New Lang Syne

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On rain-dappled Duck Creek, the old sidewheeler bay boat Lang Syne rests at an Essex Yacht Club dock like a phantom from the age when bay liners scurried back and forth on the Chesapeake like water bugs on a pond.

Lang Syne is a compact version of such storied steamboats as the Anne Arundel, the City of Norfolk, the Calvert, the Dorchester, the Potomac and the Emma Giles. It's a reminder of an era that ended in 1963 when the City of Richmond docked for the last time at Pratt Street.

The hard-used Lang Syne was derelict about five years ago when the Lehrer family of Essex spotted it tied to a tree on the Susquehanna River at Havre de Grace. Now her restoration is a family affair - Joseph Lehrer, his wife Marty, their sons, Mickey and Michael, and a couple of girlfriends, Annie Pratt and Kim Marshall, all work on the boat.

Mickey, 28, is hanging off the side now straightening out the starboard paddle wheel with an acetylene torch and a hammer. Mike, 23, is down in the hold, fitting a drive shaft. The women are talking on the aft deck. They're usually cleaning, scraping and painting.

"We rescued her and we're working on her," says Joseph Lehrer, 60. He's in the wheelhouse, showing off vintage throttle handles and gauges. "None of this was in here. We put all of this in. We're getting ready to hook it up. It had no engines, no nothing. It originally was steam."

The Lehrers think their boat is probably more than 100 years old and the last sidewheeler on the Chesapeake.

"Picture yourself around the turn of the century riding on this thing. Musta been a trip. Heh, heh, heh," Lehrer chortles.

The Lang Syne does look romantic in the rain on Duck Creek, where herons and ducks rise from the water and muskrats slide down the tree-shaded bank. The Lang Syne could be a Joseph Conrad riverboat ready to leave for the heart of darkness.

Mike spotted the boat while he was crossing the U.S. Route 40 bridge at Havre de Grace.

"I happened to be looking down over the side and saw it," Mike says. "Every time we crossed that bridge we looked to see that it was still there."

'Totally gutted'

His dad says: "The guy there had it all stripped out. And he was going to cut it up for scrap. No engines, no lines, nothing. It was totally gutted."

The boat was lying on its side, filling up with rainwater. One of the paddle wheels was lying on top.

"The guys used to fish off of it and they kind of hated to see it go," Lehrer says. "They were kind of teary-eyed."

"One wheel was off it, laying over in the weeds," Mike says.

"Along with the funnel," his dad adds. "Basically we had to go around locating parts."

An old waterman ran the boatyard as if it were a junkyard.

"He collected stuff," Martysays. "He had, like, bulldozers and cranes lying up on the shore. An old tugboat he had, it was pulled up, too. The backbone was broken, or we'd a got that, too."

"We didn't fool with it. Too much trouble, " her husband says.

"They got their eye on one down on Curtis Creek now," Marty says.

"Yeah, well, we're going to look into it," Lehrer says.

"We'll finish this one first," Marty says of the boat they've been working on two years. "Then we'll see. Collecting boats, like you collect china, or something, this is getting ridiculous."

The rescuers

The Lehrers have always been a nautical family and they've been fixing up boats since the boys were teen-agers. The Lang Syne is the sixth they've rescued. "Our great-great grandfather was a steamboat captain on the Rappahanock River in Virginia," Mike says. "I guess it's in our blood."

When they're not repairing boats, Mike and Mickey run the M & M Electric Co.

Their dad, a marine engineer, says, "We got a 50-foot we found in a yard with a tree growing through it. We restored that." A wooden '63 ChrisCraft, it's berthed at another yacht club, which Lehrer doesn't want to name.

"We have a problem whenever they have an event. People line up and want to tour it. It's not on tour. We do take people on her for little tours every now and then. You don't mind a couple of times. But it gets real ridiculous."

Mickey has restored a 35-foot 1967 Owens. At the end of the dock is another Owens cabin cruiser he fixed up and sold before he rescued his current boat. Mike redid a '69 Trojan. He's now restoring a dual cockpit runabout. Marty has a Lyman speedboat.

"That's an antique," she says.

And even though Lang Syne is a steel boat, the Lehrers love wood: "Don't like aluminum hulls, don't like Fiberglas," Lehrer says.

"I like rare boats, " Mike says. "You see them sitting up on land and you see them start dying, suffering and dying. I don't get any thrill out of the newer boats."

Mickey breaks in, "They're too sterile. There's no lines to them. There's nothing beautiful."

Their dad joins their critique of Fiberglas: "You ride on it, it beats you to death in the water, bang, bang, bang, bang. A wooden boat is like a Cadillac or a limousine; a fiber boat is like a Volkswagen: bang, bang, bang, bang."

"They all have pretty lines and the wood sweeps off," says Mickey, growing lyrical.

"If you really want class," his father says, "you want a wooden boat."

The family had been talking about an old Mississippi-style paddle wheel when they decided to get the Lang Syne.

They bought it, had it titled, numbered and towed down from Havre de Grace. It's 70 feet long, 27 feet wide, "three stories high" and made of tough boilerplate steel. The boat's certified for 150 passengers and crew. She's no longer powered by steam - which is prohibitively expensive these days -but by two 1958 Red Ball Lincoln Continental gasoline engines, one for each paddle wheel.

The tow down took eight hours, cost $3,000 and attracted a flotilla of escort boats at Hart-Miller Island when a marine policeman announced their destination.

"We were surrounded by a couple dozen boats," Lehrer says. "They were all excited to see this big boat coming in."

They figure Lang Syne's restoration is now about 45 percent completed. When they finish, depends on how much money they can raise. They've sought several grants, but so far none have come through. They're still trying.

"We're down here as much as we can, working on her," Mickey says. "There's a lot of bent steel to cut and weld."

"We had to straighten the wheel out," his father says. "Put paddles on it. You know, heat and bend and beat on it with a maul."

"Lot of work," Mickey says. "Makes you want to consider changing your hobby sometimes."

And a lot of money, too. Lehrer expects they'll have about $350,000 in Lang Syne when they're finished.

"What we're trying to do," he says, "We're trying to take her back to the turn of the century so people can feel like they're riding on a steamboat. We'll probably put her on as a tour boat."

People from Baltimore, the Eastern Shore and Solomon's Island have expressed an interest in Lang Syne for tours. The Essex Yacht Harbor would like the Lehrers to stay right here and sail from Duck Creek. They haven't decided yet.

"This will not be one of those smooth, silky boats you go on," Lehrer says.

"You'll feel the shudder and rumble. And you'll hear the engines run up and everything on this. It will be the real thing."

"You'll hear the paddles hitting," Mickey says. "A lot of your paddle wheels out there today have propellers under them. The wheels spin free. They're imitations. This will actually run off the paddle wheels. This is real."

"The real deal," says his dad.

Uncertain provenance

And the Lang Syne has a bit of a mystery about her.

"Where she's run and what she did," says Lehrer. "Different people stopped down to see her. Knew her for years. They told us all about her. One guy rode on her in World War II in Philadelphia. Another guy saw her up for repairs in Louisiana. These people all refer back way before 1950. We haven't been able to confirm all these leads."

Mike and his mother search reference books and steamboat histories.

"We've tried to do a trace on her and everywhere we hit a blank wall, a dead end," Lehrer says. "There's a big mystery about her. We know she was built at the turn of the century."

A safe from 1890 was put in her hold when she was built, which seems to date the Lang Syne.

"There's no way to get it out of the boat unless you cut out the hull," Mickey says.

The names of a slew of home ports turned up when they began taking paint off the transom: Mount Holly, Atlantico and Rancocas in New Jersey, Milton, Del., and Philadelphia.

"It seems kind of hard to believe the people who claim to have seen her - in Louisiana or wherever - and you sit there and think the boat couldn't have been in all those places," Mickey says. "But when we started stripping all the names off the back of the boat, we started realizing she got around quite a bit."

His brother Mike explains that "steamboats back in that time were really bought and sold a lot. We found out in different books we read that they were brought from New York down to the Chesapeake Bay, then they'd be sold here and sent to Florida. They said, in fact, some of them were even towed and shipped around the Horn to California.

"So a steamboat built for New York or Baltimore could end up anywhere."

Curiously none of the family has had any doubts about the old Lang Syne project.

"We knew we could do it," Lehrer says. "There's no such thing as can't do it. You can do it if you really, truly want to do it. You can do it."

"This thing was really, really bad," he says. "If you'd looked at it when we looked at it, you'd have walked away. It was really a wreck.

"We did a lot of work on her. We're gettin' her."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
68°