Editor's note: Many thanks to volunteer researcher George A. Thompson for finding and transcribing article describing a cruise on a Hudson River House-boat. This article was originally published as "A Cruise on a Hudson River House-boat" written by Jesse Albert Locke in the Godey's Magazine on August 5, 1893.
A CRUISE ON A HUDSON RIVER HOUSE-BOAT.
By Jesse Albert Locke
["Tom Perkins" invites "J. S. Wellington" to join him and two other friends on a cruise on a house-boat he has designed and built; Wellington declines, supposing it won't be much fun.]
Two years ago a young physician in New York was trying to puzzle out the problem of his summer holiday, Where should he spend the two or three weeks he could take for recreation? On a certain hot afternoon in July, as he sat in his office thinking of the matter and longing for a breath of country air, an invitation to a decision arrived. It was in the form of the following note, characteristically laconic, from a friend who lived a few miles up the Hudson:
Riverview-on-Hudson, July 20, 1893
Dear Wellington: I start August 5th on a house-boat cruise. Party of four. Will you join us? Say yes and say it soon. Come up here the night before. Yours cordially, Tom.
This brought an immediate reply.
"My Dear Wellington: I am not at all willing to count me out. You must join us on our trip. You know how I hate letter-writing, so a proof of my desire for your company will be the long and full explanation which follows. In fact, I thought I had told you all about it before, but you are quite in the dark, I see.
"I am inviting you to no experiment. I built my house-boat and made a trial-cruise in her last summer. It was a howling success. Jack Dunham, who went with me, is wild to go again. Let me tell you how I worked out my idea.
"Living in a Hudson River town, I have been on the water a great deal ever since I was able to walk. I have had numerous sail-boats of different sizes, but for some time I had been wishing I had some sort of a craft roomy enough to cruise in with a small party of friends. A large yacht I could not afford, and so I conceived the idea of a house-boat, which I finally worked out to my satisfaction.
"I found that to be a complete success my boat must have five points of advantage. First, it must be adapted to these waters. The English house-boats might do on a quiet stream like the Thames, but they would not be suitable for traversing the Hudson. The second thing to be secured was sufficient room. I wanted enough space to allow four or five persons to live aboard comfortably. Next, the boat (whatever it was) must be safe. I could not ask friends to sacrifice pleasure and peace of mind on a really dangerous craft.
"It must also be, in some degree at least, self-propelling. This would enable me both to take advantage of the opportunities for being towed, and on the other hand to be independent of towing, when I wished. I wanted to be able to leave the channel and run into shallow water alongshore whenever desired.
"Lastly, my boat (if it came into being at all) must be inexpensive. Some very costly house-boats have been built for Florida waters. One is said to have cost $40,000. It is rumored that a syndicate has been formed to build and rent house-boats for summer use, each boat to cost from $5,000 to $15,000. But these are not to be self-propelling. They must be towed to some one place and anchored there. Besides, I had to reckon in hundreds -- not thousands -- of dollars.
"As to my success in realizing my ideal, I am happy to say that I have secured every one of these five points. My boat, Satan, only cost me $600, and it is roomy, safe, self-propelling, and easily navigated. Let me describe its construction in detail.
"I first build a large flat hull, 27 feet 9 inches long, and 9 feet wide. Its draught of water is only 27 inches. An 18-inch heel runs the full length. On this hull I built the cabin, leaving deck-room fore and aft. There are six feet of head-room in the cabin. A heavy guard-rail or buffer, a foot wide, runs all around the boat to protect it in the necessary impact against canal-boat or dock.
There are two spars, the mainmast having a lateen-sail, and the jigger the ordinary fore and aft rig. The steering is done by a tiller in the usual way. Under the forward deck slides an ice-box which will hold three hundred pounds of ice. Two large lockers also slide in like drawers. Under the stern deck is a bunker for charcoal on one side, and on the other a storage locker for tools, rope, putty, etc. The roof of the cabin forms an upper deck, and an awning is stretched over it while at anchor. There are two awnings also for the fore and after decks.
"The Satan really could no be upset. The only danger, practically, is that of being becalmed in the channel at night, and so being in the way of the great steamers and the tows, which are constantly going up and down. But this can be avoided by a little forethought. It requires only one man beside the sailing-master to manage the boat.
"You see how much I have secured. I have the cabin space of an eighty-foot yacht at the cost of only $600 instead of $5,000. I can go where yachts cannot go, in the swallow waters and lagoons alongshore. On the other hand, I am not bound to stay in any one place when circumstances make it desirable to more. If, for example, a cloud of mosquitoes settles upon us., we heed not suffer mild martyrdom because we cannot get towed off, as would be the fate of persons on one of the permanently anchored house-boats. We simply put up sail and go elsewhere. All the pleasures of out-door life -- the air, scenery, sport, etc. -- are ours, with enough novelty and change to keep up the interest.
"If the wind fails it is very easy to get towed. There are three regular towing lines (besides some smaller ones) which start from New York every day on their way up the Hudson, and are due at certain places at certain definite hours. There are also steam canal-boats that will take one on.
"There is quite a choice in routes. My boat is adapted to any large river like the Hudson, or to any lake or canal. In a canal, of course, the spars must be taken out. I intend this time to go up the Hudson to Troy, through the Champlain Canal to Lake Champlain and back again.
"Think over all this, take a good look at the photographs of the Satan which I send, and then let me know whether we may expect you on the 5th. I feel sure you will come.
The doctor telegraphed his acceptance and went to buy some outing clothes. He left town, promising his medical chum (who was to look after his practice for him) some account of his new experience if he felt like writing.
These were Dr. Wellington's letters.
"Somewhere up the Hudson.
"August 8, 1893.
"Dear Chummy: You see how prompt I am. This is only our third day out. We are lying at anchor this morning will all the awnings spread. I don't know exactly where we are -- geographically -- but the little cove with its pebbly shore, the restful green of the wooded point, the shimmering river beyond, and above all, the delicious sense of its not making any difference in the world where we may be -- all this is enough to make it Elysium. City life and bricks and mortar belong to a stage of inferno from which we have escaped.
"We have a jolly, tight little home in the Satan. Why Perkins, captain and owner, dubbed his craft thus is not apparent. There are no satanic qualities about the boat. Perhaps he had the Oriental idea of casting an anchor to windward, propitiating the genius of the underworld by an outward show of respect as a security against disaster.
"Our cabin is one large room, from which a small corner has been cut off for a kitchen. There is a door at each end, one opening upon the fore and the other upon the after deck. Everything is very 'ship-shape.' The captain has mastered thoroughly the necessary nautical science of stowing things snugly. On the partition which cuts off the kitchen is a buffet where every cup and plate has its own place in a rack. Our dining-table is a folding affair, like a lady's cutting table, and is fastened flat against the wall between meals. There are two windows on each side, all having dark-green shades and dotted Swiss curtains. Between each set of windows is an upright locker, and above the latter a swinging brass yacht-lamp. The floor is covered with linoleum, and Japanese rush mats. Silk yachting flags, photographs, and Japanese fans adorn the walls. There are four camp-chairs -- with backs, fortunately.
"The kitchen is a multum in parvo wonderfully worked out. Our stove is a miniature range, such as is made for boats, and has all the conveniences. It works to perfection. The fuel is charcoal, which costs a dollar a barrel. The captain says that it takes from one and a half to two barrels a week. The bunker holds four barrels. It is a great improvement upon an oil-stove, which is usually very disagreeable. The odor of the oil generally pervades the boat, and everything is covered with soot.
"The kitchen utensils hang on hooks against the wall, and underneath them is canvas stuffed with cotton, so that when the boat is in motion one's nerves are not irritated by rattling and banging noises. Rows of canisters for flour, coffee, tea, etc., and a good assortment of canned goods find places on the corner shelves.
"I am cook. We debated at first whether the office should be hold in rotation or not, and concluded that things would run more smoothly if each man had his own duties and stuck to them during the trip. I have had some experience in camp-cooking, and I took a few additional lessons from my landlady before I left town. I also invested in one of the simple cook-books intended for 'young housekeepers,' I have done very well.
After an ineffectual attempt to make an impression upon one, the captain moved that they be reserved for ammunition in case we should be attacked by river pirates. This was quickly seconded and carried. That, however, has been my only failure. Otherwise I am a culinary success.
"It is very easy to get provisions. We started with three hundred pounds of ice, and we can renew our supply at any time from the ice-houses along the river, or from the floating ice-barges which are constantly floating up and down. Fresh meat can be obtained at the villages and small town where we stop frequently for a little excursion ashore.
"As to the rest, we need never want anything very long before three toots from a steam-whistle announce the approach of a 'bum-boat.' A bum-boat (should you not know the term) is really a country general store afloat -- a small steam-tug which cruises about, supplying the wants of the canal-boat men. The whistle has hardly died away before the bum-boat is fastened alongside, and we are invited aboard. All around the walls of the cabin are doors which, when flung open, reveal a complete stock of groceries neatly arranged on shelves. There are also miscellaneous articles and plenty of fresh vegetables which the bum-boat traders have obtained by barter from the farmers along the river. There is always a large stock of 'wet goods,' which the canal-men buy in great quantities. This, however, need not alarm the temperance enthusiasts, as the supply consists almost exclusively of ginger-ale and sarsaparilla.
"Now for our daily routine. Breakfast is a movable feast. The rising hour means when the cook gets up, which is generally somewhere in the neighborhood of eight o'clock. We sleep on woven-wire cots, two feet two inches wide. Solid immovable berths are less comfortable and take up too much cabin-room. While I light the fire and begin to cook breakfast, 'Rocks" (as we have nicknamed Jack Dunham, who is always imagining that we are running on a reef) puts the cabin in order. The four cots, folded up and laid one upon another make a comfortable divan during the day. Four cretonne-covered pillows give it a cozy look.
"After breakfast, the captain and Henry (the two assigned to outside work) wash the decks, hoist sail, get up the anchor, and we are off. Meantime I as chef, take my ease, while 'Rocks' washes the dishes and sweeps the cabin-floor.
"If there is a good wind we then sit out on deck and take a morning smoke, while we bother the captain with ignorant nautical questions as to why he should point his course in such a direction, or where he expects to take us. If there is no wind, we lie at anchor, spread the awnings, read, talk, and amuse ourselves in various ways.
"Lunch comes at one or two -- a cold meal if we happen to be sailing at the time. Then, generally, a siesta. At four o'clock all are overboard for a swim. Supper is always eaten by day-light, lest the lighting of lamps should draw in mosquitoes. We never sail at night, but always anchor near the shore before sundown. Supper sometimes has an elaborate dinner menu, and sometimes it is a very simple meal. You have no idea what delectable things I have been able to concoct on a chafing dish. 'Rocks' sighs daily for Welsh rabbits, but the captain is insistent about some things and will allow no cheese on board. He contends that it has such a penetrating quality that a single piece will make its presence felt for the rest of the voyage.
"At night we sit on the upper deck, smoke, sing, listen to Henry's guitar, watch the night-boats on the river, and commiserate the poor devils like you who are sweltering in town. At 9:30 p. m. the cots go up, and all hands turn in for the night.
"The cruise is a grand success. Vive le Satan!
"J. S. Wellington."
"In the Champlain Canal,
"August 21, 1893.
"Dear Chummy: My career has not come to a watery end in spite of my long silence. 'Time was made for slaves.' A holiday cruise without a lofty disregard for time would be as flat as an unsalted dish.
"The last two weeks have been full of novel experiences. The life of the anal-boat people is full of picturesque interest. I had never come in contact with it before. On our way to Albany, the captain of the canal-boat by which we were being towed invited us to dinner. We found him, as we found most of the others of his class, somewhat bluff and rugged, but as manly, honest, and good-hearted a fellow as one could wish to meet. I was surprised to find that some of the canal-boat captains are women, who own their boats and manage them well.
"At Albany a permit must be obtained at the Capitol for taking a pleasure-craft through the canal. There is no difficulty in obtaining this, however, and no charge is made. We are now on our way back, having been through the Champlain Canal, and having spent a few days in Lake Champlain.
"The canal begins at West Troy, and the distance to Whitehall, where it enters the lake, is sixty-eight miles. There are twenty-six locks to pass through. The scenery was really very beautiful at times. In Lake Champlain we had some good fishing, taking a number of small bass, pickerel, and perch. We were only sorry that we had so little time to spend there. if our trip could have been a longer one, we could have passed through the Chambly Canal (at the upper end of Lake Champlain) into the Richelieu River and then into the St. Lawrence and on to the Thousand Islands. Next year we hope to go through the Erie Canal to Buffalo, which will give us the scenery of the beautiful Mohawk Valley, and then on as far, perhaps, as Montreal.
"We had several very amusing experiences while we were in the canal. One evening we had laid up against the heel-path (the side opposite the tow-path) and the cabin-door had been closed for the night but not locked. 'Rocks' and Henry were asleep, while the captain and I were nearly ready for bed.
"Suddenly there was a thud on the deck, the door was flung open, and in burst a thin, wiry, bustling little Yankee. With no more introduction than 'Hello, boys!' and without waiting to say another word, be began a tour of the whole boat, opening every locker, examining critically everything he came across, spelling out the names of the brands of canned goods, and commenting rapidly to himself on what he saw. His examination finished, he looked at the captain, remarked upon the thinness of the latter's legs, and with a 'Well, good-night, boys!' he disappeared in the darkness, and we never saw him again. We had been too utterly astonished during his brief, whirlwind-like visit to do or say anything whatever. We simply stared, motionless, until he had gone.
"We are now approaching Troy. The canal runs along an upper level around the side of a hill, giving us a far-extended view over the Mohawk Valley and River, some five hundred feet below, and the Erie Canal stretching off to the west. I shall be sorry when our trip ends in a few days hence. It has been the most enjoyable outing I ever had. I shall probably tire you with my enthusiasm after I return.
"Till then, believe me,
"Yours, as ever,
"J. S. W."
The best part of this story of a summer outing is that none of it (except the names and dates) is fictitious. The Satan was built exactly as described, and is now ready for her third summer cruise. What Captain Perkins has accomplished is within the reach also of any other lover of life on the water, at the same modest expenditure and with the same happy results.
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