The Rangeley Boat—An American Original

Written by: Bob Dagley

An early Rangeley boat in action.
Photo from the Eastern Illustrating Collection at the Penobscot Maritime Museum.

How a Small Maine Town Rocked the Boat

Every angler knows—especially those with a love of fishing remote places—that necessity truly is the mother of invention.

A century and a half ago, the Rangeley Lakes region of western Maine was a sportsman’s paradise brimming with big landlocked salmon and trout. Considered by many to be the birthplace of modern-day streamer fishing, the region brought us Carrie Steven’s famous flies (Blue Charm, Gray Ghost, Golden Witch), Cornelius “Fly Rod” Crosby, and the iconic Rangeley Boat.

They came in droves from out of state to fish the waters of Mooselookmeguntic (known to locals as the Big Lake), Cupsuptic, and others in the Rangeley Lakes chain. By the mid-1800s, the guiding business was booming, but dependable boats to take fly fishing clients out on the lakes were in short supply.

In need of a sturdy boat that could handle four- to five-foot waves, sudden and often intense storms, and accommodate both a rowing guide and a standing fly caster or two, the Rangeley Boat was born of necessity.

Maine guide Spike Kidder, now 97 years old, has written a history of the Rangeley Boat in his memoir, A Good Life in the Rangeley Lakes Area. He knows the boat better than most, having served as superintendent of the nation’s oldest private fishing club, the Oquossoc Angling Association (OAA), for nearly 40 years. It was for the OAA that the first Rangeley Boats were built in 1869, and Spike started rowing the wooden boats as a young guide in 1937.

“In the summer of 1869,” writes Kidder, “six boats were built for the OAA and a man by the name of Ball was paid the sum of $300.” The design was based on the St. Lawrence skiff, which members had brought over from Ogdensburg, New York. The first Maine-built boats, originally called Indian Rock boats, were built higher, wider, and longer than the New York boats to handle the rough Rangeley waters. The standard length is 17 feet from stern to bow.

As local builders took over the business of creating those boats, more innovations followed. Charles Barrett, who built the boats from 1880 to 1939, invented the round oarlocks that allowed guides to quickly drop the oars to help land a fish. Barrett also introduced the round seats that forced sports (as the fishing clients were called) to sit in the middle of the boat, making rowing easier for the guides.

Other improvements came over time. A square stern was added to the double-ended lapstrake boat in the 1920s to accommodate an outboard motor.

Boat builder Charles Barrett created the boat’s distinctive round seats.

“Herbert Ellis made three models of the square-stern boats,” writes Kidder. “The number two model had a flatter stern…and was preferred by guides as it would handle a motor up to about 7½ horsepower very well and was also a good boat to row. It wasn’t until the 30s that outboards could be run slow enough to troll without dragging a couple of pails over the side to slow the boat down.”

The locals who built these boats are long gone, but the boats…and their reputation…are not. A fleet of them is still in use at the OAA says Kidder, “even though three of them are least 75 years old.” For those with a hankering for a newly-built Rangeley, Stewart River Boatworks in Knife River, Minnesota, offers both 15-foot and 17-foot versions built to the original specifications.

The prized boat is still venerated today. This past June, the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum dedicated its new Rangeley Boat Monument in Oquossoc, Maine. The monument declares: The Rangeley Boat is an ‘American Original.’ And a testament to the innovative nature of anglers everywhere.

A modern-day Rangeley boat built by Alex Comb of Stewart River Boatworks.
Photo courtesy Stewart River Boatworks

13 thoughts on “The Rangeley Boat—An American Original”

  1. Played in these boats his kid in the 70s Loved rowing them as grampa would not let me use motor spent many hours on kenebago lake fishing did not realize at the time how blessed I was until the camp got sold

  2. I absolutely hated these boats for the first month of the season working as a dockman at Grants Kennebago Camps. As anyone who has had alot of experience with these boats knows, they must swell by absorbing water before they are watertight, so they take on water the first 2-4 weeks after they are put in the lake(some of them never stop but it gets better over time). Some of them take on ALOT, as in the boat is completely swamped in the morning lol. I remember spending hours every day scooping water out with a gallon milk jug cut into a scoop.

    Other than that though these boats really are beautiful.

  3. I purchased an old Ellis built double ender last year. I’m at the start of restoring it (stripping and removing old fiberglass patches). Any advice on how to finish it so that it still “swells” I’d love to restore it it to an original condition and not just patch and epoxy the hull.

  4. I love these boats. Stable and handle rough water well. Roomy for two. Acceptable for three. Quiet. Run beautifully with small hp motor. Go to Grant’s Camp. Fishing is awesome. Scenery breathtaking. Company unparalleled.

  5. I am a direct descendant of Charles and Thomas Barrett the original builders of the Rangeley Barrett Boat.
    My memory takes me back to the boat shop in Rangeley playing in the shavings on the shop floor.
    My grandfather Frank bought the business from his father Thomas and uncle Charles and built the Rangeley for many years then sold the business to H. N. Ellis..

    I go to Grant’s camps on Kennebago lake with my youngest son to fish every few years and always fly fish in a Rangeley.

    Doug Barrett

    1. Hi Doug, I have a Rangeley that Your Grandfather F.R. Barrett built. It is still in great Shape as it was stored indoors for many years. It even has the original “seat back” with it and what I believe are the original Oars. Nice Boats !! Wayne

  6. Awesome boat! I really enjoy fishing and exploring with a Rangeley Boat. I’m just back from a week at Grant’s Camp on Kennebago and the boat was flawless. Explored the logins and up to Little Kennebago with my son. We also had four people going from Grants to Flat Iron trail head with dog, not a fast ride, but much fun and very stable. I’m so happy to see all the correspondence on this boat. Great history. Just an FYI, Grants now has a power pump for the Dockmen when a heavy rain comes through. What year were you employed at Grants Ryan? I have been going 25 years and we still love the place. Fishing was great last week, both in the River and Lake. Moose spotting was also good. Never a dull moment at Grants, food and service outstanding! If you ever see one for sale, please let me know, i would love to buy one.
    All the best,
    John Finkeldie

    1. Jon I have a 1936 Frank Barrett guide boat in excellent condition on Lake George New York I can no longer take care of it and would like to see it go to a good home you can reach me at area code 518-439-8501 if you are interested

      1. If you are still looking for a great home for this great boat give me a call. Larry Hurley 508-726-2297.

  7. What great boats they are. Lofted my first Rangeley at the boat school in Eastport Maine from offsets from John Gardner’s book. Built two of them. I than came across the Barrett , a double ender. It need a complete restoration but worth it! What a great boat. Fast and seaworthy. Caught many salmon from her from the big lakes in Maine. Victor

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