Student Sam Hunt, standing behind a row of workbenches, lends scale to this somewhat blurry photograph, which shows us the construction jig for 21-foot Whitehall number 2 in the center of the construction floor.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) asked the Boat School to build three traditionally-built Whitehalls as replicas of the boats used by John Wesley Powell and his group of explorers during their first-ever descent of the Colorado River in 1869. The BBC will film a reenactment of the voyage later in 2013.
The School is building one 16-foot Whitehall, the "Scout Boat", and two 21-foot Whitehalls. Though Powell launched four Whitehalls onto the river in 1869, one, the 21-foot "No Name", was lost to the river shortly after the descent began.
The white oak from which the boats are constructed was supplied by Newport Nautical Timbers www.newportnauticaltimbers.com/ . The 16-foot boat will be planked in larch from eastern Washington, which is as close as it is possible to come to the original white pine planking used on that boat.
Whitehalls are the iconic American pulling boat.
They emerged in New York City and, possibly, shortly thereafter in Boston in the 1830’s. It is thought the name derives from Whitehall Street in New York City, though no one is sure. By the mid-19th century, they could be found anywhere there was a sizeable body of water – the East Coast, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific Coast at San Francisco all boasted boatbuilders turning out Whitehalls.
The boats were usually used under oars and occasionally sail as fast harbor ferries and the boat used to take harbor pilots out to meet inbound sailing ships. They have a fine reputation as fast, easy-rowing vessels that are capable of carrying a great deal of weight.
Nearly all Whitehalls were carvel-built with white cedar planking on an oak backbone with oak frames. (Carvel planking means that the planks butted up against each other, edge to edge, which results in a smooth hull). The finer boats were highlighted with a bright sheer plank (the top plank) varnished to catch one’s eye.
There is surprisingly little known about the boats used by the 1869 Powell Expedition, the first to descend the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. We do know that the Powell Expedition boats were built in Chicago IL to Powell’s specifications.
It’s known that the "Scout Boat" as Powell called it was 16 feet long and planked in white pine, that the remaining boats were 21 feet long and planked in white oak with twice the number of frames and doubled stems and stern posts.
There are no complete descriptions of the boats themselves, no pictures, and only a few scattered references made to the boats in the surviving journals and records of the Expedition.
The three boats we are building for the BBC are being constructed to the best information available, using the general scantlings provided by John Gardner’s historical work, extent plans, our significant experience in building Whitehalls over our 32 years, and the historical data available to us.
The boats will be completed by mid-July, 2013.
The Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding is located in Port Hadlock WA and is an accredited, non-profit vocational school. You can find us on the web at www.nwboatschool.org .
Our mission is to teach and preserve the fine art of wooden boatbuilding and traditional maritime crafts.
We build both commissioned and speculative boats for sale while teaching students boatbuilding the skills they need to work in the marine trades. If you’re interested in our building a boat for you, please feel free to give us a call.
You can reach us via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling us at 360-385-4948.
Photograph courtesy Mark Stuber.