Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Charles P. Taylor and the naphtha launches
For maybe a decade, the 1890s into early 1900s, naphtha launches were popular on Onota, Pontoosuc, Windsor and Laurel lakes as well as others. They had covered prows. They were mostly open craft, perhaps with an awning. Powered by small external-combustion engines, they consumed a petroleum byproduct: naphtha. They were lightweight and easy to navigate. They required no special license to operate, unlike the steam-powered craft. The launches were generally 18 to 20 feet long. They flourished both as popular passenger carriers and as private cruisers. Some owners were venturesome; Charles Barker, of Pittsfield, guided a launch up the Hudson River from New York City to Troy, cruised through the Champlain Canal and then carried it overland to Lake George in 1892.
An avid fan of naphtha launches was Charles P. Taylor (1869-1939), of Hinsdale. He was the son of W. Ambrose and Ellen Warriner Taylor. His father was in charge of papermaker Byron Weston's accounting department in Dalton. Taylor joined him in 1887 as a bookkeeper.
An early bicycling enthusiast — he and a friend, Harry C. Plunkett, thought nothing of making a 40-mile junket from Pittsfield to Lee and back in 1893 — Taylor had the agency Pittsfield Cycle Co. in 1895. Two years later, he signed on to sell Keating two-wheelers. That year, 1897, he took a post with Stanley Electric Manufacturing.
Also that year, Taylor rescued two young men who were floundering in Pontoosuc Lake after their boat flipped.
"Those who watched it from the shore in breathless anxiety," the Pittsfield Sun said, "as the two young men repeatedly came to the surface struggling and gasping for breath, said the rescue was a noble one. Mr. Taylor showed considerable strategy and a clear head in not allowing the struggling men to sink him with them. It was a commendable act and we congratulate him most sincerely."
In 1898, Taylor, the previously mentioned Barker, F.M. Miller of Pittsfield and E.H. Bridgman of Dalton erected a 20-by-23-foot boathouse at Pontoosuc to store their launches.
That same year, he "shipped his naphtha launch from Pontoosuc Lake, yesterday by freight to the Hudson river and will follow himself today and tart on a cruise down the river to New York and through Long island sound to Block Island Roy Robinson of Albany will accompany him," The Berkshire Eagle reported. "The launch is large enough to carry six or eight persons."
That year, the launch, which he co-owned with Barker, was damaged when Barker and his wife, Ida Merrill, ran into an iron pin near the Pontoosuc outlet. The Barkers had to be taken to shore in a rowboat.
By 1899, Pontoosuc Lake was crowded with the popular watercraft. Taylor had one, Barker had two. And there were a half-dozen others. Alden Sampson, the future truck manufacturer, had a distinctive craft shaped like a torpedo boat. He built his own engine. A pier was installed on the lake, a pavilion opened, more boathouses went up.
"Charles P. Taylor will operate his pretty, little launch this season, and as he has recently put in new engines, he expects to distance all competition A.E. Wells is building a launch for himself which will embody a number of original ideas. Barker and Belden have recently secured a new naphtha launch for a member of the [Pittsfield Boat] club. And others are contemplating the purchase of these fascinating little boats," the newspaper said.
It was rumored — and it was rumor only — that Taylor and others who owned launches were approached by Spanish agents seeking to purchase their craft. The Spanish-American War had just erupted.
The boats became larger and more sophisticated. Barker, who in 1899 opened a manufactory in Norwalk, Conn., in 1902 invited his friends Taylor, Miller and William B. Foote on a Long Island Sound and Hudson River maiden cruise in his new 50-foot launch. That year, John F. VanDeusen of Pittsfield commissioned a 21-foot naphtha boat from Norwalk Launch Co., powered by an engine invented by Barker.
"Mr. Barker has sold about 100 engines this year and was unable to supply orders for more," The Sun said. "He has sold several launches in Florida and has sent engines to Sweden, India and several foreign countries. Probably no gasoline engine on the market has met with a more cordial reception."
Taylor moved to Norwalk in 1903 to join Barker's Naphtha Launch Co.
He still kept a boat at Pontoosuc in 1908 and 1909.
Barker added wheels to his repertoire, manufacturing Murray trucks in three- and five-ton models in 1911, then for five years beginning in 1912 making Barker trucks at C.L. Barker Co. in Norwalk. One vehicle was a pumper truck built for the Mayflower Hose Company in Norwalk in 1913. In 1915 he received a patent for a floating bearing, in 1918 another for a shaft-steadying device, in 1919 a check valve. He also manufactured Barker Instantaneous Gas Water Heaters. He sold his factory in 1923. The rest of his story has been difficult to track down.
Meanwhile, Taylor in 1915 cruised from Norwalk around Cape Hatteras to Mansfield, N.C., in his 22-foot motorboat, for a winter sojourn.
We lose sight of Taylor for several years. Near the end of his life, he was still living in Norwalk and worked for a magazine. He took his own life with a .41-caliber derringer, leaving no suicide note. His only survivor was a sister, Mrs. Clifford Francis, of Pittsfield. He was buried in Hinsdale.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.
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