Sitting in front of a TV watching professional sports on a Sunday afternoon, it is hard to imagine the popular following that competitive rowing attracted 100+ years ago. In 1872, over 25,000 spectators watched 11 collegiate crews compete on a three mile course at Saratoga Springs, NY. If a regatta was held on a river with a parallel railroad track, flatcars were fitted with bleachers facing the river so that fans could follow the race from beginning to end, being pulled behind a steam engine that kept pace with the race. Professional rowers regularly competed for prizes of several thousand dollars, (remember these are 1880 dollars,) and the results were regularly reported in newspapers across the country. The demise of professional rowing was assisted by a series of scandals resulting from the unpleasant combination of gambling, large prizes and professional sports.
The history of rowing has been quite adequately documented several places. The participation of Waters & Sons paper rowing shells is however often ignored or only briefly mentioned. George Waters' first shell was built in 1867 and was formed using an old Josh Ward shell as a mold. Several large sheets of a high-quality manila paper were laminated over the mold to form the skin of the hull. Wood framework, a seat, oarlocks, & etc. were added after the hull was removed from the mold. By 1868 George had obtained a U.S. patent and was actively engaged in the commercial manufacture of paper shells in Troy, NY with his father Elisha and his brother Clarence. The first race won by a paper boat was on the 30th of October of 1867 when John McKiel of Cold Spring, NY was defeated by Henry Coulter of Pittsburgh. The Waters catalog of 1871 proudly lists a total of 14 races won by paper boats during 1868. In 1869 the list grows to 26 races and the sites include distant cities such as Savannah, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Toronto.
According to George Waters' son, Charles Vinton Waters, "after the victory of Cornell rowing a paper six-oared shell, over twelve other colleges in wooden boats at Saratoga Lake in 1875, followed by a clean sweep of all events at the Centennial Regatta of 1876, they were in general use in this country for more than thirty years." In 1875, the New York Daily Graphic printed an illustration of the Waters' factory. In an accompanying article they attributed Cornell's victory to their unique craft, describing the virtues of the technology that allowed a light, stiff, and durable shell to be constructed from so delicate a material.
The Waters product line was considerable. By 1878 their rowing shells ranged from a 28 ft x 9.5 in. single shell to an 8-oared shell, 60 ft. x 24 in. A typical 31 ft. shell weighed approximately 22 lbs., (compared with about 40 lbs. for a comparable wood hull.) The light weight resulted from using only three layers of 0.015" thick manila paper for the hull, and but one layer of paper for the deck as well as a minimalist approach to wood supporting structure. In many ways it was a precursor to modern composite hull construction. Otherwise, construction was typical for the period with iron outriggers for the oars and a sliding seat. In addition to competitive rowing shells, a line of row boats, gigs, and canoes was offered. The catalog of 1878 shows a total of 44 different craft offered for sale.
A Canadian historian noted that: "Paper boats were in general use on this continent in the '70's and '80's but died out due to their general sluggishness and tendency to become water-logged. The Columbia University crew in 1878 won the Visitor's Cup at Henley in a paper eight. It was purchased by the First Trinity, Cambridge, but never won a race again." Paper boats were in use later than the above might suggest, as the University of Pennsylvania; was still rowing a paper eight-oared shell in a race at Poughkeepsie in 1895. A similarly mixed review is given in a 1905 book, "Rowing and Track Athletics" that states: "The paper boat never found much favor outside of [the USA], and, though they were fast they were expensive and of short life, the paper needing a new surface frequently". One of the virtues of a paper boat was that the surface could easily be resurfaced; one of the faults was that they needed it..... often.
A pleasant little book that captures the golden days of rowing and paper boats is "Courtney" by Margaret K. Look (ISBN# 1-55787-044-6). I enjoyed it. You might also. (And it even mentions paper boats!)
A fire in 1901 closed the Waters factory forever. It was caused by George Waters himself who was using a blow-torch to apply finishing touches to a shell destined for Syracuse University. The shell was destroyed along with all the wooden molds and tools, but according to a local paper, shells destined for the Potomac Rowing Club; and the University of Pennsylvania were saved. The account continues that the fire resulted in $20,000 of damage, of which only $5,000 was covered by insurance, (perhaps in part explaining why the business never reopened.) Thus alas, the progenitor of modern paper boaters, George Waters, can be said to be responsible for both the birth and the death of the golden age of paper boats.
George and his father, Elisha, both died within the following two years, definitively closing this chapter in paper boat history. If you want to actually see a paper rowing shell, only three have been found so far: one at the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy, NY and another at the Glen Curtis Museum in Hammondsport, NY, and a third at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. Not all are on public display all the time. If your heart is set on seeing one, call ahead to check with the curator.