After a period of time in a heated drying room the paper shell, with keel and gunwales attached, would be removed from the mold for finishing. This included a proprietary “waterproofing process,” adding sealed air chambers for flotation, installing a paper deck, and fitting the hull with the proper hardware, wooden ribs and other woodwork. When finished, one observer noted that the racing shells were “[like] polished steel – twelve inches wide and finished as beautifully as a piano body.
So far only three rowing shells surviving from this era have been located. One is at the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy, NY; another at the Glenn Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY, and a third at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, NY. When a row boat or canoe was to be constructed, the manufacturing technique for the basic hull was almost identical, except that only one sheet of paper was used.
This was a thick linen paper, supplied still damp and in roll form. When dried it was approximately 1/8 to 1/10 inch thick. The only known surviving craft of this variety is at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, NY. In 1871 Waters issued a substantial document, over four hundred pages in length, the Annual Illustrated Catalogue and Oarsman’s Manual for 1871. This catalogue/manual contains listings of the Waters’ boats as well as helpful articles on training, proper rowing techniques, racing club organization, and boathouse construction. Also provided was a listing of races won in paper boats during the first seasons of their use.
The list of 1868 shows a total of 14 races, several with multiple paper boats placing among the winners. For 1869 the list grows to 26 races and the race sites include distant cities such as Savannah, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Toronto. By 1875 the catalog lists 45 different racing shells, row boats, and canoes available for sale. Although best known for their racing shells, the popularity of Waters’ paper boats was assisted by two canoe adventurers of the day.
The first was Julius J. Chambers, a young reporter who decided upon a trip originating from the headwaters of the Mississippi to its mouth in New Orleans. He traveled to Troy to visit Waters, ordered a canoe, and arranged for it to be delivered by rail to St. Paul, Minnesota in May of 1872. He began his travels at the White Earth Indian Reservation in central Minnesota. By June 9th he had arrived at Lake Itasca and explored the various tributaries feeding the lake.
Chambers terminated his canoe trip just short of St. Louis and continued to New Orleans by steam boat. During the trip he wrote periodic reports which appeared at regular intervals in the New York Herald. A better known user of Waters’ craft was Nathaniel Holmes Bishop. In 1874 he began a trip south from Quebec in an 18 foot decked wooden canoe, equipped to be propelled by two sets of oars or by sail.
With his “assistant,” (to use Bishop’s description of his traveling companion), he made it as far as Troy, New York. It was there that he said he “discovered” the paper canoe. As he writes, ” A feeling of buoyancy and independence came over me. with the consciousness that I now possessed the right boat for the enterprise.
The virtues of a lighter weight craft and perhaps the virtues of being able to travel alone, lead him to abandon his wooden boat and his assistant. He continued his trip in a paper canoe which he named “The Maria Theresa”. He left on October 21st of the same year, eventually arriving at Cedar Key, Florida on the Gulf coast. After returning from his travels, he wrote of the trip and appropriately titled his account, published in book form, the “Voyage of the Paper Canoe.
This book received wide distribution and apparently also was a popular academic prize awarded in schools. With some diligence it may still be found in rare book stores or in libraries. Bishop took several other trips about which he wrote, but none in a paper canoe. He retired to a pleasant life in Toms River, NJ where he pursued life as a cranberry farmer. For more information on Bishop be sure to check out the paper boat links from the main page. While the Waters were initially, (and exclusively,) known for boat manufacture, their minds apparently remained at work on other projects and other opportunities.
In 1878, they built a paper observatory dome for the newly erected Proudfit Observatory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. The construction method was almost identical to that used for paper canoes; thick linen paper was formed over a mold of a dome segment that already contained a wooden framework which was removed from the mold with the paper. Finished sections were bolted together and the joints were weatherproofed with cotton cloth saturated with white lead. The RPI dome was 29 feet in diameter and consisted of 16 sections.
It weighed 4000 pounds of which paper alone accounted for approximately 1000 pounds. The dome lasted for over twenty years and was removed, not because of decay, but to convert the building to other uses in 1889. A series of domes was built by Waters thereafter. In 1881 the largest of their domes was placed on a new observatory at the U.S.
Military Academy at West Point. It was 30 feet 8 inches in diameter and contained over 2,000 pounds of paper. In 1883 Beloit College erected an observatory using a Waters’ dome, this time of smaller dimension, and in 1885 a new high school in Taunton Mass. was graced by a Waters’ observatory dome. Other domes credited to Waters were at Columbia College in New York City and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. George Waters obituary in the local newspaper in Troy would have us believe that there were several other domes, but their location remains a mystery.
The business apparently remained active through the end of the century, although the boat building factory appeared to occupy smaller quarters as the years went on and competitors appeared in paper and in other materials. The end eventually came in 1901 when yet another fire destroyed the factory. (There had been at least one earlier fire, causing them to relocate slightly North of the Troy city limits. ) Ironically, this fire was caused by George Waters himself who was using a blow-torch to apply finishing touches to a shell destined for Syracuse University.
Thus it would appear that we can credit George Waters with both and the birth and, unfortunately, the death of the paper boat business. George and his father, Elisha Waters, died soon after closing their shop, (in 1902 and 1904 respectively.
) To duplicate the Waters’ construction technique today we would need to find papers comparable to those used in the late 19th century. Surprisingly, except for papers manufactured in small sheets by hand, similar or suitable papers are simply not available. This is primarily due to “improvements” in paper and the widespread use of wood pulp in their manufacture. Is well, there seems little incentive to resurrect the commercial manufacture of paper boats as modern materials are better suited to the task.
Originally posted 2012-03-27 01:17:25.