), and inserting a stairway ( 5 risers and treads). In the painting an elderly woman is coming up those steps, so I'm leaving that detail to your best judgement.

At this point it's probably a good idea to keep trial-fitting the two main assemblies as they are completed.

                                                Lower Decks

This is where you might have to start approximating (more than usual). I traced and fitted card stock to the area from the forward piece #1to the transom. Ditto with the bow area- this deck sits on pieces # 2A and the cutout portion of piece #5.

I traced and cut these out of the same planking sheet that I'm using for the cabin side planks (12A & 13A). The larger aft deck will require a cutout for the companionway- this is shown as a dotted line on the schematic because it should be a precise fit and that will require some shaving and sanding.

At this point I painted all of the pieces we've worked on. The upper hull is a reddish-orange, and the gunwales and decks are brown. I used a furniture touch-up pen ( red mahogany) to stain the decks, and I've inserted a scrap piece to keep the aft main deck flat after it warped during staining.

So the hull looks like this before anything else is glued:



The decks (except for piece #14) and the cabin still don't have to be glued, and the bare boat should look something like this:



Mr. Henry added lines and details where they offset the underlying dullness, so let's deal with those. I've steamed 4 lengths of 1/32 x 1/8 basswood for the aft rails using the mold. The short stanchions are cut from 1.32nd styrene dowels. The pilot and final holes are spaced using a template, and the first layer of basswood (and the holes), are covered by the second layer.

Once these basics are out of the way, it's a matter of how closely you want to follow the example I've chosen.

The tiller is a mahogany/basswood laminate, and fits into a peg that started out as a 1/8th square scrap.  The trim/ fender rail on the upper deck is 1/32nd mahogany that was in the scrap bin, and the transom fan  (piece # 6B), can be elaborate or plain. I'm using the one that survived the disassembly of the prototype model.

The fenders are made from scrap 1mm styrene dowels wrapped in model sailcloth. The towing posts are cut from oriental toothpicks.

The stand that I've chosen is somewhat unusual, since about 100 years ago it was a training bit for either a field horse or a mule ( the only consensus is that it was used to train one or the other to the reins). Since it's every bit as nautical as a piece of wood, and could have been found in a canal boat's tool box, that's my choice. (At least it's no longer at the bottom of my tool box where it's sat for the last few decades.)

So here is round #2 of the packet boat saga:


On to the steamboat.


                                                The Steamboat

                                ( A Fleet of One)

Whether you know it as the North River Steamboat, The Clermont, or simply by the name given it by most New Yorkers at the time (Steamboat), Robert Fulton's creation started what can only be described as a revolution. It took a few monopolies, a huge public works project and hundreds of entrepreneurs to see it through, but when the dust settled, New York City and the nation would never be the same.

By 1844 a number of events had occurred.

For openers, John Fitch had demonstrated to George Washington and others (1787) that steam was an emerging technology that had commercial potential. The elements of a pressurized steam engine were well-known in Europe, and by this time steam power was being deployed in a number of applications, including ships and boats. Fitch was doomed. His emulation of canoe paddles on a steamboat is reminiscent of the wood-fueled airplane. With no monopoly on the horizon for the Delaware River, Fitch's concept had to compete economically with oars, mules and men. He later tried oars to emulate a paddling duck, but by then he had sunk, quite literally.

Twenty years later, enter Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton. Livingston, wealthy and political, and Fulton, bright and ambitious, knew each other quite well before they returned from Europe. As ambassador to France, Livingston is generally credited with convincing the French that selling off one third of America at a rummage sale price was somehow a good deal, thus the Louisiana Purchase. Fulton, now familiar with European peerage, married Livingston's niece.

The plot was joined in the New York Legislature who quite correctly noticed that the proposed Erie Canal and the North (Hudson) River fell within their geographic (licensing) authority. The lawmakers also had exercised what they believed was their right to regulate New York Harbor. DeWitt Clinton, New York's governor and New York City's ex-mayor, enthusiastically supported the canal and the state's control over these waterways.

It is therefore no surprise that monopolies were created, and even less of a shock that Livingston and Fulton sat on The Erie Canal Commission at the same time that their licensed monopoly on the Hudson began to generate sizable but not outrageous profits. These reported profits were skeptically reported by Jean Baptiste Marestier in his classic report Memoir on Steamboats (1824). There are no records to support the unfounded suspicion that a corrupt legislature ever existed in New York, but it is historical fact that the canal boat Seneca Chief was towed to New York City by the steamboat Chancellor Livingston to mark the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.

With its capricious (valley) breeze and predictable tides, the north-south Hudson River has always been a fickle sailing ground. A self-propelled ship, however, could predictably make its way in either direction. Economic efficiency being what it is, speed is not nearly as important as reliability, so if you had a ship that could deliver both you had a potential key to great wealth. Combine that with the explosion of westward farming and mining around the Great Lakes, a way to link all that with the perfect harbor for world trade, and your monopoly might just create a trading empire.

In 1824 the Supreme Court, ruling in favor of interstate commerce in Ogden vs Gibbons, had opened the entrepreneurial floodgates for Vanderbilt and Cornell. (Thomas, not the university Ezra Cornell who was also known for the glass insulators that enabled the telegraph and telephone).

By 1844 Livingston, Fulton and Clinton had died. Most people had slogged through the Panic of 1837 ( a bad year, but a year that also saw Thomas Cornell launch his first river boat). The liquid superhighway that stretched from Minneapolis to Manhattan had been enlarged and improved. Marestier had reported on eight steamboats in and around New York in 1823; by 1844 there were hundreds. The Savannah was sailing the Atlantic and Baltimore, Philadelphia, Norfolk and Boston each boasted a major fleet.; even Washington had its steamboats.

The history of the steamboat in that year isn't at all complete without the boats of many other rivers, particularly the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio. These rivers and boats, as a matter of fact, have achieved much more celebrity than their workaday counterparts on the Hudson. By Marestier's calculations, if your steamboat made headway equal to ½ again the speed of the current on these rivers you were making fine time.

This was about the time that the New York and Hudson Railroad was laying track from downtown Manhattan to 34th Street, and from there through Poughkeepsie to Albany. The locomotive engines, like the steamboat engines were very low-pressure- perhaps 4-10 pounds per square inch- and suffered from major the fuel consumption limits caused by the availability and storage of firewood.

The earliest engines were imported from England: the Watt and Boulton engine on the North River had proved itself in earlier tests in France by Fulton and Livingston. A modest 25 horsepower engine powered the 140 foot (42.67 meters) boat on its 300 mile trip. Based on its horsepower and piston diameter (2 feet), Marestier estimated fuel consumption at about 625 pounds of dried pine per hour. (In today's terms, a garden tractor would consume about 2 cords (128 cubic feet) of wood in mowing your lawn). Lightweight dried pine was the fuel of choice since it was cheap and created quick, hot fires. Pine also threw black smoke and sparks that caused another set of problems.

By 1844 the boilers and cylinders had improved to the point where steamboat racing on the Hudson was common, as were some well-documented explosions and fires. Canal boats were towed in convoys that were 4-5 boats wide by up to 25 boats long. These "floating towns" made their way to lower Manhattan to somewhere near Coenties Slip (which, like, the nearby and infamous Five Points, lies underneath more modern streets and buildings).

A passenger ticket from New York to Albany had fallen from $10 to a dime (or in many cases nothing), and most of these passengers were headed west, so demand for the railroads was not lost on Vanderbilt, whose story is well known. Locomotives in Europe had regularly reached speeds of 90 miles per hour.

At the time, any community on any river or bay that could support a dock built one, and if a road was needed to cross a swamp it got built, followed soon by a rail line. The massive shipment of goods to and through lower Manhattan was matched only by the flood of people from Europe, primarily the Irish. Immigrants could certainly land at Boston or Philadelphia, as many did, but then what?  If you landed in New York, water could cheaply carry you for the next thousand miles, or at least as far as a place where you could find work laying railroad tracks, digging coal or working a farm.

Design Considerations

The boats that evolved were, by and large, built quickly. The graceful lines of sailing ships like the Baltimore clippers were replaced by the straight lines favored by mass production. Massive engine and fuel burdens created such practical design innovations as the hog-frame and iron truss. The superstructures could be covered with gingerbread and the interiors were often elaborate, but the bare boats were massively ugly. Very few people had the time to entertain the notion of building an artfully pleasant livestock ferry. Our canal boat was unique, albeit not that attractive.

The hull of a 19th century ship was a given, based on the size of your boat yard, models that you had on hand (if any) and the tools and skills you had acquired on the way to building your trade. If your specialty was inland merchant vessels then you probably started building boats generally called periaugers- these were simple, two-masted boats. Lacking the square-riggers benefit from prevailing ocean wind, these boats were usually fore-aft rigged, and most could be rowed. They were flat-bottomed with lapstrake (clinker) hulls, almost flat sides, short bowsprit, and usually leeboards (side-mounted swing-keels) in place of a fixed keel. These were the early boats of choice on the Hudson River and New York harbors prior to the steamboat, and the boats piloted by a young Commodore Vanderbilt.  By 1844 they had been salvaged (scrapped), converted to steam or, like canal boats, towed somewhere to sink.

Hull displacement (draft) on a sailboat favors depth, to augment the keel in providing resistance (water pressure) to wind (sails), moving the boat. This draft is counterproductive in a self-propelled boat where water pressure is used to overcome water pressure.

The shallow- draft periauger varied in length to well over 100 feet, had a normal beam (width)  of 8-12 feet, or 10% of its length. It carried its masts fore and aft, with an open amidships single-deck area for cargo. By replacing cargo with a steam engine and side wheels, and removing the leeboards, this design carried forward to Fulton's original steamboat. If you prefer to build the Clermont, build a periauger, drop in a Watts beam-type engine and you're done. This shallow draft was also a necessity on the Mississippi; to accept the weight of its engine, the ratio of beam to length was increased to about 20%, so you can make a few changes and call it an early Mississippi steamboat.

The location of the paddle wheels was determined by the boat's environment. In waters where things like sandbars and floating trees presented a problem, the wheels were mounted at the stern, using the hull as the main source of protection. In the Hudson, side wheels spread the load of canal boats over narrower, but deeper paddles. On smaller boats the side wheels could also act as steering aids in tight quarters.

The paddle wheels were built very much like wagon wheels, with an iron hub hosting the wooden spokes and outer wheel, and an iron belt holding everything together.

The paddles, likewise, were a function of how much power had to be transferred to the boat in a given depth of the paddle wheel. These dimensions varied by boat, as did the diameters of the paddle wheels, and, for the early boats, Marestier notes these in detail.

Having created an uninspired canal boat, any starving artist would start looking for a more pleasant and romantic subject.

Rather than waiting a few decades for the Herreshoff designs to emerge, some pleasant precursors of modern boat sheer (lines) appeared in small (less than 150 feet) boats that typically were found on lakes and small rivers. Some of these were adaptations of the packet boat, but without the constraint of the locks, had more graceful bow and stern treatments, and unlike the behemoths of the time, could be built without obsessive practicality.

One of these boats, captured by an unknown photographer in an 1858 ambrotype, is a likely candidate.

This boat was most probably built by one of the five or so boat yards that existed in a hamlet named Durhamville, still located in Oneida County, New York.



Motorists who drive through Durhamville today on Route 365 probably aren't aware that they are driving on the original Erie Canal. They also won't know that they're in Durhamville unless they pay close attention to a few small signs interspersed among  attractive back yards. You might be misled into believing that you're in Higginsville or Stacey's Basin- same place, same landscape.

There being no other record of the Utica and Durhamville Steam Canalboat Company, this picture is it. That may explain my affection for it.

                                    Tools, Etc.

As we have gone through the collection, such as it is, we started with a well-documented and published set of schematics. This was followed by a better-known, but less detailed departure from normal model kit structures. Venturing into uncharted territory we completed a free-form canal boat.  In short, we have gone from a swimming class to the dock, and you're about to be thrown into the lake.


Looking at the photo, the windows and doors of the hotel are probably standard size- 30/32 inches. The men standing on the upper deck are probably average size- 70 inches or so.  We know the constraints imposed by the depth of the canal and the size of the locks. We know how a plan and a fore-aft elevation are drawn using perpendiculars, so drafting this boat is no big deal.

What I did was to lay all of this out on a sheet or two of card stock paper, drawing some of it freehand and some of it using straightedges and curves. That took an hour or so.

Then I cut the various wooden piece parts from the drawings. (As a matter of fact, the drawings are in shreds because I cut directly from them, without further measuring.) I made a mistake by allowing the saloon shape to cause a difficult bend in the forward strakes, but I paid the price in terms of steaming effort and time.

I used brass nails to pin the strakes in place over the ribs. (The ribs were laminated, as in the frigate, but they could just as easily have been steamed like the knees of the whaleboat. The strakes could also have been held in place using white glue.)


The photo was  

By now all of this should be old hat. The photo is the photo, and the work-in-progress is just that. The mahogany scrap on the upper deck is the drilling template that I used to space and drill the railings (upper and lower) and I snipped off each spindle using a wire cutter and the template. On the right is the remainder of the paper stock after I cut things to scale. When I raise the upper railing, the individual brass spindles will all be the correct height. I also bent a couple of mahogany strips along with the basswood railings, so the top surface of the railings will be solid mahogany. (Yes, there is a visible copper steam boiler underneath the chimney pipe.)

(The photo was taken with a first-generation digital camera that was very close to expiration. It expired at about the same time that I finished the model and gave it away.)

I finished both of these boats. The steamboat turned out pretty well- at least well enough to give it away to a person familiar with the history of Oneida County, NY. He's happy with it. What we just built is Round #2 of the canal boat saga.

I'm not ashamed of either one, but I still think that I might have done an even better job with Mr. Henry's boat. We'll see how that goes.

Copyright 2010-2013  Dean A Beeman All Rights Reserved