Boatbuilding the old-fashioned way

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Life was simple in Newport, R.I., in the 1890s.

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If you wanted a new boat — a catboat, let’s say, about 16 feet with an open cockpit or maybe just a small cabin — you went down to the waterfront, dropped in on any number of builders, and ordered one. Maybe you ended up on Long Wharf at the Barker’s building shed down on Poplar Street. There, you talked a deal with the bearded brothers, made a down payment of $50 or $100, and set them to work.

The brothers then spent the winter making magic — turning pieces of wood into a boat, shaving and shaping, fitting and finishing, while the potbellied stove glowed and the yard cat slept on. Come spring, when the cat gets frisky and abandons the shed for the wharf, your boat is ready. Stunningly beautiful, dressed in her best, she glides down the ramp running between the waterfront sheds and slips into her element.

And who wouldn’t be proud to sail the harbor in Newport, tacking among the vessels of yachting’s Gilded Age in a jaunty new catboat, as pictured here. She’s the Jack Rose, built by George and Harold Barker for the Arnold family. One of the brothers’ well-known “Rose catboats,” her sister ships included Primrose, Rose and Wild Rose.

The Arnolds — Harold and his son, Ralph — owned a fleet of catboats over the years and used them as pleasure yachts. In fact, Jack Rose survived in Newport up through the 1970s. This photograph, taken by Harold Arnold in 1940, is from “The Catboat Era in Newport, Rhode Island,” by John Leavens (Tilbury House, The Catboat Association, 2005).

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.