Photo © Ian Coristine/
 You are here:  Back Issues      Archive

Boathouses New and Old

Imagine being on an island and not owning a boat, at least not a motorboat. That’s how it was back in the 1880s. Like many other islanders, our ancestors only had a skiff, then later a canoe. Our need for docks and boathouses was minimal.

Today, Grenell bristles with docks and boathouses and the shoreline looks much different than it did in 1890. While I can’t address who had the first boathouse on Grenell, I can give a peek at how trends changed through the years, just by looking at our little point on Grenell, Rum Rock.

For the first decade in the 1880s, there was no boathouse on Rum Rock. I’m not even sure if there was a dock. If there was a dock, it was a simple affair, just planks on posts. The skiff house was built circa 1890 and burned-down in the Babcock fire of 1912. It was replaced that same year by our current skiff house.

A skiff house is not a boathouse as we think of them today. While built over the water, it has a floor.  Our skiff house had a small dock in the front, slanted toward the water making it easy to pull watercraft from the water into the skiff house and vice versa.

Back before the turn of the last century, the two skiff houses on the water, next to each other, were a popular arrangement.

One skiff house was for boat storage and the other was for living space. Also in 1912, our ancestors built “The Lodge”. It was built on cribs over the water and was never meant for boats, but for overflow sleeping.  Building living space on docks on the water was fashionable back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was also fashionable to use the roof of the boathouse for lounging. Later a dock was added to the front of The Lodge.

Our first actual boathouse was on the west side. We have no idea when it was built, perhaps the late 1920s or early 1930s. It also had a tiny mariner’s room on the back for overflow guests. Eventually, the West boathouse housed Gary’s grandfather’s Thompson 16-ft. outboard.

I’m guessing they picked that site because the two best spots on the east side of the point were taken and building anything on cribs on the north side probably wouldn’t last too long because of spring ice flows. For those not familiar with island life, a crib is a rectangle of timbers, placed in the water, then filled with large rocks. Cribs were the go-to foundations for boathouses for many decades on the river. Our east boathouse is still supported by cribs. But cribs can sink and shift and when they do the walls can twist and sag.

Spring ice flows can wreak havoc. One Grenellian recalls returning to the River in the spring, decades ago, to find his parents’ boathouse ripped from the cribbing by an ice flow and dumped in South Bay. They had put a new rolled roof on the structure, the summer before, so he and his father removed the new roofing from the building, before setting the tangled wreck afire.

The west side of Rum Rock is extremely shallow. In the 1920s or 1930s it was filled with cattails. Because of low water, in 1983, my in-laws dismantled the west boathouse and used the walls to build the new east boathouse in front of The Lodge.  The east side is about a foot deeper than the west side and more importantly, protected from the prevailing winds.

We’ve had high and low water through the years. In 2012, the water was so low we had to pull the boats in July as there was not enough water to float the boats in the east boathouse. Again, when we arrived this spring, the water was so low in our east boathouse, there was not enough water to float the boats. Hence the need for a new boathouse in deeper water.

It was a simple idea, a boathouse on the north side of our point, in 5-6 feet of water. While cribs on the north side is not a good idea because of the ice, new technologies of dock building meant it was now a possibility. But first we needed permission. We started working on the project in May of 2013.

Once upon a time, you didn’t need a permit to build a boathouse on Grenell. You could just hire some guy and point. The boathouse didn’t even have to be on your property. Apparently, it didn’t even have to be connected to the shore. Our neighbors on the north side have this interesting picture taken in 1920. There is a boathouse built in the middle of the little cove that is not connected to the shoreline. How odd! I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m guessing the water was too shallow to accommodate a boathouse so it was built in the middle of the cove instead, where the water was deeper.

So perhaps it’s a good idea that there are rules, as to where you can build a boathouse, and that we’re required to get a permit and actually prove we’re building our boathouse on our property. Well technically, the boathouse is on New York State property, as they claim riparian rights…but it is at least attached to our property.

Who knew the process for getting a permit would take hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars and an unbelievable amount of frustration? Unlike the days when you could just point and build, we had to consult at least five entities: Army Corps of Engineers, New York State Government Services, New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Village of Clayton. (There might have been another New York State office, which we can’t remember.)

The Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Conservation were the easiest to deal with. I think we had an okay for the project within a few weeks of submitting the plans. New York had their rules and guidelines that we needed to adhere to, but the State was actually helpful. The Town of Clayton was a huge stumbling block. Clayton seemed to think that a new boathouse on Grenell was going to throw the earth off its axis. Far from being helpful, they seemed to delight in throwing up roadblocks.

Finally, in early December, before the ice came in---after 18 months of jumping through hoops---we were granted a permit from Clayton. The dock crew was finally able to start drilling. We were over a 1000 miles away, but had watched Pat Patch’s expert crew put in our front dock, back in 2008.

Our new boathouse is not on cribs. It stands on metal pipes filled with concrete. First, the crew drilled down through the mud and six feet into solid granite. Next, pipes were pounded into the granite. With laser precision they cut the pipe so the decking would be level. Concrete was poured into the pipes.  Once the pipes were in place, the crew welded angle irons to the pipes to form a solid foundation for the boathouse and docks.

Wood was put over the metal framework. Three walls were standing when we arrived in May. It was a pleasure to watch the boathouse take shape. It took 2 weeks of rain before we had enough water to float the boats in the east boathouse and move the boats to their new home, which was in six feet of water.

It’s hard to imagine living on this island without having a motorboat to come and go as we please. How different life was 130 years ago, when islanders arrived and departed on steamboats. But with the arrival of personal motor boats came the need for boathouses and docks. Finally, we have enough water to float our wooden boats, from the time we arrive, till late in the season.

By Lynn E. McElfresh

  • Our finished north shore boathouse

    Our finished north shore boathouse

  • Low water allows us to see how a boathouse is supported.

    Low water allows us to see how a boathouse is supported.

  • These steel pipes are drilled six feet into the granite below.

    These steel pipes are drilled six feet into the granite below.

  • Drilling holes for the front dock.

    Drilling holes for the front dock.

  • The steel foundation for the north boathouse.

    The steel foundation for the north boathouse.

  • 3 walls were standing when we arrived this spring.

    3 walls were standing when we arrived this spring.

  • It was a pleasure watching the workers

    It was a pleasure watching the workers

  • Our New North Boathouse.JPG

    Our New North Boathouse.JPG

  • Welding frames to the pipes

    Welding frames to the pipes


Posted in: Places, Nature, Sports
Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Waltraud I. Mack
Comment by: Waltraud I. Mack
Left at: 8:05 PM Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Seems to me the best option is to build something that can be pulled out of the water in winter. Interesting article.Thank you for sharing.

Waltraud I. Mack