Thousand Islands Marvel: Floyd Carter’s Motor Ice Boat

 


Author’s note:  A version of this story was originally published in the January 2011 issue of Thousand Islands Life magazine to mark the 100th anniversary of Carter’s invention.


 

        “The familiar sound of a put-put from the vicinity of Washington Island caused people to look at one another on Saturday.  It was the real noise so familiar to everybody on the water front and as it came nearer and more distinct the docks were well peopled.  An ice boat without a sail is a real novelty here, but such it proved to be.”

So opened a brief article in the Jefferson County Journal about the events of Saturday, January 21st, 1911, on a dock overlooking the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands region of Jefferson County, New York, describing a new invention by local man, Floyd L. Carter, that was to be the subject of much attention—and imitation.[1]

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Floyd L. Carter as a young man, about 1890.

Floyd Carter was born in 1877 near Clayton, a son of Byron Carter and Clarissa Britton.  In 1896 Floyd married Ada[2], only daughter of Michael J. Diepolder, the keeper of Rock Island Lighthouse.[3]  By 1900, the couple was living at 1711 Spring St. in Thousand Island Park.[4]  It was here that Floyd began to hone his skills as a mechanic and a boatbuilder.

The Thousand Islands region lies at the confluence of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River and consists of 1,864 islands scattered between the U.S. and Canadian mainlands. Until the Thousand Islands International Bridge opened in 1938, boats were the only form of transportation for inhabitants of the islands or for those wishing to cross the international border.  In winter, when the river froze over, locals would use “ice boats”—homemade wooden platforms to which they attached sleigh runners, a cloth sail, and a rudder for steering—and wait for a steady wind to push them across the ice. Not only was it slow going, but it was also dangerous since the boats could be difficult to control and were at the mercy of the elements.

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An early example of the kind of sail-powered iceboat in use at the time of Carter’s invention, published in Jonathan Haddock’s 1895 book A Souvenir of the Thousand Islands (Watertown, N.Y.), 257.

The first mention of Floyd Carter in connection with an iceboat was in 1904, when he was working as an oarsman carrying passengers for hire between the islands and the mainland.  The December 29th edition of the Watertown Daily Times records: “Bill Tidd visited his parents here Christmas and on his return to Clayton engaged F. L. Carter with his ice boat to take him to Fisher’s Landing.” That trip ended abruptly when the iceboat, clocking 40 miles per hour, hit a weak spot in the ice, sending its passengers skidding across the icy river and damaging the iceboat severely.[5]

Over the next few years, Floyd earned a reputation as one of the finest boatbuilders on the river.  In 1906, he assisted Clinton Snell at Lafargeville in the construction of a naptha launch, 25 feet long with an eight foot beam.[6]  He built more than 20 racing boats, including some of the Sliver model.  In 1909 he introduced the Gazelle, cited as the smallest but fastest racer of its type on the river, which was purchased by Charles Freeman of New York City.  By the end of the year Floyd had plans to move to Dallas, Texas, to go into the automobile business.[7]  Fortunately for the onlookers at the docks in the winter of 1911, he stayed put….

The iceboat that Floyd Carter unveiled in January 1911 was 8 feet long and 7 feet wide.  Instead of having a mast and sail attached for wind-driven propulsion, like those used in the vicinity up to that time, his innovation was to incorporate an airplane propeller for locomotion.  Carter used a six horsepower Panard engine to drive the propeller, which had a span of more than 6 feet.  Two large runners provided support in the back, while a shaft attached to a single steering sleigh in the front provided directional control.  On its first trip across the ice the boat topped 50 miles per hour.[8]

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Floyd L. Carter’s motor ice boat as depicted on a postcard.  The brand “Panard” is visible on the engine.  Calumet Island is visible over Carter’s left shoulder, suggesting the picture was taken at one of the docks on Riverside Drive in Clayton.  The man seated is unidentified.

Not to be outdone, other local builders soon introduced their own variations on Carter’s concept:

On January 31st, 1911, Fred Guernsey of Clayton presented his motor ice boat, identical to Carter’s with the exception that his engine was attached via sprocket chain to a spiked cogwheel at the rear of the boat which dug into the ice to move it forward.[9]

In December 1911, airplane builder Charles Hoffman introduced his “Areao-Ice-Hydro-plane”, an 11 foot contraption with 37 inch beam, consisting of runners attached to the bottom of a boat hull, powered by a five foot propeller rotating 1,900 times per minute and achieving top speeds of 60 miles per hour.  Hoffman’s invention could use the runners while on ice, and stay afloat via the hull when it struck water, making it ideal for the thawing season (if only Carter was driving this back in 1904!).[10]

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Detail from Floyd Carter’s engine repair business letterhead. Courtesy of Dr. Maynard H. Mires.

In 1912, Theron Patterson and Benton Wilbur of Alexandria Bay extended the motorized ice travel concept to dry land.  Their idea was to affix two cutter runners to a horse sleigh, and mount a 16 horsepower engine in the back, connected to a six foot air wheel for propulsion.  This new “motor sleigh” was capable of reaching speeds on land of 30 miles per hour, could climb hills, and on one trip reportedly traveled by road to Chippewa Bay, then over the river to Dark Island.  Two years later, Patterson improved his design with a new torpedo shape powered by a lighter engine, achieving 40 miles per hour.[11]

In 1929, Julius M. Breitenbach’s sleek new Arctic Goose was in service, hitting record speeds of 131 miles per hour.[12]

In 1931, Morris Knight patented a variation on Hoffman’s design, for an iceboat capable of navigating both ice and open water.[13]

By 1953, an airplane-based iceboat was in use by Robert Lashomb to carry the mail from Clayton to Grindstone Island, shortening the trip to 15 minutes or less–still the practice today.[14]

Floyd Carter died in February 1935, but his skill in both mechanics and boatbuilding continued to inspire his family long after[15]:

His young brother-in-law, Larry Diepolder, whom Floyd helped rear at Thousand Islands Park, went into business as a “gas engineer” and boat pilot.[16]  In 1921, Larry moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he competed in water races using boats he built himself.  He opened “Die Polder Electric Motors” which is still in business today.[17]

Floyd’s son Austin S. Carter moved to Chelan, Washington, after World War II, where he engaged in the boatbuilding business on Lake Chelan.[18]  In 1950, he was granted a patent for his concept of a “foldable boat.”[19]

So the next time you are on a lake or a river and you hear the familiar “put-put” of an engine off in the distance, perhaps you’ll remember the story of Floyd Carter and his motor ice boat from more than 100 years ago.  And when you hear it, be sure to stop, linger a while, and look around…. for like those assembled on the dock that chilly day, you may just find yourself a witness to the next great invention!

[Note: The author, Mark Wentling, is the great-great-grandson of the article subject, Floyd Carter.]

 

SOURCES:

All images from author’s personal collection except where otherwise noted.

[1] “Jefferson County: The News of Its Many towns as Taken From Our Exchanges,” Cape Vincent (N.Y.) Eagle, 26 January 1911, pg. 1, col. 7; digital image, NYS Historic Newspapers (http://www.nyshistoricnewspapers.org : accessed 26 January 2011).

[2] Carter Bible Records, 1834-1974, family pages only from unknown Bible; digital images made by Mark A. Wentling, Randolph, Massachusetts, 2009.  The Bible originated with Byron Carter and his wife Clarissa Britton, parents of Floyd Carter, whose births are the earliest entries; comparison of ink and handwriting suggest most entries were created by Ada Diepolder, Floyd’s wife.  The Bible passed to her daughter Kathleen (Carter) Abbott Philow and was then lost when her estate was dispersed following her death in 1984.  The Bible turned up on the online auction website Ebay in 2009 and was purchased by Mark A. Wentling, great-great-grandson of Floyd and Ada, and it is now in possession of his grndmother, Barbara (Carter) O’Brien, Floyd and Ada’s granddaughter, as of 2017.

[3] 1880 U.S. census, Jefferson County, New York, population schedule, Town of Orleans, Lafargeville, enumeration district (E.D.) 135, pg. 18-B, dwelling number 162, family number 165, M. J. Diepolder; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 February 2017); citing NARA microfilm publication T9, roll 839.

[4] 1900 U.S. census, Jefferson County, New York, population schedule, Town of Orleans, Thousand Island Park, enumeration district (E.D.) 26, pg. 2-B, dwelling 44, family 46, Floyd Carter; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 February 2017); citing NARA microfilm publication T623, roll 1041.

[5] “Thousand Islands Park: Four People Spilled From a Flying Ice Boat.”  Watertown Daily Times, 29 December 1904. pg. 4, col. 3-4; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards (http://www.fultonhistory.com : accessed 26 January 2011).

[6]  “Lafargeville” [local notes],  The Watertown (N.Y.) Herald,  3 February 1906. unpaged, col. 3; digital image, NYS Historic Newspapers (http://www.nyshistoricnewspapers.org : accessed 26 January 2011).

[7] “St. Lawrence Park” [local notes],  The Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald, 1 August 1909, pg. D-5, col. 3; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards (http://www.fultonhistory.com : accessed 26 January 2011);  “Thousand Island Park” [local notes],  The Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald, 29 August 1909, pg. D-5, col. 6; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards (http://www.fultonhistory.com : accessed 26 January 2011); and “Thousand Island Park” [local notes],  The Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald, 5 September 1909, pg. D-5, col. 3; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards (http://www.fultonhistory.com : accessed 26 January 2011).

[8] “Motor Driven Ice Boat.”  Jefferson County (N.Y.) Journal, [21-23?] January 1911, unpaged, col. 4; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards (http://www.fultonhistory.com : accessed 26 January 2011); “Power Driven Ice Boats on River,”  Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, 4 February 1911, pg. [illegible], col. 4; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards (http://www.fultonhistory.com : accessed 26 January 2011); and “Motor Driven Ice Boat Like An Aeroplane.”  Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, 1 March 1911. pg. 6, col. 2; digital image, Old Fulton NY Postcards (http://www.fultonhistory.com : accessed 26 January 2011).

[9] “Power Driven Ice Boats on River,” pg. [illegible], col. 4.

[10] “Remembering… Dec, 28 1911,” Thousand Islands (N.Y.) Sun, 5 September 1984, pg. 15; “Remembering… 22 Feb. 22, 1912: New Style of Motor Sleigh,” undated clipping, ca. late 1990s, Thousand Islands (N.Y.) Sun. Privately held by Mark A. Wentling, Randolph, Massachusetts, 2017.

[11] “Remembering… February 19, 1914: Patterson’s Motor Sleigh”undated clipping, ca. late 1990s, Thousand Islands (N.Y.) Sun. Privately held by Mark A. Wentling, Randolph, Massachusetts, 2017.

[12]  Arctic Goose [untitled clipping],  Thousand Islands (N.Y.) Sun, 5 January 1933; Rex Ennis, “Arctic Goose,”  Thousand Islands Lifeposted 12 February 2010 (http://www.thousandislandslife.com/BackIssues/Archive/tabid/393/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/423/ldquoArctic-Gooserdquo.aspx : accessed 30 January 2011).

[13] “Google Patents,” database with images, Google (http://www.google.com/patents/about?id=1bpSAAAAEBAJ&dq=morris+knight+ice+bvoat : accessed 28 January 2011), images, Morris C. Knight, ice and water boat, patent file no. 1,816,118 (1931); original file location not cited.

[14] Robert Lashomb [untitled clipping].  On the St. Lawrence (Carthage, N.Y.), 13 February 1953; ; digital image, NYS Historic Newspapers (http://www.nyshistoricnewspapers.org : accessed 26 January 2011).

[15] Carter Bible Records.

[16] “U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 January 2011), card for Lawrence Engelbert Diepolder, card no. 21, Local Draft Board 3, Orleans District 5, Jefferson County, New York; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509, roll 1753743.

[17]  Mark A. Wentling, “Rock Island Lighthouse Keepers: Emma E. Diepolder, 1901,” Rock Island Lighthouse Historical & Memorial Association (http://rockislandlighthouse.org/row.html : accessed 30 January 2011).

[18] “Austin S. Carter,” obituary, Wenatchee (Washington) World, 27 January 1975, p. 23, col. 5.

[19] “Google Patents,” database with images, Google (http://www.google.com/patents/about?id=rQlUAAAAEBAJ&dq=austin+s.+carter+foldable+boat : accessed 28 January 2011), images, Austin S. Carter, foldable boat, patent file no. 2,533,220 (1950); original patent file location not cited.

“I never saw my father again….”: how genealogical research answered a lifelong question for one woman

[Do you have an ancestor whose story you’d like to learn?  I am a professional genealogist with more than 20 years of experience.  Find out how I can help!]

 

My grandmother, Barbara, was nine years old the last time she saw her father.  On that day in 1943, she and her sister were walking to school when a car rolled up alongside them. In the driver’s seat was her father, accompanied by a woman she’d never seen.  “Barbara, Uncle Sam is calling me,” he said, “will you come with me?”

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Barbara and her sister Lila in 1935.

What a question!  Since their parents’ divorce, Barbara and her sister had been living with their grandparents on a quiet farm.  Suddenly she was being asked to leave all that she knew for travel down an uncertain road.

Her sister ran into the school as the teacher who stood in the doorway looked quizzically at Barbara.

“I’m going to stay here,” Barbara said after a long pause.  With those fateful words spoken, she watched the car carrying her father and the woman she had never met pull away.  Its wheels carried them toward the horizon and disappeared.

“I never saw my father after that,” said Barbara.  “I’ve always wondered what happened to him.”

It was now 1999, and as I sat across the kitchen table listening to Barbara tell her story, I could only imagine what questions must have haunted her during the 56 years since that day.

        Where had he gone?….
        Why didn’t he ever come back?….
        Was he even alive?….
        Should she have said yes?

I agreed to track down answers to as many of these questions as I could for her.  Fortunately, Barbara knew some details about her father that could get me started on the road to discovery:

Austin S. Carter in uniform

Austin S. Carter in his uniform

Austin Sinclair Carter was born on 16 July 1913 in Omar near Clayton, Jefferson County, New York.  It was a rural farming community, only a few miles from the mighty St. Lawrence River and the Canadian border, in the Thousand Islands region where life on a boat came as naturally to the locals as walking on land.

He was the son of Floyd Lewis Carter, a boat builder, and Ada Blanche Diepolder, who had once proclaimed herself the prettiest woman on the river(!).

Austin had helped build the famous Thousand Islands International Bridge that opened in 1938, connecting the mainland U.S. with Ontario, Canada.  He had also served in the Army Air Force during World War II.

This was all great information, but none of it gave me a place to start looking for Austin after the war, and there were no other relatives or acquaintances of his around for me to ask.

Then Barbara pulled out the one crucial clue she had—her grandmother’s obituary.

Obituaries are a valuable genealogical resource because they usually contain biographical information about a subject, including interests and occupations, places of residence, military service, organizational memberships and pointers to surviving relatives.  Usually this information is reliable because it has been provided by an immediate relative or close friend who was in a position to know.  Still, it’s always wise to verify the information found in an obituary, since the stress surrounding a death can muddle a person’s recollections under a reporter’s questioning, and reporters themselves can make mistakes when trying to assemble answers into an accurate record of unfamiliar names and relationships for publication, especially in the rush to meet a deadline.  Sometimes a person or reporter may even alter or omit the deceased’s affiliations, partners, children and other significant relationships intentionally.

Austin’s mother had died on 8 May 1974 and her obituary, published in the Watertown Daily Times, indeed contained a list of survivors:

“Besides her daughter, Mrs. Carter is survived by a son, Austin, of Washington State.”

Eureka!  I now knew that after leaving New York in the 1940’s, Austin had somehow found his way to Washington State.  Yet decades had passed since then.  Would he still be there?  My next task would be to pick up his trail in Washington records.

I first considered which sources would be most likely to contain a record of Austin.  Census records would not help, since none were available for the time period in question due to privacy laws.  Searching in city directories would be like finding a needle in a haystack, since I did not yet know where in Washington Austin had settled down.  Given that Austin would be in his late 80’s by this time, I knew there was a good chance he was no longer alive.  With this in mind, I turned to the Social Security Death Index to narrow my search.

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is an essential tool for researching recent Americans.  This searchable online database contains a record for each person who has died since 1936, was given a social security number and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration.  Each index record contains important genealogical data, including:

  • Full Name
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death
  • Social Security Number (SSN)
  • State or Territory that issued the SSN
  • Last place of residence (zip code)
  • Last place of claimed benefit (zip code)

Among other things, a genealogist can use an entry in the SSDI to obtain (with an immediate family member’s written consent) a copy of the original application for the deceased person’s Social Security card, which can contain even more valuable information, such as the person’s birthplace and parents’ full names, including mother’s maiden name.

My search of the SSDI turned up one record for an Austin Carter residing in Washington:

Name: Austin Carter
Born:   16 Jul 1913
Died:    Jan 1975
Residence: 98816 (Chelan, Chelan, WA)
Issuing State: New York

The name, date and place of birth and state and time of residence were all exact matches.  Here was Barbara’s father.

I was pleased that I had finally found him after all these years, but the record was bittersweet confirmation that he had been dead for a long time.

Yet this was not the end of my investigation.  I wanted to be able to tell Barbara what her father’s life had been like after he left her and her sister in New York so long ago.  To do that, I once again turned to an obituary search.

From the SSDI entry, I knew that Austin had probably died in Chelan.  I performed an online query to discover which newspapers served that community in 1975 and quickly zeroed in on The Wenatchee World, which was still in operation.  A clerk at the newspaper’s offices directed me to a local library that kept copies of old obituaries in their genealogy collection.  One phone call to the library and a few days later I had Austin’s obituary in my hands.  Published on 27 January 1975, it read:

“Austin S. Carter, 61, Chelan, died Friday evening in a Chelan hospital following an extended illness.

He was born July 16, 1913 in Clayton, New York.  He spent his early life there.  During World War II he served in the Army Air Force.  Following his discharge he moved to Chelan in 1946.  For two years he was employed with the Lake Chelan Boat Company.  From 1948 until 1950 he was employed with Howe-Sound Mining Co. at Holden.  Since 1950 he has been self employed as a carpenter.

On Jan. 8, 1963, he married Betty J. Randolph at Chelan.  He was a member of the Chelan Valley Lodge No. 118, F.A.M., Charles B. Reed, Council No. 14, R.& S.M., past high priest of Wenatchee Chapter No. 22, R.A.M., Columbia Commandery No. 14 Knights Templar, El Katif Shrine and the Chelan Eagles Lodge No. 2218.

Surviving are his wife Betty at home; one daughter, Mrs. Bob Woods of Winkleman, Ariz.; two sons, John of WInkleman, Ariz., and Tommy Randolph of Cashmere.”

I could now tell Barbara that after the war her father had settled in a place much like where he grew up that allowed him to make a living from work on the water.  He had also continued to be a builder—in fact, further research uncovered that he was awarded a patent for a “foldable boat.”

I could tell her that the reason he hadn’t come home was because he had settled down with a new wife and children (later research would show them to be hers from a prior marriage).

Finally, whatever his reasons were for not contacting the daughters he’d left behind during his lifetime, Barbara could now know that his silence during the previous 24 years had not been a lost opportunity to reconnect, but rather was the byproduct of his death.

The mystery of Austin’s fate was solved and Barbara’s questions were finally answered.

Introducing Barbara’s father…. Austin S. Carter.

 

The gravemarker for Austin S. Carter at Fraternal Cemetery in Chelan, Washington.

Austin’s grave marker at Fraternal Cemetery in Chelan.

 

This story proves the power of genealogical research to bring meaningful closure to a person’s lifelong and most deeply held questions.  It also illustrates the value an experienced genealogist provides in choosing the right tools and resources for the time period, location and question at hand to help solve a mystery.

Is there a mystery in your family waiting to be solved? Read more about my professional genealogy research service to find out how we can discover answers together!

 

Detail from Austin Carter's patent for foldable boat

Detail from Austin Carter’s patent for a foldable boat.  U.S. Patent No. 2,533,220.