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Steamboat Thistle by LJP – 1:64 scale – an 1894 Wisconsin sternwheeler by Lawrence Paplham

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It has been a while since I began this process. And … it will be a while before it is completed.


 I first became aware that there even were steamboats in the Fox River Valley when I got a copy of D. C. Mitchell’s Steamboats on the Fox River. I loved the book and all of its photos but Thistle’s octagonal pilot house caught my attention. Thus began a long research and drafting process.  


The Thistle was built as the J. H. Crawford in 1894 by Ryan Brothers of Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the Wolf River Transportation and Merchandising Company.   George Ryan and his brother were Canadians who learned shipbuilding at Short Brothers in Maine.  They also built Great Lake boats in Sheboygan and Manitowoc before they finally began ship building in Oshkosh.  This background had a profound effect upon the vessels they built.  They modeled and lofted their boats.  And George never referred to their creations as boats, they were always “ships”. Their boats were what Hunter called the Mosquito Fleet as their size was limited by the 145 by 36-foot Fox River locks.  Their long-lived boats were strongly constructed to weather the shallow but tempestuous Lake Winnebago.


The J H Crawford was nominally 130 feet long overall with a 25-foot beam. The new owners immediately had a falling out over the proposed Wolf River route for the Crawford. Eight months later the Crawford was sold to the company of McKenzie & [ John H.] Crawford.  In 1899 they in turn sold the Crawford to Clark and LeFevre. Clark & LeFevre lengthened the boat by 14 feet and renamed it Thistle. Clark & LeFevre combined interests with the Oshkosh Steamboat Company in 1906.   Thistle was finally dismantled at Green Bay in 1915 after a long 21-year life. 


Thistle had two distinct looks during its life:



Thistle at Berlin, Wisconsin in 1901.  Note the double stairs to the saloon deck, main deck with bull rails but without windows or mid-deck bulwarks. The bow bulwarks were added in 1901. This is what the J. H. Crawford probably looked like, albeit 14 feet shorter. Reprinted with permission from the Berlin (Wisconsin) Area Historical Society





Thistle at Omro during the period 1904 to 1909.  Now there was a grand staircase to the saloon deck, the main deck had windows and there was a mid-deck enclosure. The bull rails were replaced with bulwarks – a very unusual feature. Note the fore bulwarks had a canvas shade drawn down over it.  This was used periodically to protect passengers from the elements. This is one of my numerous postcards.


The usual routes used by Thistle were on the Lower Fox River from Appleton to Green Bay, the Upper Fox as far as Berlin, the Wolf River as far north as New London, and the east coast of Lake Winnebago.  The boat was initially a packet on a regular schedule with freight and passengers.  Later years it was primarily used for excursions and for hauling bulk freight, as coal, lumber and wire grass.  It was a day boat with no overnight accommodations for passengers although the captain and crew were housed on the boat.


Thistle had a normal but long life. This included strandings, sinkings, fires, and unfortunately deaths. The ice-free season was short – typically from mid-April until November – and was dictated by the federal government as to when the bridges and locks would be staffed.  In one instance, Thistle used its anchors to break the ice but the ice still cut an inch into the gangplanks which had been hung over its sides.  Thistle also ran backwards to use its paddlewheel to break either the ice or the floating bogs that formed in the shallow lakes. But it was ice that eventually caused its demise. In November 1913, Thistle was driven ashore in ice on the east side of Lake Winnebago.  Although rescued and run during 1914 season, that damage, a decreasing business, two newer underutilized  sternwheelers and a budding World War I could not justify the cost of repairs.  It was sent to the breakers in August 1915. 


Thistle was an excursion craft during a period when many photos were taken and many were used in creating postcards.  I ended up with more than 40 photos of Thistle. I bought some on eBay, some came from the D. C Mitchell book, while others came from museums, historical societies and libraries.  


NewspaperARCHIVE and Newspapers.com provided local period newspaper articles.   Local magazines, articles and books contained helpful information. A trip was made to the Steamboat House at the Winneconne Historical Society Museum in Marble Park. Its sole surviving Fox River Valley steamboat superstructure includes some incredible original staterooms.  I was very busy taking measurements and photos.


In my next post, I will describe how I made Thistle’s plans and include some of those plans.







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I just stumbled onto this, and assumed that Wisconsin Steamboat applied to a boat on the St Croix River- Mississippi watershed.  I was surprised and delighted to discover that the Fox River from Green Bay South was navigable and Western River type steamboats operated along it.  This makes you an honorary Great Lakes Ship modeler!


I am looking forward to future posts.



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Hi All,

Roger, Thanks for making me an honorary Great Laker!  My early life was on the shores of the Lake Michigan, with carferries and fish tugs out my back door.  


chborgm, glad to see you did both the Chaperon and Portland.  Two very different but wonderful steamboats.


Kurt, after the lapse in time, you probably thought that I had abandoned the project.  Actually I was doing research as I started with very little knowledge of sternwheelers.  I now have learned a lot but am amazed at how little I still know.  I cut the six parts of your Ships In Scale Chaperon article out and have referred to them as I have progressed. It has been very helpful.


Bridgman, no one was more surprised to learn about steamboats on the Fox than me.


I hope to post the plans section later today.


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There were no plans of Thistle that I could find so I needed to create my own.  I have really tried to make them as accurate as possible.  There was a model of Thistle made years ago.  It may have been lost when the Oshkosh Public Museum had a fire that destroyed their steamboat section in the 1990’s.


I decided on a 1:64 scale. Thistle’s overall nominal length was 144 feet, so the scale length was just under 24 inches.  Just the right length to fit on my shelving while still allowing for enough detail.


I was able to obtain only a few actual Thistle measurements beyond the legal dimensions.  One of the most important was that the height of the bulwarks plus railing was 3 ½ feet.  With my trusty digital calipers, I began measuring numerous components on the even more numerous photos.  I filled up many Excel spreadsheets with computations.  I tried to recreate the same measurements using several different photos in order to ensure accuracy.  Then I starting drawing plans – again and again and again. It truly took a long time and many iterations before a final set of plans was complete.  While the side profile took some time, to get the top-down drawings and profiles to accurately tie out required many revisions. Simply put, if the measurements were not correct the two would not fit together.


This is what my Thistle will look like. The time period is about 1910 to 1912.




I did top-down plans for each deck and another for each underside showing the beams and carlings.  This latter was really important in improving placement for the various components.  I included the hull even though I will do a plank on frame hull.  I really needed to understand where things were placed within the hull so I can accurately place the items above the hull. Hope this all makes sense. 


These are the eleven sheets that created.  Some have already been tweaked as I started the build. I also created but have not included a stern and bow profile. 



I started this project with very little knowledge of sternwheelers. I took numerous detours here as I headed off to learn more about steamboats in general and the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway and its steamboats. 


I reviewed other Fox-Wisconsin Waterway boats and other Ryan built boats.  The most helpful by far was the sistership 1907 Paul L. (as in LeFevre).  In May 1910, the Paul L. was unloading coal at an Oshkosh dock.  Amazingly, the coal was off loaded from only the starboard side and not the port side. Results were predictable.  The Paul L. capsized.  This was bad for the Paul L. but great for me as a modeler.  Numerous photos of the catastrophe were taken.  These provided a level of detail normally not available.  Especially helpful were the details of the hull including two stern views that is online at the Oshkosh Public Museum.


Primary general information came from the “usual suspects”: Bates, Kane, Hunter, Petsche and Sweeney.  I followed what others had done on Model Ship World (Thanks Cathead!), obtained William F. Wiseman’s Nautical Research Guild articles on the Myrtle Corey and Far West and Kurt Van Dahm’s Chaperon from Ships In Scale. Websites of existing period sternwheelers included the S. S. Sicamus and S. S Moyie.  There are many, many other sources too numerous to mention here, but the Institute of Nautical Archeology’s Yukon studies were very helpful.  There are many other steamboat related websites that were used. Periodicals as Beeson, the American Bluebook of Shipping, and brochures from the Marine Iron Works of Chicago USA provided valuable information and details on period equipment. And there are tons of books which provided general or information specific to one steamboat.  I became a voracious reader during the cold Wisconsin winters.


With the “final” plans in place, I started the hull.

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Hi Tony,  I am really looking forward to the wheelhouse also. 


From the pilothouse's size perspective, Thistle's wheel was described as "about six feet across".  Emil Steiger, one of the owners, loaned the wheel to the Oshkosh Yacht Club when Thistle was dismantled. I am unaware if it is still there.


I really like the roof but expect it will be a problem to model.  Many of the actual roofs were tin over wood framing.  Steamboats.com Online Museum - Dave Thomson Wing has photos of the pilothouse of the Golden Eagle that shows how the inside structure was built.  


I will be posting the hull construction in about a week.  In the meantime, I will be unavailable.


Thanks, LJP

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Hi Bob & Roger!


I am back.  


I really struggled with the hull. 


I also have an admission: the planked hull is complete and I am currently working on the guards and rudders. I will go through my process, my mistakes and reworks.  I wanted a complete hull before I started my post because I had no idea how long it was going to take or how many blind alleys I would follow.  Both were time and mistakes were considerable.


Creating the hull for the Thistle included two main sources.  The hull sheer came from Thistle photos. But I had no idea what the hull was like below the waterline. Instead, I used Paul L. photos as capsized to create the water and rib lines. Thistle and Paul L. had virtually identical hull dimensions, had the same builder (Ryan) and the same owner when the Paul L. was built (LeFevre).   


There are several photos that I found the helpful in creating the hull.



This is the bow of the Paul L. while under construction.  George Ryan is the man in the center.  Note the massive stempost (Thistle’s was even larger), the bow frames were not canted, and beginning with the 7th frame, the frames are doubled up to the water line.  This construction was typical for Ryan based upon accounts of other Ryan built boats. Reprinted with permission Neenah (Wisconsin) Historical Society.



A bow photo that shows the flat bottom, a true keel, rounded futtocks, and a sharp model bow. Reprinted with permission Neenah (Wisconsin) Historical Society. There are several other bow shots that I consulted during the build. I also own several postcards of the capsized Paul L.


There are two Paul L. stern photos from The Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Public Museum – the links are provided below. I was not timely in requesting permission to reprint here but the links will bring you to the low-resolution photos. Note the balanced rudder, the Ryan “spoon shaped stern” described in period articles, paddlewheel detail and other items.  The museum has high quality digital jpg’s for purchase, which I did purchase.   The enhanced digital photos are clear enough to permit the number of planks to be counted. This was incorporated into the model.  You could also see many of the bolts which held the planks to the frames.


Steamboat "Paul L " Capsized - FP2003.20.734 (pastperfectonline.com)


Steamboat "Paul L " Capsized - P6767.2 (pastperfectonline.com)


Interestingly, the barged-out hull of the Paul L. lies under water in the Fox River between locks 2 & 3 in Appleton. It was dived on by scuba divers and a video created in about 1995.  The green mossy hulk was interesting but not helpful in the build.  A quarter century later I was not willing to have more scuba divers hopefully locate and once again dive on the wreck.  The video, should you like review it, is located at:  https://archive.org/details/WiscRiverboats


I consulted Bertrand’s lines to help me.   John M. Sweeney’s contemporary River Practice of the West from the Transactions of American Society of Mechanical Engineers (Volume IX) provided lines and hull cross sections.  Circa 1890’s, I am lucky enough to have an original copy of this. The Institute of Nautical Archeology has a whole series  of Yukon sternwheeler articles.  In many respects, Fox and Yukon boats were very similar. 


My first step was to build a full-scale rough bulk head hull model using architectural foam and balsa.  Many, many iterations and adjustments later, I sliced it into sections to create the frames.  I decided to build a plank on bulkhead hull for the model instead of using actual individual frames like the real hull would have used.  My generated frames did not line up with where the expected actual frames would have been. But I will be able to take the lines off of the plank on bulkhead hull should I decide to build another Ryan sternwheeler. But not now.


This is what the completed framing looks like.  The open, boxed in area is for the boiler. Ryan used Scotch Marine boilers located within the hull instead of Western River boilers which were typically placed on the main deck. I tried using bulkheads with a cutout for the boiler but those were incredibly weak and I broke numerous ones before I used this box layout.




Photos of the hull of the Yukon sternwheeler Gleaner show how the supports for a boiler installed in a hull looked.   You can find the Murray Lundberg photos posted at http://explorenorth.com/library/ships/bl-gleaner.htm


A bit of a diversion here. Gleaner’s machinery came from the Marine Iron Works of Chicago USA (MIWC).  MIWC provided actual blueprints for building the sternwheeler when all the machinery was provided by them.  So, the remains may be from a set of those blueprints – which I have been unable to locate.  Alternatively, MIWC also provided a compete hull in knockdown form which was then sent to the owner along with the machinery and blueprints.  The owner then reassembled the hull.  


The next section will cover how I planked the hull.



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I had not planked a hull in a long time and it showed. 


Unlike Chaperon, Bertrand and others that had bottom planks that were flat, Thistle had planks that bent at the stem and stern, not unlike a clipper ship. Thistle did have bottom planks that were considerably wider than the side planks as noted in the Paul L photos.  Thistle’s actual bottom planks were made of oak, and the side planks of Eastern white pine.   Paul Ls. bottom planks were made of Cyprus and the side planks Douglas fir. Keels of both were local oak. The 1894 Thistle was able to use local wood but the supply was depleted by the time of the 1907 Paul L.


Initially, I tried just tapering the planks. Huge mistake.  I removed the mistake and decided to do it the correct way with spiling the planks.  I referred to Model Ship World articles on the process and consulted a 1980s vintage book that I owned on planking. 


I used poster board to create the templates for each row of planks. That was much easier to bend and trim than the actual basswood planks.  One template could be used for both the port and starboard side.  It was heartening to discover that my hull was symmetrical.   The wood planks still required beveling the edges and bending. 


My keel frame did not have the stem post attached.  Instead of cutting in the rabbits, I ran a 1/16 square stock from stem to stern on the keel frame.  The planks then abutted this.  The frame at the stem was tapered to meet the 1/16 square stock and the ends of the planks tapered to meet the square stock.  After the hull was planked, I ran wider stock over the smaller square stock on the bottom to portray the keel that Thistle had.  A stem post was added. The stern had a curved stock to follow the spoon shaped stern.


 In this photo, I had just started the correct planking process.  Note the line demarcations on the frames where the individual planks were to be affixed. I started with  few planks by the sheer strakes to add stability. I then went down to the keel and garboard strake and planked from there up.  




The second product looked much better than the first try.






Off to building the guards and rudders.

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To create the guards, I used the photos from the capsized Paul L. The outrakers were placed at a scale 22 inches on center.  I created a jig, which is seen in the bottom center of the photo below, to be consistent in placing the distances. The outside planks (no idea what these were called) were affixed to the underside of the outrakers and the inner rubbing strake. The cylinder timbers had to be added at this point to complete the guards.  I always tried to think several steps ahead in order to prevent rework or creating much more difficult processes. I was not always successful in this endeavour.


This is a shot of the work in process. 



This is what the final result looked like. 



The two balanced rudders replicated what was on the Oshkosh Museum stern photos. 

This is where I had one of my “should have thought farther ahead” moments. The transom needed have a section removed between the cylinder timbers to accommodate the eventual pitmans.  And the transom needed to have a section removed between the rudder stops for the rudder tillers.  I chose to have the tillers beneath the main deck. I had seen some sternwheelers that had the tillers on the main deck (which used up a lot of usable deck space) or placed under the boiler deck. In this latter case the rudder post had to extend up between the transom and the false transom. This method affected the main deck if it extended beyond the transom to the false transom. 


This is a photo of the rudders and rudder stops before: final finishing, being secured, gudgeons & pintels added, or painting. I had also drawn a temporary waterline



I now need to paint the hull before starting on the decking and stationaires.



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  • 3 weeks later...

Over its 21-year lifespan, Thistle had numerous paint schemes. Unfortunately, black and white photos, “colorized” postcards of dubious accuracy and generalizations of “light colors” help little in arriving at accurate paint schemes.


Luckily, the May 6, 1907 Oshkosh Daily Northwestern newspaper (via Newspapers.com) presented that:

  • ” decks being colored red, the hull in sea green, the cabins in grey and the rails and stairways in white.”

By that time, the hull below the waterline was covered with two coats of boiled linseed oil instead of paint.  This will be my paint scheme for Thistle.


On how paint was made, according to Donald Jackson in his Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone [Ticknor & Fields, 1985]

  • “Because all paints were mixed on the job by adding various pigments to white lead or linseed oil, the order called for lampblack, bluish-green verdigris (a copper compound), red litharge (a lead compound), yellow ochre, copal and Japan varnishes, and, of course, turpentine in large quantities.”

For my model, the sea green that was used is comparable to the sea green used in the pilothouse of S. S. Moyie.  The grey will be comparable to the original grey paint on the Steamboat House at Marble Park in Winneconne, Wisconsin.  The red will be a darkened red more period specific than the bright reds now seen on current sternwheelers. Boiled linseed oil was used on the hull below the waterline.  Interior main deck colors will be white upper and a yellow lower.  The yellow will be comparable to the yellow on steamboat relics in the Steamboat Graveyard across from Dawson City. 


Thistle was described as having between 3 to 3 ½ feet of draft. There is a side profile of Paul L. at the Oshkosh Public Museum site that shows what the bottom and sides of Paul L. looked like. I would expect that Thistle would have looked much the same.  Note the photo of the Paul L. was from after the May 1910 capsizing as there are now straight stacks unlike the earlier “Thistle Like” stacks that had rings at the top of the stacks.  The link, if you should so desire:


Steamboat Paul L. - P1182.119 (pastperfectonline.com)


I gave the bottom of Thistle’s hull the historical description of two coats of boiled linseed oil and nothing else.  This looks like uncolored varnish. The photo of the Paul L. shows a much darker bottom.  By that time Paul L. would have been in service nearly three years and the bottom would have been much dirtier.  I suppose that I could have aged Thistle’s bottom to reflect that aging.


The sides, the guards and the rudders were spray painted Ocean Green.  The underside of the main deck planks over the guards will be this same color. I was not concerned about the overspray as the deck planks will cover this. There are colorized postcards of Thistle that show green bottom or sides that are close to that ocean green.  Again, artistic license may have impacted the colors chosen on the postcards.


This is what the model looked like after the hull was painted.  I was uncertain about the cylinder timbers so I painted them white.






There is always a discussion of tarpaper or canvas on decks. The birds eye photos of Thistle and Paul L. provide no clarity as to which was used. There are photos of Yukon steamboats where canvas was being laid. The S. S. Moyie described where canvas would last about five years on the decks, and several layers were present on the decks when the boat was renovated. Canvas was used on Thistle on the main deck above the bulwarks for shading so it was already in use on the boat.    “Canvas, painted and sanded” will be used instead of tarpaper.


I know that a covering was used on the hurricane deck based upon both Thistle and Paul L. photo postcards. In the capsized Paul L. photo postcards, the main deck was left uncovered.  The Paul L. boiler deck seemed to have been covered. The much smaller boiler deck was also covered on Moyie.


I would appreciate input from others on whether the boiler deck should have been covered or not.  I know most models show this of not being covered so if I were to cover the boiler deck that would be a huge departure from the norm.   I am trying to get more photos of the capsized Paul L. to try and provide more clarity. 


The main deck is next up. This will take some time.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi Bob!

Never thought of Michigan State colours! My red will not be Bucky Badger Red but a dark oxide red like a hull red so the people in Madison will still not approve. LOL



Here is the best Paul L. photo postcard that I own for deciding to use canvas on the boiler deck.  You can definitely see the deck planks on the main deck, but the boiler deck - especially around the stacks and by the railings - looks just like the covered hurricane deck.  The other issue is what colour the boiler and hurricane decks should be.  I know the article referred to the "decks", as in plural, being red, but everything I have seen and read seems to point to a grey colour and not red.  Again, any input would be greatly appreciated.



Hi Keith! Welcome aboard! Hope you find this interesting. 


I am still working on planking the main deck.  I have mocked up some Scotch Marine boilers and finished off the boiler pit, since Thistle's boilers were located within the hull and not on the main deck. I need to make certain the stacks line up through the boiler deck.  I have struggled somewhat in portraying the coal in the bunkers but I think I have a reasonable approximation.  I do not have the measurements of any of the boilers used in Thistle.  Similar Ryan built boats did have two 4' by 12' boilers, so that is what I am using.  [The Paul L. had  a single 9' diameter boiler that was described as the largest Ryan installed boiler at the time.]   In a really odd twist, a boiler from when Thistle was scrapped ended up in an Oshkosh school.  There was a real bad newspaper photograph of that boiler when the school was demolished in the 1960s. I would loved to have had a clear and usable photo.


The decking will take a few weeks as I attend to family duties.

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From reading NRJ articles over the years, attempting to determine colors from old black and white photos is difficult if not impossible. Apparently different photo emulsions result in different shades of black and grey.  I don’t claim any expertise in this area- just what I have read.



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  • 2 weeks later...

So often, in steamboats, the rule is "anything reasonable was probably done somewhere" (and sometimes unreasonable). I agree that the boiler and hurricane decks look like they have canvas, and it seems more likely that those weren't painted red, so a natural canvas color would seem appropriate there? With a dull red for the main deck as a contrast? In the absence of better evidence I'd say choose what looks attractive to you personally and what you can reasonably justify.

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