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New Life for Historic Boathouse and Marine Railway

By Polly Saltonstall

Photos by Alison Langley

Built to house a yacht in the early 1900s, the American Boathouse has been rebuilt to house a 48-foot Hinckley. Here, the big doors are open revealing the Hinckley on its cradle. The slatted gates at water level keep debris from the basin inside. They also open to allow the boat on its cradle to slide down the new marine railway and into the harbor.

More than 120 years after it was built to house a rusticator’s steam yacht, a historic boathouse at the head of Camden Harbor and its marine railway have been meticulously rebuilt and restored to house a modern powerboat.

Known in recent decades as the American Boathouse, the 180-foot long and 22-foot-wide wooden structure was in danger of falling down when a history-minded couple bought it in 2016 with the intention of saving the building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building had been empty and for sale for many years after the Cannell Boatbuilding Co. and Cannell, Paine & Page Yacht Brokerage had moved out.

“We were walking by and saw the ‘for sale’ sign and thought this would be a fun project,” said one of the owners, a couple who own a seasonal home elsewhere on Camden Harbor.

Early on, the couple contacted Jay Fischer of Belfast-based Cold Mountain Builders, who became the lead contractor on the job. Cold Mountain had worked on the building in the 1980s for Bill Cannell, installing a new roof and siding, and making other repairs when it housed Cannell’s boatbuilding operation.

Other key players in the project included structural engineer Albert Putnam of Brunswick, Maine; landscape architect Stephen Mohr of Portland; and New York-based G.P. Schaffer Architects.

The project was complicated by zoning and the building’s historic listing—it is considered one of the oldest boathouses of its type in the country. The sale to the new owners was conditional on an eventually successful town vote to change the zoning to allow the building to be used for both residential living and boat storage, instead of boatbuilding. The Maine Historical Preservation Commission had to approve all the construction details to make sure the building’s historic features were saved. Although in the beginning the team hoped to save as much of the historic material as possible, they ended up replacing more than they had planned because of rot and deterioration, Fischer said. The new materials are the exact same dimensions and look the same as the old, he added.

“They were very, very strict,” he said. “Everything had to be exact.”

Mohr, who was the project’s point person with Maine Preservation, as well as with the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies overseeing the harbor side of the project, said summer resident Chauncy Borland’s mother hired a builder and paid to have the boathouse built in 1901 to house the family yacht Mona Loa. At the time, Borland was in his early 20s. The so-called headhouse, a side addition that housed the winching system for the marine railway, was added two years later. According to Mohr, Mrs. Borland turned the building over to her son several years after that.

This panoramic photo shows Camden Harbor around 1904 when the American Boathouse was built. Look closely at the big building at the head of the harbor to see the long white hull of the Mona Loa on the boathouse ways. Photo courtesy Camden Public Library

Over the years, Borland, who was the first commodore of the Camden Yacht Club, owned three boats with the same name, all designed by Arthur Binney. The original steam yacht Mona Loa was 131 feet long and had a long bowsprit that was protected by a bumper when the boat was hauled in the boathouse; the big water-side doors included a smaller section on top to accommodate the vessel’s smokestack. The top cutout, now purely decorative, remains.

Back then, the boat bay extended all the way to the street, Mohr said. In the new renovation, the boat basin extends just 80 feet, with the rest of the space being used for an apartment.

The boathouse once was one among several nestled at the head of the harbor to house similar yachts. As part of the restoration, the new owners bought a dilapidated adjacent red boat shed and tore it down to provide access for construction on that side of the building. That space now holds a small deck, a patio, and private garden. Two other remaining sheds on that side of the harbor belong to the Lyman-Morse boatyard.

Inside the rebuilt boat bay, sea water laps against new concrete walls and footings, and sends shimmering spots of reflected light dancing around new wooden beams overhead. Interspersed with the wood are well-camouflaged steel frames that give the high structure stability. When it was built, the boathouse was tethered to the ground outside to keep the wall from tilting in high winds, but those tethers were removed years ago, contributing to the old building’s slow collapse, Putnam said.