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Four Months in a Sneak-Box

By Nathaniel H. Bishop (1837-1902), 1879

[Map of routes followed by N. H. Bishop in paper canoe "Maria Theresa" and duck-boat "Centennial Republic" 1874-1876] [84KB GIF]

Chapter 1

The Boat for the Voyage


THE READER who patiently followed the author in his long "VOYAGE OF THE PAPER CANOE," from the high latitude of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the warmer regions of the Gulf of Mexico, may desire to know the reasons which impelled the canoeist to exchange his light, graceful, and swift paper craft for the comical-looking but more commodious and comfortable Barnegat sneak-box, or duck-boat. Having navigated more than eight thousand miles in sail-boats, row-boats, and canoes, upon the fresh and salt watercourses of the North American continent (usually without a companion), a hard-earned experience has taught me that while the light, frail canoe is indispensable for exploring shallow streams, for shooting rapids, and for making long portages from one watercourse to another, the deeper and more continuous water-ways may be more comfortably traversed in a stronger and heavier boat, which offers many of the advantages of a portable home.

To find such a boat--one that possessed many desirable points in a small hull--had been with me a study of years. I commenced to search for it in my boyhood--twenty-five years ago; and though I have carefully examined numerous small boats while travelling in seven foreign countries, and have studied the models of miniature craft in museums, and at exhibitions of marine architecture, I failed to discover the object of my desire, until, on the sea-shore of New Jersey, I saw for the first time what is known among gunners as the Barnegat sneak-box.

Having owned, and thoroughly tested in the waters of Barnegat and Little Egg Harbor bays, five of these boats, I became convinced that their claims for the good-will of the boating fraternity had not been over-estimated; so when I planned my second voyage from northern America to the Gulf of Mexico, and selected the great water-courses of the west and south (the Ohio and Mississippi rivers) as the route to be explored and studied, I chose the Barnegat sneak-box as the most comfortable model combined with other advantages for a voyager's use. The sneak-box offered ample stowage capacity, while canoes built to hold one person were not large enough to carry the amount of baggage necessary for the voyage; for I was to avoid hotels and towns, to live in my boat day and night, to carry an ample stock of provisions, and to travel in as comfortable a manner as possible. In fact, I adopted a very home-like boat, which, though only twelve feet long, four feet wide, and thirteen inches deep, was strong, stiff, dry, and safe; a craft that could be sailed or rowed, as wind, weather, or inclination might dictate,--the weight of which hardly exceeded two hundred pounds,--and could be conveniently transported from one stream to another in an ordinary wagon.

A Nautilus, or any improved type of canoe, would have been lighter and more easily transported, and could have been paddled at a higher speed with the same effort expended in rowing the heavier sneak-box; but the canoe did not offer the peculiar advantages of comfort and freedom of bodily motion possessed by its unique fellow-craft. Experienced canoeists agree that a canoe of fourteen feet in length, which weighs only seventy pounds, if built of wood, bark, canvas, or paper, when out of the water and resting upon the ground, or even when bedded on some soft material, like grass or rushes, cannot support the sleeping weight of the canoeist for many successive nights without becoming strained.

Light indeed must be the weight and slender and elastic the form of the man who can sleep many nights comfortably in a seventy-pound canoe without injuring it. Cedar canoes, after being subjected to such use for some time, generally become leaky; so, to avoid this disaster, the canoeist, when threatened with wet weather, is forced to the disagreeable task of troubling some private householder for a shelter, or run the risk of injuring his boat by packing himself away in its narrow, coffin-like quarters and dreaming that he is a sardine, while his restless weight is every moment straining his delicate canoe, and visions of future leaks arise to disturb his tranquillity.

The one great advantage possessed by a canoe is its lightness. Canoeists dwell upon the importance of the LIGHT WEIGHT of their canoes, and the ease with which they can be carried. If the canoeist is to sleep in his delicate craft while making a long journey, she must be made much heavier than the perfected models now in use in this country, many of which are under seventy-five pounds' weight. This additional weight is at once fatal to speed, and becomes burdensome when the canoeist is forced to carry his canoe upon his OWN shoulders over a portage. A sneak-box built to carry one person weighs about three times as much as a well-built cedar canoe.

This remarkable little boat has a history which does not reach very far back into the present century. With the assistance of Mr. William Errickson of Barnegat, and Dr. William P. Haywood of West Creek, Ocean County, New Jersey, I have been able to rescue from oblivion and bring to the light of day a correct history of the Barnegat sneak-box.

Captain Hazelton Seaman, of West Creek village, New Jersey, a boat-builder and an expert shooter of wild-fowl, about the year 1836, conceived the idea of constructing for his own use a low-decked boat, or gunning-punt, in which, when its deck was covered with sedge, he could secrete himself from the wild-fowl while gunning in Barnegat and Little Egg Harbor bays.

It was important that the boat should be sufficiently light to enable a single sportsman to pull her from the water on to the low points of the bay shores. During the winter months, when the great marshes were at times incrusted with snow, and the shallow creeks covered with ice,--obstacles which must be crossed to reach the open waters of the sound,--it would be necessary to use her as a sled, to effect which end a pair of light oaken strips were screwed to the bottom of the sneak-box, when she could be easily pushed by the gunner, and the transportation of the oars, sail, blankets, guns, ammunition, and provisions (all of which stowed under the hatch and locked up as snugly as if in a strong chest) became a very simple matter. While secreted in his boat, on the watch for fowl, with his craft hidden by a covering of grass or sedge, the gunner could approach within shooting-distance of a flock of unsuspicious ducks; and this being done in a sneaking manner (though Mr. Seaman named the result of his first effort the "Devil's Coffin" the bay-men gave her the sobriquet of "SNEAK-BOX"; and this name she has retained to the present day.

Since Captain Seaman built his "Devil's Coffin," forty years ago, the model has been improved by various builders, until it is believed that it has almost attained perfection. The boat has no sheer, and sets low in the water. This lack of sheer is supplied by a light canvas apron which is tacked to the deck, and presents, when stretched upward by a stick two feet in length, a convex surface to a head sea. The water which breaks upon the deck, forward of the cockpit, is turned off at the sides of the boat in almost the same manner as a snow-plough clears a railroad track of snow. The apron also protects the head and shoulders of the rower from cold head winds.

The first sneak-box built by Captain Seaman had a piece of canvas stretched upon an oaken hoop, so fastened to the deck that when a head sea struck the bow, the hoop and canvas were forced upward so as to throw the water off its sides, thus effectually preventing its ingress into the hold of the craft. The improved apron originated with Mr. John Crammer, Jr., a short time after Captain Seaman built the first sneak-box. The second sneak-box was constructed by Mr. Crammer; and afterwards Mr. Samuel Perine, an old and much respected bay-man, of Barnegat, built the third one. The last two men have finished their voyage of life, but "Uncle Haze,"--as he is familiarly called by his many admirers,--the originator of the tiny craft which may well be called multum in parvo, and which carried me, its single occupant, safely and comfortably twenty-six hundred miles, from Pittsburgh to Cedar Keys, still lives at West Creek, builds yachts as well as he does sneak-boxes, and puts to the blush younger gunners by the energy displayed and success attained in the vigorous pursuit of wildfowl shooting in the bays which fringe the coast of Ocean County, New Jersey.

A few years since, this ingenious man invented an improvement on the marine life-saving car, which has been adopted by the United States government; and during the year 1875 he constructed a new ducking-punt with a low paddle-wheel at its stern, for the purpose of more easily and secretly approaching flocks of wild-fowl.

The peculiar advantages of the sneak-box were known to but few of the hunting and shooting fraternity, and, with the exception of an occasional visitor, were used only by the oystermen, fishermen, and wild-fowl shooters of Barnegat and Little Egg Harbor bays, until the New Jersey Southern Railroad and its connecting branches penetrated to the eastern shores of New Jersey, when educated amateur sportsmen from the cities quickly recognized in the little gunning-punt all they had long desired to combine in one small boat.

Mr. Charles Hallock, in his paper the "Forest and Stream," of April 23, 1874, gave drawings and a description of the sneak-box, and fairly presented its claims to public favor.

The sneak-box is not a monopoly of any particular builder, but it requires peculiar talent to build one,--the kind of talent which enables one man to cut out a perfect axe-handle, while the master-carpenter finds it difficult to accomplish the same thing. The best yacht-builders in Ocean County generally fail in modelling a sneak-box, while many second-rate mechanics along the shore, who could not possibly construct a yacht that would sail well, can make a perfect sneak-box, or gunning-skiff. All this may be accounted for by recognizing the fact that the water-lines of the sneak-box are peculiar, and differ materially from those of row-boats, sailboats, and yachts. Having a spoon-shaped bottom and bow, the sneak-box moves rather over the water than through it, and this peculiarity, together with its broad beam, gives the boat such stiffness that two persons may stand upright in her while she is moving through the water, and troll their lines while fishing, or discharge their guns, without careening the boat; a valuable advantage not possessed by our best cruising canoes.

The boat sails well on the wind, though hard to pull against a strong head sea. A fin-shaped centre-board takes the place of a keel. It can be quickly removed from the trunk, or centre-board well, and stored under the deck. The flatness of her floor permits the sneak-box to run in very shallow water while being rowed or when sailing before the wind without the centre-board. Some of these boats, carrying a weight of three hundred pounds, will float in four to six inches of water.

The favorite material for boat-building in the United States is white cedar (Cupressus thyoides), which grows in dense forests in the swamps along the coast of New Jersey, as well as in other parts of North America. The wood is both white and brown, soft, fine-grained, and very light and durable. No wood used in boat-building can compare with the white cedar in resisting the changes from a wet to a dry state, and vice versa. The tree grows tall and straight. The lower part of the trunk with the diverging roots furnish knee timbers and carlines for the sneak-box. The ribs or timbers, and the carlines, are usually 1 1/4 x 1 1/4 inches in dimension, and are placed about ten inches apart. The frame above and below is covered with half-inch cedar sheathing, which is not less than six inches in width. The boat is strong enough to support a heavy man upon its deck, and when well built will rank next to the seamless paper boats of Mr. Waters of Troy, and the seamless wooden canoes of Messrs. Herald, Gordon & Stephenson, of the province of Ontario, Canada, in freedom from leakage.

During a cruise of twenty-six hundred miles not one drop of water leaked through the seams of the Centennial Republic. Her under planking was nicely joined, and the seams calked with cotton wicking, and afterwards filled with white-lead paint and putty. The deck planks, of seven inches width, were not joined, but were tongued and grooved, the tongues and grooves being well covered with a thick coat of white-lead paint.

The item of cost is another thing to be considered in regard to this boat. The usual cost of a first-class canoe of seventy pounds' weight, built after the model of the Rob Roy or Nautilus, with all its belongings, is about one hundred and twenty-five dollars; and these figures deter many a young man from enjoying the ennobling and healthful exercise of canoeing. A first-class sneak-box, with spars, sail, oars, anchor, &c., can be obtained for seventy-five dollars, and if several were ordered by a club they could probably be bought for sixty-five dollars each. The price of a sneak-box, as ordinarily built in Ocean County, New Jersey, is about forty dollars. The Centennial Republic cost about seventy-five dollars, and a city boat-builder would not duplicate her for less than one hundred and twenty-five dollars. The builders of the sneak-boxes have not yet acquired the art of overcharging their customers; they do not expect to receive more than one dollar and fifty cents or two dollars per day for their labor; and some of them are even so unwise as to risk their reputation by offering to furnish these boats for twenty-five dollars each. Such a craft, after a little hard usage, would leak as badly as most cedar canoes, and would be totally unfit for the trials of a long cruise.

[Diagram of Sneak-Box "Centennial Republic"] [55KB GIF]

The diagram given of the Centennial Republic will enable the reader of aquatic proclivities to understand the general principles upon which these boats are built. As they should be rated as third-class freight on railroads, it is more economical for the amateur to purchase a first-class boat at Barnegat, Manahawken, or West Creek, in Ocean County, New Jersey, along the Tuckerton Railroad, than to have a workman elsewhere, and one unacquainted with this peculiar model, experiment upon its construction at the purchaser's cost, and perhaps loss.

One bright morning, in the early part of the fall of 1875, I trudged on foot down one of the level roads which lead from the village of Manahawken through the swamps to the edge of the extensive salt marshes that fringe the shores of the bay. This road bore the euphonious name of Eel Street,--so named by the boys of the town. When about half-way from its end, I turned off to the right, and followed a wooded lane to the house of an honest surf-man, Captain George Bogart, who had recently left his old home on the beach, beside the restless waves of the Atlantic, and had resumed his avocation as a sneak-box builder.

The house and its small fields of low, arable land were environed on three sides by dense cedar and whortleberry swamps, but on the eastern boundary of the farm the broad salt marshes opened to the view, and beyond their limit were the salt waters of the bay, which were shut in from the ocean by a long, narrow, sandy island, known to the fishermen and wreckers as Long Beach,--the low, white sand-dunes of which were lifted above the horizon, and seemed suspended in the air as by a mirage. Across the wide, savanna-like plains came in gentle breezes the tonic breath of the sea, while hundreds, aye, thousands of mosquitoes settled quietly upon me, and quickly presented their bills.

In this sequestered nook, far from the bustle of the town, I found "Honest George," so much occupied in the construction of a sneak-box, under the shade of spreading willows, as to be wholly unconscious of the presence of the myriads of phlebotomists which covered every available inch of his person exposed to their attacks. The appropriate surroundings of a surf-man's house were here, scattered on every side in delightful confusion. There were piles of old rigging, iron bolts and rings, tarred parcelling, and cabin-doors,--in fact, all the spoils that a treacherous sea had thrown upon the beach; a sea so disastrous to many, but so friendly to the Barnegat wrecker,--who, by the way, is not so black a character as Mistress Rumor paints him. A tar-like odor everywhere prevailed, and I wondered, while breathing this wholesome air, why this surf-man of daring and renown had left his proper place upon the beach near the life-saving station, where his valuable experience, brave heart, and strong, brawny arms were needed to rescue from the ocean's grasp the poor victims of misfortune whose dead bodies are washed upon the hard strand of the Jersey shores every year from the wrecks of the many vessels which pound out their existence upon the dreaded coast of Barnegat? A question easily answered,--political preferment. His place had been filled by a man who had never pulled an oar in the surf, but had followed the occupation of a tradesman.

Thus Honest George, rejected by "the service," had left the beach, and crossing the wide bays to the main land, had taken up his abode under the willows by the marshes, but not too far from his natural element, for he could even now, while he hammered away on his sneak-boxes, hear the ceaseless moaning of the sea.

A verbal contract was soon made, and George agreed to build me for twenty-five dollars the best boat that had ever left his shop; he to do all the work upon the hull and spars, while the future owner was to supply all the materials at his own cost. The oars and sail were not included in the contract, but were made by other parties. In November, when I settled all the bills of construction, cost of materials, oar-locks, oars, spars, sail, anchor, &c., the sum-total did not exceed seventy-five dollars; and when the accounts of more than twenty boats and canoes built for me had been looked over, I concluded that the little craft, constructed by the surf-man, was, for the amount it cost and the advantages it gave me, the best investment I had ever made in things that float upon the water. Without a name painted upon her hull, and, like the "Maria Theresa" paper canoe, without a flag to decorate her, but with spars, sail, oars, rudder, anchor, cushions, blankets, cooking-kit, and double-barrelled gun, with ammunition securely locked under the hatch, the Centennial Republic, my future travelling companion, was ready by the middle of November for the descent of the western rivers to the Gulf of Mexico.

Captain George Bogart, attentive to the last to his pet craft, affectionately sewed her up in a covering of burlap, to protect her smooth surface from scratches during the transit over railroads. The two light oaken strips, which had been screwed to the bottom of the boat, kept the hull secure from injury by contact with nails, bolt-heads, &c., while she was being carried in the freight-cars of the Tuckerton, New Jersey, Southern and Pennsylvania railroads to Philadelphia, where she was delivered to the freight agent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to be sent to Pittsburgh, at the head of the Ohio River.

Here I must speak of a subject full of interest to all owners of boats, hoping that when our large corporations have their attention drawn to the fact they will make some provision for it. There appears to be no fixed freighting tariff established for boats, and the aquatic tourist is placed at the mercy of agents who too frequently, in their zeal for the interests of their employers, heavily tax the owner of the craft. The agent of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Philadelphia was sorely puzzled to know what to charge for a BOAT. He had loaded thousands of cars for Pittsburgh, but could find only one precedent to guide him. "We took a boat once to Pittsburgh," he said, "for twenty-five dollars, and yours should be charged the same." The shipping-clerk of a mercantile house, who had overheard the conversation, interrupted the agent with a loud laugh. "A charge of twenty-five dollars freight on a little thing like that! WHY, MAN, THAT SUM IS NEARLY HALF HER VALUE! How LARGE was the boat you shipped last fall to Pittsburgh for twenty-five dollars?" "Oh, about twice the size of this one," answered the agent; "but, size or no size, a boat's a boat, and we handle so few of them that we have no special tariff on them." "But," said the clerk, "you can easily and honestly establish a tariff if you will treat a boat as you do all other freight of the same class. Now, for instance, how do common boats rank, as first or third class freight?" "Third class, I should think," slowly responded the agent. "Ease your conscience, my friend," continued the clerk, "by weighing the boat, and charging the usual tariff rate for third class freight."

The boat, with its cargo still locked up inside, was put upon the scales, and the total weight was three hundred and ten pounds, for which a charge of seventy-two cents per one hundred pounds was made, and the boat placed on some barrels in a car. Thus did the common-sense and business-like arrangement of the friendly clerk secure for me the freight charge of two dollars and twenty-three cents, instead of twenty-five dollars, on a little boat for its carriage three hundred and fifty-three miles to Pittsburgh, and saved me not only from a pecuniary loss, but also from the uncomfortable feeling of being imposed upon.

In these days of canoe and boat voyages, when portages by rail are a necessary evil, a fixed tariff for such freight would save dollars and tempers, and some action in the matter is anxiously looked for by all interested parties.

I gave a parting look at my little craft snugly ensconced upon the top of a pile of barrels, and smiled as I turned away, thinking how precious she had already become to me, and philosophizing upon the strange genus, man, who could so readily twine his affections about an inanimate object. Upon consideration, it did not seem so strange a thing, however, for did not this boat represent the work of brains and hands for a generation past? Was it not the result of the study and hard-earned experiences of many men for many years? Men whose humble lives had been spent along the rough coast in daily struggles with the storms of ocean and of life? Many of them now slept in obscure graves, some in the deep sea, others under the tender, green turf; but here was the concentration of their ideas, the ultimatum of their labors, and I inwardly resolved, that, since to me was given the enjoyment, to them should be the honor, and that it should be through no fault of her captain if the Centennial Republic did not before many months reach her far-distant point of destination, twenty-six hundred miles away, on the white strands of the Gulf of Mexico.

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