A cool cloud of water vapor drifting over the promenade along the Erie Canal in the town of Waterford signaled the presence of a mode of transportation that hasn’t been widely used in many decades.
The 10th annual Steamboat Meet on Saturday harkened back to an era when technology had advanced beyond wind or oars or mules for movement, but hadn’t yet progressed to the motorized speed boats of the 20th century. Relaxing inside his personal steamboat, “Saucey,” Carl Kriegeskotte explained how wooden steamboats with a wood boiler are one of the rare vessels that can be used to fuel themselves.
“We always carry an axe or saw just in case,” Kriegeskotte said, referring to the possibility of being trapped on the water and needing to rely on parts of the boat for fuel.
While that would be hard times for the dozen or so steamboat owners who docked in Waterford for a long weekend, it does jibe with the reality that most steamboats can run on “whatever you can get.” He said that typically hardwood is the best, as it burns hot and slow and can produce more steam. Coal was also common in the old days, just as it was for locomotives.
Most boats on display Saturday were at rest, tied up to a long dock about eight feet below a paved walk that was filled with sightseers. People ogled the steamboats, which ranged from about 12 feet to 25 feet in length, and looked out of place compared to some of the modern boats tied up. Alongside the boats, vendors sold sport memorabilia, tupperware, jewelry, candles, soaps, artisan crafts and purses. Non-profit groups sold food, mostly from the grill.
But it was the steamboats that captured the imagination of those who paused long enough to soak in the complexity and artistry involved in each model.
The 67-year-old Kriegeskotte, who brought his steamboat on a trailer from Westchester County, modeled his vessel on one from the 1890s. Most of the steamboats were either built or refined by their owners, but his craft had been completed without any formal training.
Aside from purchasing the hull and commercial boiler, he did the boat’s woodwork and built its engine with the inherited know-how of his father, who was an engineer, and skills he learned in metal shop during high school.
“The engineering is just interesting,” he said of the turn of the century designs. “It’s from the prime of the industrial revolution.”
Kriegeskotte had traveled to Waterford with his wife and children, who are also interested in the pastime, and were staying at a friend’s condominium. Other steamboat owners stayed in a handful of tents set up just about 20 feet from the boats.
The event is one of a handful that Kriegeskotte attends each year, and has for years. “They do a very nice job here in Waterford.”
In addition to the steamboats was a boat reminiscent of an even more bygone era, designed to highlight 17th century shipbuilding. Stretching more than 30 feet, and making it one of the longest ships at the dock, this replica of the Dutch ship “Onrust” was also popular. It was the product of years of study, patience and hard work by members of the Schenectady County Historical Society and other volunteers, who created the craft at the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction, replicating what is thought to be the first European-crafted boat in the New World, made in 1614 in Manhattan after its predecessor burned.