My Favorite Drawing

With the posting of my photo of my R/C model of the Davidson steamer SACRAMENTO the question came up as to what plans or drawings I used to make such replicas of old lakeboats. The answer was that I often draw my own plans, but sometimes I use what others have drawn- such as in the case of the SACRAMENTO. In that case I used the actual Davidson Shipyard plans from an 1898 copy of Marine Engineering... seen here.

This drawing, provided to me by my boat-chasing pal D.J. Story, is actually that of the THOMAS CRANAGE, which is of the same class as the SCRAMENTO. The CRANAGE was wrecked on Georgian Bay in 1911 and her entire saga, which corrected 80+ years of bad history by the way, is in my book "Mysteries and Histories."

Since there are almost zero documents surviving from the Davidson yard- I figured this was a great drawing to base the model upon. In fact it was so great that it is actually on my personal business card.

The drawing itself allows a close look into how these steamers were laid out.

Captain Davidson built some of the largest wooden vessels in the world and there has always been some mystery as to how they were constructed.

 A key to this secret appears to be the lattice of steel strapping and cables that criss-cross within and outside of the hull timbers. 

They provided strength and support for the wood timbers that made up the basic hull. Today this can be easily seen on the remains of the schooner barge and steamer that lay on the west bank of the Saginaw River at Bay City where the Davidson Shipyard was located. Abandon in 1929 with the onset of the Depression these wooden ships were left to rot.

Eventually they were set upon by what, in my opinion, was a serial arsonist who set fire to wooden boats left abandon along the river in the late 1940s and 1950s. Each was burned to the waterline so you have to wait for when the river water is quite low in order to see the wrecks.

Each vessel was double hulled and the sides were bolted together with the bolts also running through the straps- as seen here.

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In case you're wondering the above photos are of the  giant schooner barge MONTEZUMA.

 The MONTEZUMA in better days.

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Resting next to the MONTEZUMA is the steamer SHENANDOAH 

Look closely and you can see her two boilers peeking above the murky water.

Her strapping is also visible.

Okay... to give you a better feeling for what you are seeing...

When the vessel burned, the decking under her boilers burned away. That allowed the boilers to simply drop down to the position they are in now as illustrated by the drawing.

Meanwhile, her sister the SACRAMENTO was not free of arson- she too soon was set upon by the firebug. She burned in the drydock where she had been abandon in 1929.

The arsonist burned her to her bilge.

MONTEZUMA was also torched and burned to the waterline.

There was one other act of arson that, from a historian's standpoint, was even more vulgar. The story goes that after the wrecks had lingered on the riverbank for several decades the city was out to clean up the eye-sore and thus decided to have the owner of the property pay to have the problem removed. A kin of James Davidson decided to obliterate all ties and evidence that would prove that person's ownership of the property. So it was ordered that every scrap of paper, every drawing, every record was taken out into the yard, doused with kerosene and burned. No records meant no proof of ownership and the property was a ward of the city. This is why there are no records as to how exactly James Davidson built his amazing lakeboats.

Today the Davidson yard is an amazing park and river walk. When the water is very you can stand on a large deck that is constructed over the MONTEZUMA and look at the wrecks. 

If the water is really, really low- you can touch them. GRAMPIAN was mostly removed by the city. The SACRAMENTO was buried. Yet the MONTEZUMA, SHENANDOAH, MATANZAS and GRANADA remain.

The yard circa 1946

The Davidson yard today.

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Brought my model boats out... after a decade

So... what do author's/airline transport pilots do for relaxation? Well... since 1979 I've built R/C model lakeboats. The next question is; what does that same person, only with AD/HD, do for relaxation? The answer is; a whole lotta boats!

I was once in a conversation with a psychologist who casually asked what I did to relax? I replied that I worked on my radio controlled model boats. She said, "That's nice..." and then asked how many I had? I replied, "58." There was a moment of silence and she asked, "Don't you think that's a little unusual?" 

Not for me.

The majority of my current fleet

My fleet dwindled down to 42 lakeboats by the time we bought our house by the bay in late 1999. Shortly there after we had our first child and I quickly found that finely detailed model boats and little kids do NOT go together well. By 2008 we had two kids and needed a house with more room- so we had the old place bulldozed (why give up a perfect location eh?) and a new, much bigger one built. In the process of moving out I carefully packed all of my boats into assorted boxes and handled them personally. When we moved into the new place I stored all of the boxed boats as far back in our storage wing as I could get them. I figured they'd be safe there until the kids got older... I was right. In 2018, a full decade later I transferred the production of my model rocket company to another company and thus cleared out all of the parts needed for that process. This left a lot of open space in my work area... the boats came back out! For the record, my wife LIKES the look of the boats as opposed to the clutter of model rocket parts and boxes. (Japanese people are like that... they loathe disorder)

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I was happy to see that time had been good to the fleet while it was in storage. Sure there were a few dings, but only two were damaged to a great extent. The bow rigging of the WILLIAM CLAY FORD had been smashed, as had the stern quarter of the SACRAMENTO. The SACRAMENTO was the worst off and required some major surgery. Additionally her pilothouse canopy had been smashed and 2 of her 3 spars had their peak snapped off.

Her bow canopy now fully restored

Today, she's looking good again and ready to sail again some day... more likely to gather dust on the shelf, but at least I feel better. 

Note the dime in the photo for scale.

What's interesting about my model of the SACRAMENTO is that her two lifeboats are carved from wood from the actual vessel! 

YES... several years ago, Great Lakes historian Don Comtois showed me that he had in storage some knees from the old boat that he had rescued before the city of Bay City bulldozed and buried the remains of the historic vessel in the mid 1970s. 

Remains of the SACRAMENTO before she was bulldozed by the city. Yeah, in the mid 1970s the city politicians were really big on preserving their maritime history... not.

He gave me a whole knee and from it I had several pens made (one of which I gave to Don, of course). Yet the wood was, after all of those years of exposure, so fragile that it was more difficult to mill than balsa wood. From the remaining chunks I carved the lifeboats if the R/C model of the SACRAMENTO.

Thus... the original steamer lives on.

Now- it is on to repairing and finishing the rest of the fleet... as well as writing my next book of course.

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