Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Florida History: Up the creek in a paper boat

By Jane Feehan

(For more Florida history, use search box at top right.)

In 1908 George Johnson was living in St. Augustine as a curio dealer when he decided to visit his home in New York. Wanting to make a splash on this homecoming, the former printer built a boat made of newspapers and shellac. He gathered 3,000 sheets from 400 papers – both local and foreign  – and pasted them on the vessel’s slender wood frame according to locations of publication.  Placement of newspapers indicated the route he was to follow. The Saint Augustine Record, of where the journey began, was placed at the extreme bow and New York publications at the stern. It took five months to build the boat.

On his trip, Johnson rowed inland waterways, canals and rivers, where possible, on the 200-pound (after provisions)  20-foot paper boat. The New York Times interviewed him shortly after his arrival when he declared he had a “mighty good time.” He originally planned to return to Florida via the Mississippi River but decided to “stay awhile.”

He became ill after traveling from Brunswick to Savannah, GA. From Savannah, he had the boat shipped to Norfolk, VA.  Johnson followed by rail (his wife followed by rail for the entire trip) and resumed the trek from Norfolk. Sixty five days after setting out from Florida, Johnson reached his destination.

The idea of a paper boat was not new in Johnson’s time. Perhaps he got the idea from the Troy, NY company, Waters & Sons, that designed and constructed paper boats in the mid-19th century, or from the tale of the French paper boat, Qui Vive. It was built of compressed paper in France in 1884. This tough boat – 55 pounds and 17 feet – was successfully paddled 2,500 miles throughout the waterways of Europe.
Sources: - Excellent history of Waters & Sons

Tags: Florida history, paper boats, Florida in the 1900s, film researcher

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