July 20, 2005

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The Francis boat lies near the Kalamazoo Harbor lighthouse ca 1925

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The Hydraulic Press

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The Surf Boat



Currently being restored by members of the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society, the Francis lifeboat- surfboat was delivered to Kalamazoo river lighthouse when Timothy S. Coates (keeper between April 1853 and March 1860) was the keeper. Research of the records of U. S. Life-Saving Service show that the U. S. government purchased and delivered a total of 48 of these boats to Great Lakes locations about 1854.

The old boat has an interesting and unique history. The brain child of inventor Joseph Francis, the Francis boat was a real innovation because the hull was fabricated in pieces from thin steel metal sheets that were form-shaped in a large hydraulic press. The finished parts were then coated with molten tin and then zinc and riveted together. Due to the unique material -- an early form of galvanized metal -- today the hull is nearly as sound as when it came out of the press some 150 years ago.

The invention was touted in an article in the 1851 Harpers New Monthly Magazine : "The seams of the metallic boat will never open by exposure to the sun and rain, when lying long on the deck of a ship, or hauled up on shore. Nor will such boats burn. If a ship takes fire at sea, the boats if of iron can never be injured by conflagration. Nor can they be sunk. For they are provided with air chambers in various parts, each separate from the others, so that if the boat were bruised and jammed by violent concussions, up to her utmost capacity of receiving injury, the shapeless mass would still float upon the sea, and hold up with unconquerable buoyancy as many as could cling to her."

Attributes were light weight and low maintenance but the boat came at a high cost -- $475 -- twice what a worker earned in a year. But the price did not deter the Government from buying the boats for lifeboats and to outfit lifesaving and lighthouse locations.

There is no record of the boats use here at the Kalamazoo Lighthouse. It was still U.S. Government property when photographed sitting in the sand near the decommissioned lighthouse by my uncle, Joseph Sheridan about eighty years ago.
More on this remarkable piece of our history in next weeks feature!
                                                                                            By Jack Sheridan

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