By Richard F. Palmer
Whatever happened to Theodore Gegoux’s painting of the palatial steamboat St. Lawrence during a searchlight excursion in 1894 in the Thousand Islands, may never be known. It was last seen by the public during an exhibition of the artist’s works in Watertown, N.Y. in 1904. Fortunately prints were made of it.
Noted American artist Theodore Gegoux, then of Watertown, N.Y., captured forever in oils, in the St. Lawrence, during a searchlight excursion in the Thousand Islands, in the summer of 1898. He and his family had a summer home at Point Vivian. This painting was executed during the high point of his illustrious artistic career. This image is courtesy of Theodore Gegoux of Los Angeles, Calif., his great-grandson. He said the original was won at an exhibition in Watertown, in 1904 and has not been seen since. The boat is said to have had a one-million candlepower search light on the wheelhouse. During the summer it toured the islands seven days a week and occasionally sailed as far down River as Ogdensburg.
The St. Lawrence was the queen of the fleet of steamboats that plied the Thousand Islands during the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was the pride of the Thousand Islands Steamboat Company’s famous “White Squadron.” She was a picturesque sight with her mammoth sidewheel casings decorated with skillfully executed paintings of an American eagle done by Al Keech of Clayton and Fishers Landing.
For many years' excursion parties sailed aboard the St. Lawrence for a day’s outing. The evening searchlight tours were especially popular throughout the region..
The St. Lawrence was built at Clayton and launched on May 24, 1884 and fitted out in Kingston. She was powered by a vertical (walking) beam engine. The boiler was built by Kingsford Foundry and Machine Works of Oswego. Reporting on the new vessel, the British Whig on July 5, 1884 noted:
The Steamer St. Lawrence.
A great deal remains to be done before the boat is fairly completed, but it is probable that she will go on the route July 13th, and a trial trip will not be made before next week. Her woodwork is unfinished and nothing has been done on her in the line of furnishing yet.
About all that can be said now, in addition to what has already been told, is that neither pains nor expense have been spared in work or material, and if furnished in good style, she will be as fine a boat as floats the St. Lawrence. Capt. Milo D. Estes, who is in command, is now in Kingston attending to the fitting out of his new charge. A story was started some time ago to the effect that the guards or stays would be under water when ready to run. The originator of the story evidently drew largely on his imagination as that is not likely to be the case by considerable.
Her entire career was spent in the St. Lawrence River excursion business. She was 154’5” feet long, 21’3” beam, 7’5” hold and was registered at 275 tons. The vessel passed to the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Co. in 1912 and to the Kingston Navigation Co. in 1920. It was de-commissioned about 1925 at Kingston and her hull burned for the metal.
About the Artist
Theodore Gegoux was born November 19, 1850 in St.-Louis-de-Gonzague, Quebec and immigrated to Clayton, New York in 1864 to live with his older brother, Francois Xavier Gegoux after the death of his father. As a young man he exhibited artistic talent, drawing faces in the margins of his school books. He was severely reprimanded for defacing his books, to the extent that he came to believe that art was bad.
Theodore Gegoux is shown with son, Frank in the spring of 1888. This is the earliest known photograph of the artist.
After moving to the United States, he took on a number of menial jobs, the last of which was a bartender in the hotel where he stayed. One day in 1873, the proprietor asked the young man to fetch the local sign painter for a sign he needed, to which he replied, “let me paint your sign”.
The sign became the talk of the town and launched Gegoux’s career as an artist. He opened a studio in Carthage and later in Watertown, where he soon received many commissions to paint local notables. His works also included several Civil War generals and Thomas Edison.
In addition to his considerable skill as a portraitist, he was also an exceptional landscapist. Without any formal training, he made a good living for himself. He studied art in Europe in 1881. While there he copied works by the masters Claude-Joseph Vernet and Jules Breton. This was a common method of study at the time. His work, "The Blessing of Wheat at Artois" done in 1857 by Jules Breton, is the only known example of his Paris studies which still exists.
Gegoux returned to Watertown in 1881 to establish himself as"... one of the best oil, pastel, and crayon portrait artists in the city."
Gegoux worked at his studio in Watertown during the year and at his Point Vivian cottage during the summers. By the age of 32 he had executed more than 1,300 portraits. By 1881, he had saved enough money to travel to Paris for a year where he studied and copied the works of the Great Masters. In 1896, his portrait, “A Young Paganini”, was accepted for the first Exhibition of the Carnegie Art Galleries.
Late in 1909 he deserted his family and mysteriously vanished, leaving behind his wife and children. He was estranged from his wife, Prudentia, who never saw him again. The Watertown Daily Times reported on March 30, 1910:
“Theodore Gegoux, for many years one of the most prominent artists of northern New York, has dropped out of sight and since Dec. 10 last no word has been heard of him by his friends or the members of his family in this city."
But later, it was learned he had actually left Watertown on November 18, 1909 for New York City to complete some paintings for Norman Heath of Brooklyn. Heath's summer home was on Nobby Island just down River from Keewaydin State Park. At the time he had also been tinkering with a flying machine or an early version of a helicopter.
Believed dead, he reappeared two years later in Portland, Oregon as a portrait painter. It was said he had gone west for health reasons. There he produced a large quantity of landscapes and seascapes. With the exception of a year's visit to New York, Gegoux spent the rest of his life on the west coast, living in California and Oregon at various times. Although he was a highly skilled artist, he died penniless at the Ranchos Los Amigos Medical Center (the former Los Angeles County Poor Farm) on July 1, 1931. During his last years he suffered from dementia.
Unfortunately much of Gegoux’s work has been overlooked as he rarely signed his paintings and when he did so, his signature was barely legible. Locally, some of his works can be seen at the Jefferson County Historical Society museum and Flower Memorial Library in Watertown as well as at Keewaydin State Park in Alexandria Bay.
Image of the steamboat St. Lawrence and other information supplied by Theodore Gegoux of Los Angeles, California.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes website: http://www.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca
Watertown Daily Times, March 30, 1910
Watertown Re-Union, April 2, 1910
By Richard F. Palmer
Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor, and reporter, and was well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times”, called "On the Waterfront." His first article for TI Life was written in January 2015 and since then, he has written a half-dozen others. He is a voracious researcher and TI Life readers benefit from his interesting findings. Click here to see Richard Palmer’s TI Life Articles.