I grew up watching old wooden boats gracefully ply the aquamarine waters of Lake George, New York. My dad and I looked on with envy as single- and double-cockpit runabouts cruised along the rocky shore, their American flags whipping in the wind. We dreamed of what it might be like to own one. “Some day,” my dad would say. But it was never more than a fantasy.
Recently, when I stepped aboard a 42-foot reproduction Hacker-Craft in Alexandria Bay, New York, it was like déjà vu. Only this time, I was the one on board and everyone was staring at me.
Peter Mellon, founder of Antique Boat America, a brokerage for classic and antique boats, gets this a lot. A gregarious man with an impeccable memory, he has lived in the Thousand Islands Region all his life. At the marina, he meets people’s open-mouthed stares with a warm smile and a wave. He jokes that it’s his two golden retrievers that people are staring at, not the painstakingly varnished hull or the roar of the engines.
In the late 1990s, when Mellon wanted to buy his first wooden boat, he says antique boats were difficult to find. “You had to know somebody who knew somebody who had one,” he says. One day, he received photographs in the mail of a beautiful boat being sold five hours away. He drove there, only to find a tired, gray boat sitting in the seller’s front yard. Mellon was confused. “I came to see this boat,” he said, pointing to the photographs. The seller responded, “I wanted to show you what it looked like when it came out of restoration.”
Disappointed that there wasn’t a better way to buy antique boats, and having wasted his entire weekend, Mellon returned to work on Monday and told a web designer colleague of his woes. Within a week, the colleague had designed a web platform for buying and selling antique boats. Mellon started visiting marinas in the Thousand Islands to see if anyone wanted to list their boat for sale on his new website, antiqueboatamerica.com. Soon he had hundreds of boats listed, and today there are more than 1,700, a hundred of which are on display in his Clayton, New York, showroom. Mellon sells boats in all stages of repair, from those needing a complete overhaul to pristinely restored runabouts ready for launch. His phone rings non-stop.
The showroom plays host to a dizzying array of tightly packed wooden boats on trailers. Mellon shows me a 1918 Canadian-built launch, a Gar Wood with a double cockpit forward, a 1929 Hacker-Craft previously owned by country singer Alan Jackson and a 22-foot Chris-Craft Sportsman like the one in On Golden Pond. There are boats with famous owners, boats with deceased owners, boats used to smuggle alcohol during Prohibition, race boats and workboats. Some have a third cockpit aft of the engine: the “mother-in-law seat.”
Many of the boats were built in Michigan by Gar Wood, Hacker-Craft, Century or Chris-Craft. The automotive influences are notable: bench-style seating and steering wheels equipped with throttle levers. After World War I, 12-cylinder Liberty aviation engines made their way from the air to the water, and in the 1940s some boats were equipped with marinized Ford flathead engines.
Mellon says nostalgia is one of the primary motivators for antique boat buyers. “Everyone remembers the sound and the look of these boats,” he says. “It’s a visceral feeling.” It’s the same feeling that makes it hard for owners to part with their boats when it comes time to sell. Customers want to be certain their boat is going to a good home, to someone who will cherish it like they did. Mellon says many people think of themselves as “custodians” of the boat, rather than owners. They’re just taking care of it for future generations.
Back on the water, we slip out of the marina and onto the St. Lawrence River, where mansions and castles dot the rocky shores of the Thousand Islands. The original inhabitants, the Iroquois and Ojibwa people, called the area “Garden of the Great Spirit.” There are 1,864 islands straddling the U.S.-Canada border. They attract mariners of all stripes: pontoons, kayaks, cargo ships, wooden boats and more. As we closely skirt the islands, Mellon rattles off the history of nearly every home.
The most famous is Boldt Castle, built by the hotelier George Boldt, who once owned the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Boldt owned 3,000 acres of islands in the early 20th century, which he used to grow produce that was shipped to the hotel. The Waldorf-Astoria was the only hotel of its time to offer ice in its cocktails; the ice was cut from the St. Lawrence and shipped to New York packed in cedar shavings. Other magnates, like George Pullman of the Pullman Company and Frederick Bourse of Singer Manufacturing Company, took up summer residence in the Thousand Islands, too.
Today, the perfectly manicured Victorian homes are owned by the founders and heirs of some of the country’s most preeminent brands. An average boathouse has one or two antique wooden boats, a 20-foot center console and a small Whaler. The islands lie in stark contrast to the mainland, where outdated motels and abandoned buildings nod to a tourist destination past its prime. Alexandria Bay and Clayton, two waterfront towns dotted with tourists, are laid-back and lack even the slightest whiff of pretension.
The Antique Boat America showroom sits along Highway 12 between Alexandria Bay and Clayton. Just down the street is a restoration yard run by Mike Mahoney. He has been restoring wooden boats for 30 years. “Every boat is a little different. It’s a challenge,” he says, pointing to a 22-foot Chris-Craft sedan that a customer recently bought from Mellon. This boat will require a replacement of all 3,000 of its mahogany fasteners. Mahoney will remove every hull plank and fastener, then painstakingly replace the fasteners. It will take hundreds of hours.
Mahoney, like many antique boat owners and restorers, tries to keep the boats as true to the original as possible. He uses cotton caulking and as many as 12 coats of varnish. I assume it comes at a hefty price tag, but Mellon corrects me, noting that the sedan in Mahoney’s shop cost just $9,000. Add a $50,000 restoration, and the entire endeavor is still accessible.
Mellon says half the boats he sells are less than $30,000, while boats over $100,000 only account for 10 percent of his business. “People think this is a millionaire’s hobby,” he says. “It’s not.”
Back on the river, we dock the Hacker-Craft (it’s retrofitted with a bow thruster) at Boldt Castle and meet up with two locals. Jim Holden, owner of a 26-foot, 1915 launch that he learned to waterski behind, wears a straw hat and Crocs. He proudly tells me the boat has been in the family nearly its entire life. Drew McNally and his daughter Wellsley, 9, arrived in a 1926 Hutchinson, Vagabond King, which is known around the islands for her seductive curves and triple cockpit design.
Even though Boldt Castle island is equipped with a tower specifically designed to house exotic water fowl, the wooden boats steal the show. It’s the familiar tug of summers on the water in grandma and grandpa’s boat, or that old friend’s dad who restored one in the garage. It’s the same story, told a million different ways.
The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton keeps these stories alive. In one of a handful of buildings, visitors find a recreation of the 1929 New York Boat Show. Each boat is accompanied by a smattering of old photos and advertisements. Another building houses dozens of race boats carefully arranged in a timeline of the quest to break the world speed record. And across the perfectly manicured lawn is a stone woodshop, its beams partially burned by a fire in the early 1900s. A handful of volunteers are hard at work restoring an 1895 launch named Past Time. In the adjacent boathouse, a 33-foot “Baby Gar” with racing roots is being reintroduced to the water.
The folks in the Thousand Islands have proudly claimed the title of the wooden boat capital of the world. It seems like a fitting moniker for a destination steeped in the history of business tycoons yet equally loved by the most ordinary folks. The boats are only the beginning, bobbing on the surface and offering a rare glimpse of all that’s below.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.