Newsletter of the Finger Lakes Chapter, ACBS

Volume 17, Issue 1.................................................................. March 2007

UPDATED: March 13, 2007


















Isle Urania, the small island that the Brashears bought in 1899, after renting a cottage for three summers on Lake Muskoka. The cottage and boathouse are still there, beautifully restored by Jim Grand of Gravenhurst, ONT Photo credit: Ken Robinson

Production of steam launches reached its peak in the decade before 1900, declining thereafter in favor of naptha launches and gasoline-powered boats. In order to deliver the boats to the Muskoka Lakes, they had to be shipped by railroad flat-cars. This affected the design and dictated that the beam not exceed the maximum width that could be allowed by rail -- about nine feet.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Davis Dry Dock Co., Ltd. of Kingston, Ontario, Canada was famous throughout North America for its boat-building capabilities. In particular, it had established a special reputation for producing quality steam yachts and launches for the affluent cottagers in the Muskokas.

Davis-built Muskoka yachts, such as Phoebe II, were particularly graceful and had a characteristic profile; fine bow lines, canoe stern, forward enclosed cabin with curved windows, a center section with roll-up side curtains containing a wood-fired boiler and compound condensing engine, an aft-enclosed cabin with a head and wash basin on the port side, and generous fore and aft decks. Hulls were generally painted white, while the cabins were constructed of varnished mahogany. Deck fittings were nickel plated, giving a very pleasing overall effect. The yachts were outfitted for day cruising only; the window sash weights were allowed to swing free such that overnight sleeping in any kind of roll would have been impossible!

One of the Phoebe's early day trips on Lake Muskoka in 1914.

And so it was that Matt Davis built the Phoebe II, a 48-ft. wood-burning steam launch with a 9-ft. 1-in. beam and 4-ft. draft. It is planked with 1-in. southern pine over very stout frames with a heavy keel and boiler stringers, a fairly straight stem and a compromise (canoe) stern. It is a luxury day-boat with a glass and mahogany-paneled wheelhouse forward, and a similarly enclosed aft salon reflecting the ambiance of an age of relaxed elegance. The engine room is located between the two.

The wheelhouse is where the helmsman holds forth and controls the boat with bell signals to the engine room. The aft salon has fore-and-aft seats along each side with a drop-leaf table in between. It can comfortably seat a party of ten to 15 people. The open-sided engine room houses a boiler and compound steam engine that drive the launch at speeds up to ten MPH. A common top runs nearly the entire length of the boat with open decks fore and aft, and a lazarette (storage space below decks) aft.

By 1914, the era of steam-driven small vessels was all but over. During World War I the Davis Company produced life boats and small ships' boats of both wood and metal for the war effort. In the post war years the company never regained its stature as a builder of luxury yachts.

*Phoebe II is the correct name of the launch - it was carved into the keel. However, two nameplates on the bow (possibly recovered from the original Phoebe) carry the name, Phoebe, without the numerals. As a result, the boat became known simply as Phoebe

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