Posing for posterity

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Leashed to a pier at the foot of Washington Street in Newport, R.I., with Goat Island in the background, this 18-foot open catboat seems to be waiting patiently for someone to take it for a ride. Thanks to an energetic 19th century photographer, we know the trim little craft is Kingfisher II, one of the last catboats John W. and W.H. Barker built in their waterfront shop.

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The Newport catboat was ubiquitous at the time. Although the days of working sail were numbered, it still held its own as a fishing and harbor craft against the emerging fleet of "gas-screw catboats." Most were small, 18 to 22 feet. Others, like the 11-ton, 32-foot Hazel, were hardy boats licensed for the demanding coastal trade.

Kingfisher II had a different role, one that resonates today. It belonged to E.W. Smith, that aforementioned energetic photographer, who used it for a decade to shoot the catboats - and characters - of Newport. Those characters included the colorful clan of builders along The Point and Long Wharf: Button Swan, the pioneer; Luke Bliven, who built big coastal cats; the Albro brothers, Josiah and Charles; and the Barkers.

From 1870 to 1895 - the golden days of the Newport catboat - these craftsmen and others turned out in excess of 200 boats, and Smith caught them all for posterity. There was the Jack Rose, one of a series of "Rose" cats; Athens, a "Greek lobster cat"; Swan's 1872 cat, Kingfisher, with a perforated bottom for its live well; and the graceful Gisela, Harold Arnold's racing cat.

The photos today make up The Catboat Association's E.W. Smith collection at Mystic (Conn.) Seaport Museum. Many are in John M. Leavens' book, "The Catboat Era" (Tilbury House and The Catboat Association, 2005).

Although Smith sold Kingfisher II in 1905, the cat remained active for another 70 years before she was donated to Mystic Seaport and became part of its small-craft collection.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.