"La Duchesse"

By: Rick Casali

Volume 18, Issue 6, June 2023

The Antique Boat Museum (ABM) in Clayton, NY, has many interesting and varied vessels in their extensive collection. Perhaps the most unusual, and the largest, is La Duchesse, which is a 104-foot houseboat.

This striking vessel was built in 1903 for George Boldt – the proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, and the owner of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, in Philadelphia, PA.  Boldt had the architectural firm of Tames, Lemoine & Crain design the massive houseboat. With a beam of 22 feet, she displaced 247 tons. The houseboat was built in New York City, and was originally intended to be delivered to the Thousand Islands via the New York Barge Canal system. However, she was too tall to pass under the bridges over the canal, so she was built in sections, and shipped by rail to the St. Lawrence River.

La Duchesse is not powered, so she has to be towed from one location to another. George Boldt owned a tugboat named Queen, which towed the massive houseboat on the River. The cost to build the houseboat was $175,000, which was a tidy sum in 1903. La Duchesse had all the comforts of a fine hotel or upscale cottage. She offered ten bedrooms, five bathrooms, a very nice dining room, a spacious salon or living room, and a covered veranda for dancing and entertaining. La Duchesse had a galley with stainless steel counters, as well as servants quarters. There were two working fireplaces, one of brass and the other with a marble mantel.

The main salon in La Duchesse with with a working fireplace.

Among some of the features is a very spacious master stateroom, with a sitting area and private porch. There is also a cozy office or den with a writing desk, which is shown in photos from the past McNally family albums. Another feature is a butler’s pantry, used amongst other things, for arranging fresh flowers or preparing cocktails. The teak and holly decks of the veranda and salon have a high-gloss varnish finish. The wood paneling on the top deck is very warm and inviting. One can picture guests of the owners, in the comfortable arm chairs of the salon or veranda, enjoying the St. Lawrence River and our great climate.

The original hull of the houseboat was built of mahogany. Her bulkheads were built of steel and she had a steam heating system. Her two story design offered George Boldt and his guests comfortable accommodations for overnighting, watching the Gold Cup races, and for entertaining. There is a stained glass skylight that may have been created by Tiffany & Co. Wood paneling throughout the boat is a warm butternut, as I recall. A piano is located between the salon and the veranda for dancing, as well as entertaining guests. The bedrooms feature Pullman berths and shades, which were a nod to fellow Thousand Islander George Pullman, of railway car fame.

George Boldt passed away in 1916. In 1918, La Duchesse was advertised for rent in Town & Country magazine. Graham Miles, (the ex-husband of Clover Boldt, George’s daughter), took some control of Boldt’s properties during this time. Then in 1922, much of the estate was purchased by Edward J. Noble, who co-founded Lifesaver Candy Company, and who also founded the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Noble rented many of the Boldt properties and let visiting polo teams stay on La Duchesse. Eventually, the houseboat was put into storage, tied up at the Boldt Yacht House.

Veranda on La Duchesse - perfect for entertaining and relaxing on the River

After years of neglect, the houseboat sank at her berth, and two pilings punctured her hull. With the main deck under water, there was considerable damage to the lovely houseboat. Shortly after this unfortunate sinking, Mr. Noble had dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Andrew McNally III, and he offered to sell La Duchesse for a small sum, if they agreed to raise the barge and remove it from the Boldt Yacht House. The McNally’s paid Noble only $100, had divers repair the holes in the hull, and the water pumped out of the hull. The houseboat was then towed to the McNally estate on Wellesley Island, where she sat until the end of WW II, badly in need of repairs and updating.

In 1946, the McNally’s replaced the woodwork in the dining room, and had the water stained woodwork on the first floor bleached to restore its finish. In 1947, the McNally’s had La Duchesse towed to Kingston, ON, for installation of new wiring, plumbing, kitchen cupboards, holding tanks, as well as repairs to the wooden hull. At this time, the McNally family began to use the houseboat as their summer residence, since it was moored at their estate “On the Rocks” on Wellesley Island.

In 1956-1957, the original mahogany wood hull was replaced with a new steel hull and decks. This work was done at the Hutchinson Boat Works, in Alexandria Bay, NY. The company carefully cut the wood superstructure away from the original mahogany hull, pulled the old hull away, and then lowered the two-story building onto the new steel barge. This was no small feat, and the cost of this significant upgrade was $50,000, which again, was a significant investment for that period.

The McNally family continued to use La Duchesse for many years at their estate. The houseboat was a familiar sight to River residents and tourists, as they made their way up and down the U.S. Narrows. In the late 1980’s, Andrew McNally III gave 42% ownership of La Duchesse to the ABM. He passed away at the age of 92, in November, 2001, after enjoying the houseboat for many years as part of the family summer residence. In 2003, the ABM received a gift of 100% ownership of La Duchesse. In 2006-2007, the ABM built a tall yacht house to accommodate La Duchesse during the winter, to protect her from the elements.

La Duchesse is proudly on display at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY. 

During the season (May through October), guided tours of La Duchesse are run several times daily. Visitors can view all of the living spaces, learn her history, and see interesting items such as the Boldt and McNally fine china, cocktail glassware, and similar items.  

We are fortunate that the McNally family has maintained this part of the history of the Thousand Islands, and has generously donated her to the ABM for all to see this amazing vessel from the Gilded Age of the Thousand Islands.

Length:  106’ 9” (barge)  90’ 10” (house)
Beam:  26’ (barge)  21’ 2” (house)
Net tons:  300
Number of bedrooms:  9
Number of bathrooms:  5

By Rick Casali

Rick Casali is a resident of Wellesley Island.  During his youth, his parents had a cottage from 1947 to 1970 named The Orchards on Grindstone Island.  Rick now splits his time between Stuart, Florida and the River.  He worked for Columbia Gas System for 29 years, and ran their Washington, DC office. Then in 2000, he started brokering boats and yachts, and continues as a broker with North Point Yacht Sales.  Rick and his wife Anne cruise the River in a Seaway 24 Seafarer named "Miss Annie" and they live on Tennis Island.

Be sure to see more of Rick Casali's tributes and reviews. They are not only interesting but provide an important historical review of River life.

Posted in: Volume 18, Issue 6, June 2023, History, People

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