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Fast Winter Fun in Days Gone by on Otsego Lake

It’s snowing here again this morning, and the temperature is forecast to be eight-degrees tonight and minus-two tomorrow evening, so its an excellent time to take a look at vintage winter motorsports on ice.

This scene containing four men posing with an ice racing boat was photographed in 1909 on a lake located in Otsego County, New York (eastern Upstate NY.) Judging by the size of the body of water it is likely that this is Otsego Lake – located next to and north of Cooperstown, the home of the Fenimore Art Museum, the source of the image. 

The machine gives the impression that it was well-made, possibly by an ice boat builder from the area. It looks to be powered by either a transverse dual or single-cylinder L-head air-cooled engine which may have automotive origins. Its power is transmitted via a shaft connected to the rear of the engine then by pulleys and a leather belt to a hand oiled open shaft supported by a spindly-looking cast metal support to the wooden propeller.

Please share with us what you find of interest in this photograph by Arthur J. Telfer.

24 responses to “Fast Winter Fun in Days Gone by on Otsego Lake

  1. I was actually thinking the motor was an air-cooled flat twin, of the sort that was used on early high-wheelers. Didn’t most automotive single-cylinder motors have the cylinder upright?

      • Yeah, after I finished posting, I remembered the Olds curved dash, the early Cadillacs and Reos, all the earlier cars with horizontal, single-cylinder engines. I was thinking of later models with the engine in front of the firewall — Brush, Maxwell, that sort of thing.

  2. That pipe coming up must be the exhaust. This reminds me of the hearty folks in Upper Michigan. When staying at a motel there, the hall was lined with vintage pictures, and some were of sleighs with airplane motors and propellers like this. , kind of like an air boat, only for lakes. No guards, no brakes, not for the faint of heart, but necessity forced them to come up with it. I bet this thing went pretty fast, and with no protection, ice isn’t much softer than concrete.

  3. I want one…..have a Briggs and all iron mongery…trouble is we have had nothing remotely like a Winter here in Nutley {Sussex not NJ} for years.

  4. Otsego Lake, “Glimmerglass” of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, provides about 7.5 miles of straightaway or a 15 mile oval for iceboating. Plenty of room to get up to speed. The lake is the source of the Susquehanna River, the longest (444 miles) river in the Eastern U.S., which empties into Chesapeake Bay.

  5. Those goggles are great for protecting the eyes, but I bet there were some near misses on nose and cheek frostbite! I went up in a biplane in SoCal with a similar set of head gear and it was bloody cold!!

  6. There may be some kind of brake on the rear runners.
    There is a cable ? on the under side of the rear and the rear “suspension” seems to have a type of movement in it that is different from the front.

  7. This photo appeared in The Pensacola Journal, Pensacola, Florida, on March 23, 1909, Page 4. The photo was captioned as follows.

    “Over the ice at Otsego Lake, Cooperstown, N. Y., an aero-motor iceboat, the newest invention of J. Arthur Olsen has been having its try-out. The machine attains a speed of seventy miles an hour. The body of the machine resembles that of a racing automobile.Behind the driver’s seat a gasoline engine is connected with the propeller, made up of two blades suspended in the air like the propeller of an aeroplane. A wheel attached to a singe runner in front serves for steering. Recent trails of the car have been pleasing to the inventor-owner because of the high speed shown against the wind. Mr. Olson’s first invention was a hydro-plane – a gliding, motor propelled boat which was seen skimming over the water at Cooperstown during its trail test.”

    Another example of this photo in the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown shows the following caption.

    “Arthur Olsen’s ice boat with painted number M-2 . Left to Right: Arthur Olsen who built iceboat at Frances’ Wagon Works on Railroad Ave., Guy Lee, Henry Reed who married John Wedderspoon’s sister and Hugh (?) Frances.”

    • Note that other sources show the last name spelled “Olson”.

      Olson would later construct a biplane in Cooperstown that flew on January 29, 1915. The pilot was William B. Stewart, and the flight was approximately a mile long.

      • The plane was also built at the Wagon Works (although the Congressional Record spells it as Francis rather than Frances). The flight was cut short by engine problems, and there was a minor engine fire after landing (it burnt a small hole in the fabric). After the flight it was disassembled for transport to Boston for further testing, but I can’t find any other references to it after the first flight.

        Olsen had worked for Curtiss and had been flying for a while before building his airplane; he’s mentioned as a pilot in the August 10, 1912 issue of Aero & Hydro.

  8. This is not unlike the Ice boats that my brother and I built back in the sixty’s. Ours were a sheet of 3/4″ plywood cut in a triangular shape. This gave us the same two skate rear and one steering in front configuration.
    We powered ours with 7 hp chainsaw engines and a propeller specially made to purpose by Banks / Maxwell Co. out of Texas.

  9. My father made one of these, around 1940. His was made around a wood frame four skis, steering and engine from a 30 Chevy his body work was flour bags stretched over wooden slats from produce boxes, and bushel baskets. The ice boat as he called it was powered by the Chevy four banger to a laminated, hand carved and balanced prop. The skis were wood bottomed with steel sliding surface with sharpened skegs to aid in turning. He had three friends who had similar contraptions, one was salvaged from a crashed airplane the retained it’s enclosed cockpit. They gathered one day for a speed test. The father of one of the guys was the village justice of the peace who arranged for the county sheriff to close down a mile of frozen road and to time the last half mile to determine speed after a first half mile run up. My dad’s came in fastest at 88 mph the slowest did 70. They then moved to the frozen surface of Onieda lake and did a two mile course ,timing the second mile over that run dad’s machine did 93 the others did 76, 84, and 90. Somewhere in dad’s stuff I have a clipping from the post standard paper document the dare devil local lads adventures.

  10. What a ride this would be! Looks like fun. I know I would want a bit more protection on my face for the frostbite. Those gloves he’s wearing look like bear paws.

  11. So the engine mat have been from an earlier car. The article says chevy four. Thought dad said it was a 30 but it was 35 years after the fact.

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