Herr-Story by Charles Herr, A look at local days gone by

Fulton Chain Steamers III: The Fulton Navigation Co. Years, 1901–1932


In a letter dated April 19, 1901, Dr. William Seward Webb informed J. Pierpont Morgan in New York City that, on behalf of the Raquette Lake Railway directors, he was accepting the option from the Old Forge Company to purchase the two mile Fulton Chain Railroad and the docks and boats of the Crosby Transportation Company.

Dr. Webb informed Morgan that the purchase price was $45,000, but additional amounts necessary for repairing the railroad lines and upgrading the docks brought the total costs to $56,000.

Dr. Webb also asked Morgan and the other partners copied in the letter to send him their share of the purchase price.

The other paying partners were Collis P. Huntington, William C. Whitney and Harry Payne Whitney.

Planned improvements for steamer traffic included “extension and improvement of docks, construction of canopies for protection of passengers and baggage, and other desirable improvements which will permit the docking of deeper draft boats, the direct trans-shipment of freight from cars to steamers…” and other upgrades.

Also, the costs included purchasing a dredging machine and pile driver for improving channels and allowing safe navigation by their steamer “Clearwater,” larger than any of the former Crosby Transportation Company steamers.

Webb advised Morgan that the Old Forge Company also assigned the “apparent title to all the lands under water in Forge Pond,” excepting state dam frontage, “without extra cost.”The courts had not ruled on this during the 1897 “Steamboat War.”

Webb thought that the state would prevail in any ownership question of the waterways, opening them for competitors. But these opposition steamers could only land on the state’s land at the dam.

Also, competing lines would not build docking structures there since recently existing private structures were or had just been removed by the state.

Webb added that another claim to adjoining waters was lodged by W. S. deCamp who claimed similar title between the pond and Second Lake.

But an assertion of state ownership of the waters would negate both claims.

Dr. Webb and his boat experts arrived in Old Forge a few days later to examine the steamers and determine any remedial actions.

The Utica Observer reporter opined that “overhauling and remodeling will practically result in rebuilding” and all of the boats would be renamed.

In May 1901, the “Fulton” became the “Mohegan,” the “Zip” the “Old Forge,” the “C. L. Stowell” the “Nehasane” and “Uncas” became the new name for the “J. L. Connell” which had only received its current name the previous August.

Dr. Webb also initiated the use of cleaner burning “hard coal” in their boilers.

John Sprague received permission from deCamp to use the waterways through his lands but deCamp served notice on Captain J. Gilbert Hoffman advising him that he had no right to use this passage from the Forge pond unless permission was given.

John Sprague lowered his rates to traditional levels from the days of Jack Sheppard and quickly received good business and the residents’ goodwill.

On July 19, the Fulton Navigation Company served notice on Sprague that an injunction had been received preventing him from landing at their docks, asserting their acquired claims.

They added that multiple steamers through the channels from Old Forge Pond and at Third Lake could not pass safely. Sprague’s attorney filed a motion to remove the injunction until its issues were resolved in court.

In its July 23, 1901 issue, the Utica Daily Press provided detailed testimony of what had to be a reunion of the pioneers of steamboat navigation on the Fulton Chain.

Their testimony could in itself be a history of the early steamboat days of the region.

The following testified in support of Sprague, his character and his experience, while also listing their history of piloting steamers: Fred Hess, William Sperry, William S. deCamp, Jonathan Meeker, H. Dwight Grant, Alonzo Wood and a multitude of hotel owners.

Nellie Briggs testified as proprietor of the Forge House that she controlled a portion of the land claimed by the Company. The above group submitted a petition to the court to raise the injunction.

The Fulton Navigation Company attempted to attack the character and qualifications of Sprague’s staff and questioned the safety of steamers passing in the narrow channels on the Chain. This was refuted by the pilots named above who could claim years of safe navigation without incident.

The Company also tried to note the disparity between fares but the court refused jurisdiction on rate setting.

In the end, the court raised the injunction, but required Sprague to give the Company a $1000 bond to indemnify them for any possible profit loss. Sprague’s supporters immediately offered to co-sign it.

With Sprague supporting a large family with only his steamer income, his finances were not in the best shape.

The immediate impact was the Company’s reduction of its rates for a round trip from $1.50 to $.35.  Sprague met this price, but his reduction was only from $.50.

The rate cuts considerably affected Sprague’s bottom line as well as the refusal of the Mohawk & Malone to sell him coal which forced Sprague to import it from Pennsylvania.

His financier Lewis Joslyn, who funded building the “Adirondack,” sold the steamer to the Company at the end of the year.

Sprague later hired on as a pilot for the Company.

In 1902, Clarence Rivenburg who had been retained after the change in ownership was replaced by J. G. Thompson.

A year later, after Thompson’s death from injuries suffered during the launching of the “Tuscarora” at Blue Mountain Lake, he was replaced by assistant Maurice Callahan.

While the “Adirondack” injunction was being litigated, Dr. Webb obtained a contract with the Railway Mail Service to permit a railway post office, not just the exchange of camp and hotel mail bags, on the “Old Forge” to service the Fulton Chain. This service began on July 24, 1901.

While the “Old Forge” was being refitted for this service, the “Mohegan” was used. In October, the “Mohegan” struck a stump in the Old Forge channel and sank.

It was raised and later repaired for the next season. The Company held this contract using the “Old Forge” until 1929 when it was awarded to Leon Burnap who used “Miss America.”

Also during 1901, the Company reduced the number of vessels running to Fourth Lake which dissatisfied patrons disembarking at Eagle Bay who needed to reach Fulton Chain locations.

To meet these needs, Inlet’s Philip Haines acquired the “Vera” and launched excursions and passenger charters from his dock.

This may have been the same steamer “Vera” operating on Brown’s Tract Inlet in 1895 according to Dr. Arpad Gerster’s journals.

In May 1908, the Company purchased Haines’s property and built the Inlet Navigation Dock and depot on his former site.

Continued Next Week…

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