Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Strange Travels from Schenectady, Part 1: Canoeing to Oklahoma and Beyond

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Richard Strevell and Raymond Borden liked to paddle.  In the winter of 1907, they paddled 900 miles through the lake country of Florida in a 16 foot canoe.  In 1908 they decided to go big.  They set their sights on an 18 month voyage in the same canoe leaving from Schenectady. Strevell, 28, was a machinist at General Electric, living on Congress Street.  Borden, 23, was a painter living on South Ferry Street.  They were described as “hardy young men all ready for the occasion” which they would have to be for what they had planned.

Richard Strevell and Raymond Borden getting ready for their trip. Courtesy of the
Wayne Tucker Postcard Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library.
At 3pm on Monday, August 3rd, 1908, over 1000 people witnessed their departure by way of the Erie Canal.  To help finance their trip, they sold “postals” of themselves with their canoe, one of which made its way into the Wayne Tucker postcard collection. Their canoe was 16 feet long and made of cedar and canvas.  It had a 33 inch beam and weighed 600 pounds loaded, including Strevell and Borden, 51 pounds unloaded.  In the space between the beams was a watertight compartment for groceries and provisions.  They filled every available nook and cranny with items needed for the trip including complete camping and cooking outfits. From either end of the canoe, pennants of the Old Fort Club waved in the breeze.

Their itinerary was ambitious.  They would start off for Buffalo by way of the Erie Canal.  From there, they would paddle inside the breakwaters of Lake Erie to the St. Clair River to Lake Michigan.  Then they would travel up the lakes as far as Green Bay Wisconsin, taking the Fox River then the Wisconsin River inland, eventually reaching Oklahoma by December where they would winter on a ranch in Oatka.  This leg of the journey would be 4000 miles.
The Union Street bridge over the Erie Canal where you could have lined up
to watch our ambitious paddlers row their way towards Oklahoma.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection
Once navigation opened again, they planned another 6000 mile odyssey.  They would take the Arkansas River and drainage canals to the Mississippi and then head south to New Orleans.  From there they would paddle to Key West through the Gulf of Mexico and then cruise up the Atlantic just inside the breakwater to New York.  They would then go up the Hudson River to Albany returning to Schenectady by way of the Erie Canal in early 1910. They said the trip was for “pleasure and recreation”.

Did they make it?  We don’t know.  Newspaper reports have them arriving in Buffalo on August 21st.  In Buffalo, they hooked up with William Adams who had canoed there from Boston with a friend who abandoned the journey at that point.   They were also intent on reaching New Orleans. The next mention of the trio is from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, not part of their original itinerary.  They must have rethought their route and taken waterways south, most likely the Alleghany River, from Lake Erie.  While in Pittsburgh, they were seeking advice from local river pilots on streams to be traversed and general conditions of various routes.  They told a local reporter that they camped along river ways at night and by hunting and fishing for food were able to hold their expenses down to 25 cents a day for each man.  They secured money through sales of their postcards and “by any means offered en route”.  They planned to travel west on the Ohio River from Pennsylvania and a fourth man was expected to join their party further down the river. 
The Junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, a possible route of the Strevell and Borden.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (
From there, the trail goes cold.  No other articles have been found to ascertain whether they completed their journey.  A small notice in the Schenectady Gazette finds Richard Strevell visiting his cousin in Schenectady in 1913 from his home in Iowa.  Did he paddle there?  His 1918 World War I draft card has him living in Seminole, Florida with fishing listed as his profession.  He stayed in Florida for the rest of his life. He was a school bus driver according to the 1930 census and a store merchant at age 60 on the 1940 census.  Sometime between 1930 and 1940 he married Florence who worked with him in their store.  He died in Florida in 1964 at age 84.  I haven’t been able to locate any information as to what became of Raymond Borden but we will keep looking! 

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