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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Francis Kinney's Boathouse on Lake Kinnelon

Boathouse I by David French.
David French Boathouse IWere you aware that Francis S. Kinney's Kinnelon Estate included a boathouse? I recently learned about it from John Connelly who shares the following story of.... The Boathouse on Lake Kinnelon.

An immense and solitary stone sits at the end of Lake Kinnelon near the stables. Over it spills a gentle waterfall that flows easily through green fields, past 1 Robins Lane, under a stone bridge and into a quiet pool that you see on the right as you exit the East Gate. If not for this stone, Lake Kinnelon would not exist. If not for this stone, the lake would follow nature’s course and simply drain away.

I know this stone well because my journeys to St. Hubert's Chapel with Tom Kline always started there. We’d walk along a dirt road, pass the stables and then climb up the large stone. Reaching the top, the lake would come into view. Then we’d find the metal canoe that Tom hid in the tall grasses nearby. Emblazoned with his father’s initials, CHK, it served as our transport to the farthest reaches of the lake, the chapel and our childhood world of wonder.

We first took the CHK out to the Island in 1968 when Tom and I were 12 years old; Tom up front and me behind. We paddled across the still lake in the cool early hours of a clear spring day.

We passed through the cove taking note of a large wooden structure near the waterfall. It was an imposing sight rising about 2 stories high, all timber, darkened from age, and without windows. Large, dark and out of place, it was like an ark that had drifted across the lake and came to rest where it stood. Tom explained that it was a boathouse.

We journeyed to the chapel and returned, hiding the CHK in the tall grasses. I wrote earlier about that first chapel visit. The chapel was in a state of disrepair.

Upon returning, we decided to explore the boathouse.

The boathouse then was a massive rectangle shaped building approximately 40 feet long and about 20 feet wide. The building was about 15 feet from the waterfall and the sound of the falls was omnipresent. Whereas the chapel had been planted in a quiet lake setting where time is marked by imperceptible breezes, squawks of geese and changing seasons, by contrast, the boathouse was set near the waterfall amid the constant din of falling water. Like an hourglass noisily marking time.

There was a door on one side and we peeked in. There, suspended from ancient rafters, the longboats still hung in mid-air. There were between six and eight of them: long narrow wooden boats hanging in the darkness. Oars and accessories were fastened along the walls. Little bits of light streamed through the roof boards. Outside there was the sounds of life; birds and falling water. Inside, just darkness and silence.

My mind went back to a story Mr. Nevius had told me about the Smoke Rise of old.

Mr. Nevius was in his eighties back in 1968. This old man lived on Orchard Road and I worked for him. My job was simple: Twice a year, in spring and autumn, I’d go to his house, go down into his basement, and turn one knob that was at the far end of tight crawl space. I’m not sure what that knob did. I never asked. I’d just turn the knob and he’d pat me on the head and hand over a $5 bill. Great work if you could get it!

Most of the time, he’d then thank me and I’d go home. But, now and again he’d want to talk a little. One time, in particular, stands out in my mind.

Sitting down at this kitchen table he asked me to imagine Smoke Rise before all the roads were in. He said to imagine the dirt roads coming up through Kinnelon with important people riding in horse drawn carriages dressed in their finest clothes from far off cities on the way to visit the Kinney estate.

“This road, John Jay, Orchard Road, why, it was once an actual orchard! Then, they put in this street, named it Orchard Road, and now there are only houses. No trace left of the orchard, I’m afraid.

His expression drifted off.

“When they got to the Kinney home, they’d stay awhile. Sundays they’d get into little rowboats and attend mass. The priest was from St. Anthony’s in Butler. Sometimes he’d come up the night before to dine and stay overnight at the mansion”, he said.

“Then, after Mass, all dressed in fine clothes, they’d assemble along the shorelines to watch hulking young men race in long wooden boats.

“Who would?” I asked.

“Why, socialites and politicians, priests and businessmen. These were grand affairs. The Kinney’s, on Sundays, would also allow many of the workers to watch, too. Quietly and in the background, of course, but they were there. Among them was Stable Girl.

“Stable girl?

“I’ll tell you about her when you’re older” he said. He kept his promise.

I used to ask my Dad who Mr. Nevius was. He said he didn’t know exactly. All he knew was that he’d moved to Smoke Rise late in life from somewhere else, perhaps from far away. He was the local tax collector. He died in the early 1970s. That’s all I know about him outside of his stories. Stories of boating and Stable Girl.

Here were the boats, hanging from rafters in the darkness, suspended in mid-air exactly where they had been placed so many years before. I imagined it was with great excitement and laughter that they had one day been put in place. Set there, perhaps before the two great wars and the intervening depression. There was no laughter now, only silence, shadow and two wide-eyed boys peering into the darkest interior, the very soul, of the building.

Mr. Nevius had described a dance of sorts between the chapel and the boat races. A social interplay that began in reverent repose in the mornings and ending in excited hoots, cheering on straining young boys as they one by one raced to and circled the chapel as if to capture her attention. But, as we stood there back in 1968, both the chapel and the boathouse lay in neglect.

History makes clear that the chapel was vandalized in the 1950s by young boys. But, let the record also clearly state that it was the young boys of the 60s that saved her. Principally an extraordinary young solitary visionary named Tom Kline who fought back against the ravages of time and preserved part of the Smoke Rise legacy for future generations of young boys.

With each passing week, month and year a thousand trips were made on the CHK, and a thousand returns to the tall grasses by the great stone. With the passing of time the chapel came back to life, but the boathouse slowly crumbled. Inch by inch the structure slowly laid the longboats to the earth then fell over them into one confused pile of long boards. Marked by the pounding of the waterfall, time ran out for the boathouse. He was to have no savior.

On my last trip back to Smoke Rise, all that was left of the structure was an almost imperceptible pile of rotting boards next to the waterfall. That’s all that’s left of a once magnificent boathouse full of wooden longboats.

I’ve often thought of Mr. Nevius over the years; the turning of the knob, the distant look in his eyes, the tales of aristocrats cheering on the hopeful straining boys of summer. It was the turn of the century and, for Smoke Rise, its “Belle Epoque.” I can see in my mind, thanks to him, a world of long ago. A world of the privileged few and the nameless laborers who brought the mansion, the carriage house, the stables, the tower, the bridges, the walls, the Inn, and the gates and the boathouse to life, and by doing so brought a place of wonder and magic into being.

I see, too, a world of Italian craftsman who brought their stone-working skills to America to construct the chapel. They brought along a charming young daughter, as well. She is known to me only as “Stable Girl.”

But, that’s a story for another day…

-----------------------------
John sent me the following links to images that capture the boathouse he remembers.

+ This one of the Ullswater Boathouse is close to what he remembers, minus the deck and the stone exterior.

+ The Lowestoft Rowing Club boathouse is very similar, except it's smaller and has a white door, which Kinney's didn't. But the old wood look is very similar.

+The Ottawa River Boathouse captures the immense nature of the Kinney original.

+ This image of the interior of the Israeli Boathouse gives a sense of what the interior would have looked like. Of course much darker and the boats were all wood.

Thank you, John, for sharing this magnificent vision of another time and place with a Boathouse on Lake Kinnelon!

Added 8/3/09: Please note that, per John's location of the boathouse next to the waterfall, the boathouse was on then, and what is now still, private Talbot property.



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