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Adirondack Explorer

September, 2009

Boats and Boating on Cranberry Lake
Author: Allen P. Splete

Review by: Neal Burdick

Boats and Boating on Cranberry Lake Allen P. Splete Arcadia Publishing, 2009 Softcover, 128 pages, $21.99

Boats and Boating
on Cranberry Lake
Allen P. Splete
Arcadia Publishing, 2009
Softcover, 128 pages, $21.99

Arcadia Publishing recently released two old-photo books as part of its “Images of America,” and both will appeal to aficionados of Adirondack history. One is about a famous person and his endeavors, the other about a famous place.

Paul Smith is one of those larger-than-life figures in the region’s historic repertoire. In fact, he’s the only person to have a college (spelled with a possessive apostrophe) and a post office (without the apostrophe) named for him. Half a century after his death, he got his own zip code.

In partnership with his wife, Lydia, Smith built a hotel on Lower St. Regis Lake. It grew into a tourist mecca, with Paul (whose christened name was Apollos) establishing himself as chief guide, raconteur, and legend-in-residence. Lydia, a formidable presence who has never been given due credit for the hotel’s success, ran things behind the scenes. The couple became savvy real-estate investors, buying shoreline parcels and flipping them to their guests.

After Lydia’s death, Paul and his son Phelps diversified, founding electric power and telephone companies and even a short railroad, all in service to their famous hotel. But fire and the Great Depression doomed the guest business. Phelps turned what was left of the complex into Paul Smith’s College, which grew into the only four-year institution of higher learning inside the Blue Line. He named it in honor of his father, an irony given the senior Smith’s disdain for higher education.

College library director and history teacher Neil Surprenant has assembled more than a hundred pages of photographs that tell the story of this remarkable man and his enterprises. We see how people of means vacationed in the years between the Civil War and World War I: leisurely excursions in guide boats, hunting and fishing expeditions, dozing on the verandah—no motelhopping or amusement park sprints for this clientele. Chronological presentation displays the growth and decline of the hotel and its reinvention as a college specializing to this day in the two fields Paul Smith loved, forestry and hospitality.

Bill and Floyd Hasbeck on Cranberry Lake, 1893.

Bill and Floyd Hasbeck on Cranberry Lake, 1893.
Courtesy of Arcadia Publishing

Cranberry Lake, one of the largest bodies of water in the Adirondacks, is actually a man-made reservoir, an impoundment of the Oswegatchie River created in 1867 for the benefit of lumber barons. It has a rich and varied history; it was a logging hub, and among its famous denizens were the artists Frederic Remington and Marc Chagall, along with the inventor of the inboard/outboard motor, one Ralph Brown.

Which leads us to a volume that successfully highlights one aspect of the lake’s place in the ongoing tale of the Adirondacks. Boats and Boating on Cranberry Lake was issued at the start of the 2009 summer in conjunction with the centennial of the Cranberry Lake Boat Club. Lovers of old boats (and even some newer ones) will, upon perusing its pages, become convinced they have died and gone to heaven.

The club’s vice commodore, Allen Splete, who grew up an hour from the lake and is retired from a distinguished career in higher education, has followed the tried-and-true “Images of America” formula by compiling, mainly from other lake residents’ collections, an array of photos that reveal the development of boating on the lake. We see guide boats, canoes, workboats, tiny steamers (the cover image of Helen reminds us that safety regulations have progressed along with everything else, especially after we see what happened to her on page 47), sailboats, motorboats, speedboats, houseboats, pontoon boats, mail boats, plywood dinghies, even seaplanes, jet skis, and one snowmobile, which sort of acts like a boat once the lake is frozen. Basically, if it can be propelled across water by any means for any purpose, it’s here.