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VERMILION, Ohio -- "We have met the enemy, and they are ours."
They were words written nearly 200 years ago in a brief but historically famous message to U.S. General William Henry Harrison during the Battle of Lake Erie, shortly after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry transferred his command from his sinking flagship to the USS Niagara, his crew rowing him through gunfire on Lake Erie aboard a rough-hewn wooden boat.
It is that 19-foot pulling boat that the Perry Group has chosen to commemorate the famous Sept. 10, 1813, battle that allowed Commodore Perry to continue commanding his crew in a battle against the British fleet in the waters near Put-in-Bay, Ohio. There he claimed a victory and ensured America's westward expansion and control of the Great Lakes.
"We decided that building this boat would be a visual metaphor for the Battle of Lake Erie event," said Peter Huston of Put-in-Bay, a member of the Perry Group and coordinator of projects by the nonprofit group for the bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812. "That image with the crew rowing him across is one of the most recognized."
Navy Week kicks off Monday in Toledo, the third of a six-city tour of the Great Lakes to commemorate the War of 1812 and the pivotal lake battle. Upon its completion, the pulling boat will be involved in several bicentennial events and will be commissioned to join a fleet of seaworthy vessels that serve as iconic reminders of the U.S. Navy's historical and modern-day service.
John Riddle, 30-year owner of Riddle Boatworks in Vermilion, agreed to build the pulling boat with the help of family and friends. Mr. Riddle rebuilds old boats and builds new vessels and reproductions of boats in his 6,000-square-foot shop at the east end of Vermilion, about 80 miles east of Toledo.
The Perry Group -- or the Friends of Perry International and Peace Memorial -- was formed by the U.S. Park Service in the 1980s to promote Perry's Monument and its goal of peace. Most recently, the focus has been to assist with the bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812 and to come up with a project that commemorates the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.
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Mr. Riddle said he took on the project after being asked by Mr. Huston.
"He just walked in one day and asked if I would be interested, and of course I was," Mr. Riddle said.
Mr. Huston knew he had an expert builder when he put the boat project in the hands of Mr. Riddle. But first they needed a design that most accurately depicted the boat. They sought advice and information from across the country; the name Melbourne Smith surfaced time and time again.
A naval architect who designs and builds historical sailing vessels, Mr. Smith, 83, designed and built several historical sailing vessels over the years, including designing the Spirit of Massachusetts and building a replica of the Pride of Baltimore.
Most notably in this area, however, he designed and built the U.S. Brig Niagara replica in 1988, spending two summers in Erie, Pa., where the original vessel was built for Lake Erie battle in 1813. The brig replica, which was commissioned in 1990, is to visit Toledo during Navy Week.
"This boat is typical of those used around 1812," Mr. Smith said of the pulling boat, which historical experts say was a boat that hung from the main stern of the brigs.
"The only way to get to shore would be on something like this," said Jeff Martin, the owner of Harbor Classic in Vermilion, who is helping Mr. Riddle with the project. "So they used them for ship-to-ship transport, ship-to-shore transport, or if the captain wanted to go to shore. If the ship's going down, the captain and the most important people are going first."
"I feel very honored to be on this project … to be a part of it."
Aiming for accuracy
Bob Reynolds, a Catawba Island Township resident who is a boat-building instructor for the Maritime Museum of Sandusky and has been designing and building boats for decades, took Mr. Smith's drawings and spent "about 80 hours" laying out the lines to scale so that Mr. Riddle could establish accurate scale moldings of the boat's parts.
Growing up, Mr. Reynolds, 81, worked for 20 years in Port Clinton at Matthews Boats Co., the business his grandfather Scott J. Matthews founded.
He made his way to the engineering department's drawing board.
For this project, he spent time in Erie, researching wooden boats of the region and of the War of 1812 era.
"It's a very historically significant one to do," he said of the replica. "It's quite a thing."
Also helping with the project is Mr. Riddle's brother Dave Riddle. Dave Riddle said the pair got into the boat business after growing up "from kindergarten on" at the Harrison Marina on Summit Street in Toledo, a facility their father, Jack Riddle, ran for decades.
Long, hard work
The crew started work on the project July 1, and has sweated over it "somewhat past dusk" daily to complete construction. On a recent July day, Mr. Riddle's shop smelled of fresh-cut wood, and a thin layer of sawdust had settled on the floor as the Riddle brothers and Mr. Martin worked to finish re-creating the keel, or the "spine" of the boat. The 19-foot keel is the backbone of the project, explained Dave Riddle -- if the plumb bobs hanging from a taut line above the boat are off by even a hair, the boat's measurements and framing will be off.
Once drywall molds were in place, Mr. Riddle and his skeleton crew started the planking of the uniquely shaped hull in the last week, hand-fitting two to four planks on each side per day.
The boat is estimated to cost between $33,000 and $35,000 to build, said David Zavagno, chairman of the Perry Group's Bicentennial Committee. The entire bicentennial celebration is projected to cost $750,000, he said, and is paid for through fund-raising and donations.
"We are about halfway there," he said of fund-raising efforts.
Organizers are hoping to be able to have the boat finished for an inaugural launch during a longboat rowing ceremony on Aug. 30, during Navy Week in Cleveland. But they fear they are falling short because the project had a delayed start.
The boat is to be involved in a bicentennial buoy placement ceremony on Sept. 8; vessels are to depart from South Bass Island at noon that day to place a permanent buoy at the battle site, northwest of Put-in-Bay between Rattlesnake and West Sister islands. It also is to be involved in next year's re-enactment of the lake battle on Sept. 2, 2013.
After the bicentennial celebration, the pulling boat is to be transported to events in the state -- including the annual Cleveland boat show in January and the travel and tourism show in Columbus. It will find its home at the visitors center at Perry's Victory and International Peace National Park site as part of its interpretive program there, Mr. Zavagno said.
"The most important part of this project is it provides people with a way to be able to connect with the Battle of Lake Erie," Mr. Huston said. "The Battle of Lake Erie was so significant in the fact it was the very first victory for the U.S. Navy."
A common phrase
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Mr. Huston said many people have heard the phrase "Don't give up the ship," but might not know the story behind it: Commodore Perry created a battle flag with the slogan in memory of a friend, Capt. James Lawrence, who had spoken the famous words as he lay dying on his ship during a battle on June 4, 1813.
"He carried that flag with him wherever he went, and it became his personal slogan," Mr. Huston said of Commodore Perry. "That is basically the model of the U.S. Navy. [Commodore Perry] embodied the idea that no matter what it took, you had to defend your sailors, your ship, your fleet."
Images of the boat are depicted time and time again, often as seen through the eyes of an artist. Perhaps best known is that of Ohio painter William Henry Powell, who in 1873 created his interpretation of that day in September, 1813, when Commodore Perry left his sinking battleship, the Lawrence, and pointed his crew to the Niagara warship.
A 27-foot-wide and 17-foot-high copy of the painting hangs above a staircase in Ohio's state capitol.
But don't expect this pulling boat replica to necessarily be an exact imitation of the vessel depicted in the works of Mr. Powell and other artists, those involved say. The builders are not using artist renderings as their guides but rather research of the rowing vessels of the time.
"All of the depictions we came up with are artist renderings, with a lot of artist licensing, and they are all very different from each other," Mr. Riddle said. "The goal for us was to make [the designs] appear as visibly accurate as we could [based on other vessels that exist from that era]."
"It's our best educated guess as to what it looked like and how it was built."
In Mr. Riddle's shop, a modern electric saw cuts and forms the boat's framing, the drawings of Mr. Smith and Mr. Reynolds guiding the work. Two hundred years ago, a handsaw and maybe a water-powered band saw and other hand tools fashioned not only the flagships but also these smaller pulling boats.
The planking will be marine-grade mahogany plywood in lieu of planks made of solid lumber such as cedar, pine, or one of the other local woods that might have been used in 1812. Plywood is stable in that it won't shrink, swell, or split, making it stronger, more watertight, and easier to maintain over time, Mr. Riddle said.
It will have a painted finish, and the boat is being planked in the lapstrake method, meaning the planks overlap one another along their edges, Mr. Riddle said.
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"The overlaps will be glued together, where the laps in the original 1812 version would have been fastened together with nails or perhaps with rivets. Glued laps work especially well with plywood planking and will not leak or loosen over time," he said.
The boat will be framed with steam-bent oak "ribs" in the same manner as the original version would have been, Mr. Riddle said.
The keel was re-created using mahogany; the frame of the boat will be oak with mahogany plywood. The backbone, which includes the keel, stem, sternpost, and transom, likely would have all been solid oak in the original 1812 version, but laminated parts are more stable and easier to maintain than the heavy timbers used back then.
"The original vessels were very heavy, as they had to carry barrels of water; this one is being built a little lighter," Mr. Smith said.
All the wood supplies were purchased from the region, Mr. Riddle said. The mahogany and marine plywood and other wood came from Homestead Hardwoods, run by Bob Gray, in Vickery, Ohio; the white oak being used for the frames is from Yoder's, an Amish sawmill south of Cleveland; and the Douglas fir and spruce came from LL Johnson Lumber in Lansing, he said.
In 1812, builders used what was available to them to fashion the boats in a matter of months off the shores of Erie, Pa.
"Back then, they weren't built for longevity, they were built to meet the British and do battle," Mr. Riddle said. "I think they just went into the woods, whacked down the appropriate tree, and cut it up. They were under a time crunch; it was America's first Navy."
Contact Roberta Redfern at: email@example.com or 419-724-6081.