Photo Gallery | The Sheila returns to Pontoosuc
PITTSFIELD -- For more than 50 years, riding the Sheila on Pontoosuc Lake was a time-honored tradition.
An excursion boat once owned by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the Sheila plied the 480-acre lake constantly, giving as many as 400 passenger tours during busy summer holiday weekends.
The original Sheila ceased operations in the early 1970s, and two subsequent attempts to revive her with different watercraft failed. Sheila III stopped running not long after she launched in 1985.
Now, some 90 years after the original first navigated the Pontoosuc, a Pittsfield native who has lived on the lake for 17 years is looking to revive that tradition.
Dave Francoeur, who owns U-Drive Rent-A-Boat on North Street, recently purchased a boat in Virginia similar to the original Sheila, and he is planning to use it for passenger lake tours beginning this fall.
He launched the new Sheila in Pontoosuc last weekend.
"I was going to name it the Sheila IV," said Francoeur, who opted to just go with Sheila. "I know a lot of people have good memories of it. I've looked at pictures of the lake the way it used to be.I thought it would be great if I could bring this back."
Francoeur's long-range plan is to use the Sheila to provide lake tours for diners who patronize the new restaurant that he and his significant other, Karol Carter, hope to open near the lake next spring. Francoeur and Carter are planning to convert the former Olde Fireplace Store, located across North Street from the lake, into an eatery.
"I'm trying to tie U-Drive, the Sheila and the restaurant together," said Francoeur, who also serves as a manager for a Pennsylvania-based company that maintains medical equipment.
The original Sheila, a 32-foot launch built in the early 1900s for millionaire George Westinghouse, held 32 passengers. The new Sheila is a 21-foot fiberglass craft with an electric motor than can hold less than half that amount. The original Sheila also came equipped with an electric motor, but it was replaced with a gasoline engine after the boat was sold in 1919.
Francoeur left the Berkshires after graduating from Pittsfield High School in 1980, then lived in several places around the country and across the state. In the mid-1990s he purchased his first boat, but docked it on Lake George. He soon got tired of lugging the boat around by trailer, and began looking for a place closer to home.
In 1997, Francoeur purchased a lakeside home in Pittsfield located on Pontoosuc Lake's western shore. And he soon learned that the house had ties to the Sheila.
"Supposedly, there was a sign in the window of the kitchen, and it was told to me that people would get on the Sheila and stop at my house to buy soda and sandwiches," he said.
Intrigued by what he had learned, Francoeur began looking around for a boat that he could use to replace the Sheila. He finally found one in Virginia on eBay, but had to outbid Universal Studios in Florida for the craft.
"We were bidding on it at the same time," he said. "It's not an exact replica. But it looks very similar to it."
The new Sheila is currently docked in front of Francoeur's house on the Pontoosuc.
Carnegie purchased the original Sheila in 1915 so he could tool around Stockbridge Bowl, which was located in front of Shadowbrook, his 85-room Lenox summer estate.
When Carnegie died in 1919, his widow sold the Sheila to the Lenox Brotherhood Club, which replaced its electric motor with a gasoline engine. In 1921, the club sold the Sheila to George Vogel of Pittsfield, who used it to replace another sightseeing boat that he was operating on Pontoosuc Lake.
Vogel, a local shoe store owner who died in 1973, conducted passenger tours on the Pontoosuc with the Sheila until 1966, when he sold the boat to another local resident. The Sheila also was used to search for missing persons, for dragging the lake bottom and for towing disabled watercraft. Although physically handicapped, Vogel once rescued three men in a storm by throwing them life preservers from the boat.
In July 1967, the Sheila suffered its own serious mishap when it sank during a storm in 80 feet of water near Matt Reilly's Pub in Lanesborough. The boat was raised from the bottom of the lake in June 1968 by Thomas Beattie of Cheshire, who resumed the lake tours with much fanfare -- his wife cracked a bottle of champagne across the bow when it re-entered the water. But by 1970 Beattie had moved the Sheila to Cheshire Lake. The boat was sold again and four years later ended up at a farm on Cascade Street in Pittsfield awaiting repairs. It was dismantled before ever entering the water again.
Sheila II, a pontoon boat that carried 12 passengers, began touring the lake in 1972. In a nod to history, Vogel, then 90, was brought back to witness the new boat's first trip. Sheila III, a 34-foot houseboat that seated 52 passengers, was originally used on Lake Champlain.
Francoeur has done extensive research on the Sheila's history, and has created a Gmail account, email@example.com, that people can use to send him any information that they have on the original boat.
And he can't wait to begin the tours.
"As far as I'm concerned," Francoeur said, "it's ready to go."
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For information about the Sheila or to book a tour, call U-Drive Rent-A-Boat at (413) 281-4196. Tours will be held on the weekends this fall and by special request. Fares have not yet been set.