The Mailboat Letter

This was written before we had any clue that we might move to Skaneateles.

September 5, 1996

I had the day off last Friday, and it struck us that it would be a perfect day to ride the Mail Boat on Skaneateles Lake. One of my jobs at work is to write nice things about the Village of Skaneateles; the public relations people then send the writing to newspapers in hopes that they will print what I said, thus filling the Village with well-to-do tourists who will eat, shop and spend lavishly before leaving quickly and peacefully at dusk. The Ebenezers at the Chamber of Commerce then begrudge my employer a few dollars, which enables the agency to pay me from time to time.

Among the things I write glowingly about, when not trumpeting the virtues of Sunday polo or chamber music, are the luncheon and dinner cruises with beautiful scenery, wherein diners shoot longing glances at the houses of the wealthy, and ingest prime rib with champagne. I cannot digest beef but I do love the mail, so my choice of the Mail Boat was easy, and Laurie enthusiastically seconded the suggestion. And as the Mail Boat’s last run for the season was September 3rd, we had not a moment to lose.

The Mail Boat’s actual name is the Barbara S. Wiles; she was the daughter of Gustav Stickley. (When Barbara Streisand bought Gustav’s own sideboard at auction for $325,000, it was the Wiles family that was selling it.) As a woodworker, Gustav would be proud of his daughter’s namesake. It’s forty nine feet long, all mahogany, with a white hull that reflects sunlight off the water, and a blue roof under which are stowed Type 1 Personal Flotation Devices, aka “The Seahorse.”

Laurie and I lined up with about 20 others at 9:30 on a spectacularly sunny morning, 75° with a nice breeze, blue skies. The mail was carried across the street from the post office in a white Styrofoam basket, prearranged in order of delivery. We had mail for 17 people, although there are 35 on the list. Many of the cottages are not accessible by road, and many that are still prefer the romance of mail arriving by boat, as it has for 120 years. There are only four mail boats in operation in the U.S., one in Oregon, one in New Hampshire and two in New York State, and the Wiles family make a go of this one by charging people like us $16 each to ride along.

We cast off at about five minutes after ten. Inside the boat there were two rows of tables for four, divided by a center aisle running from stem to stern. Laurie and I sat on wicker bottom chairs facing front. Our fellow travelers were primarily retirees, including one gentleman who wore a clear red plastic visor with “Las Vegas” in peppy white script, surrounded by images of dice and a roulette wheel. He also had a belt-mounted caddie with at least 20 keys on it, although there are no locks on the lake.

Skaneateles Lake is 16 miles long, a mile and a half at its widest point, carved 350 feet deep by a glacier. (The north end, up by the Village, is the shallow part, said to be a swamp prior to the building of some dikes and dams that raised the level of the water by 15 feet and the real estate prices by an incomparable amount.) It’s one of the ten cleanest lakes in America, #7 at last ranking. The water is a beautiful green-blue, almost turquoise, and in spite of the blue skies, green hillsides and stately homes, our eyes kept returning to it.

The front and back of the boat were uncovered and sun drenched. The smokers gathered at the back around a pail of sand, and people in the know quickly filled up the spaces in the front to get a tan and see the deliveries close up. We had packed a lunch, resisting the offer of a $5 box lunch (that comes in a bag) and we had a thermos of hot tea, a real blessing as the breeze was brisk.

The Mail Boat also serves beer and wine, hence the importance of the onboard facility, always an important item for me, a nicely crafted closet with a shelf for a small plastic convenience of a type familiar to prissy campers. A curtain in the window assured one’s privacy — hardly the time to be waving to passing boats — although it was up to us to be acrobatically limber should we choose to relieve ourselves. (“I’d have to be pretty desperate,” Laurie noted.)

The mail itself seemed to consist largely of business correspondence and the Wall Street Journal. It was delivered by a young woman named Whitney — athletic, white shirt, blue shorts, and an added “Exeter Lacrosse” pullover when the wind picked up — who put each delivery into a fish net, stepped up onto a wicker chair, thence to the bow and then extended the net to whoever came to the dock when summoned by the boat’s horn. (The women hurried; the men took their time.) At houses with dockside mail boxes, Whitney would stretch out full length on the bow and put the mail into the box by hand. Most people received a small bundle secured with a rubber band, but one address, The Pines, a colony of cottages dating from 1902, had their own, imprinted mail bag; I turned emerald green with envy.

There was a good breeze up, pushing the boat to starboard as we stopped at homes along the eastern shore, and if the addressee didn’t appear right away, the captain, “Rick,” would have to back the boat out and come in again. Garbed like Whitney in shorts and a white shirt, he sat at the wheel to the left at the front of the enclosed area, and would occasionally call out to some bonehead who was standing directly in front of him, telling them to move over so he could see to guide the boat’s nose slowly into position. Some people seemed to think they were on a Disney ride, on rails under the water or something, and that the pilot didn’t really need to see or steer.

He knew where to steer because he had a photo album with a captioned snapshot of each cottage, and he flipped the pages as he went along. He also talked quite a bit, in a carnival barker’s voice, narrating the larger homes, filling our eager ears with gossip of the rich and the histories of how they got that way. For those who covet waterfront property, the list of “how-to’s” includes a talent for leadership in commercial real estate, construction, medicine, or the ability to invent something in the 19th century.

One gentleman built the St. Lawrence Seaway, another invented wire mesh. One wrote “The One-Minute Manager” and another played for the Atlanta Falcons. One family flies in from Phoenix, Arizona, another from Escondido, California. They one-up one another with floor space, tennis courts, basketball courts and mature trees transplanted at staggering cost.

One story stuck in my craw in a special way, that of the Hazard estate. The house, on the west side of the lake, is a yellow clapboard gothic fantasy with white trim and beautiful old trees, a real treasure, built by the man who invented the Solvay Process which manufactures soda ash. He built his factory on the shores of Onondaga Lake, here in Syracuse, and emptied the waste from the process into the clear, blue waters. The city added its sewage, and Allied Chemical bought out the inventor and added some quality waste to the toxic stew. Today, Onondaga Lake is as dead as dead can be, no oxygen, no plant life, no fish, not even the tumorous carp who held out the longest. There is a true hellbroth, twenty feet of metallic sludge, at the bottom, with nowhere to go, and no amount of money can clean it out (although plenty has been spent on studies) and who would want it if they could ever move it?

But on the shores of Skaneateles Lake, the seventh cleanest in the country, one can see the home where the man who started it all chose to take his fortune and live. One wonders if he experienced a twinge of awareness or conscience while sitting on his porch. Probably not.

The mail delivery only missed one day this year, when a thunderstorm had raised 4-5′ chop on the water and about halfway down the lake, lightening hit a tree which burst into flame on the shore directly opposite the boat, and put the fear of God into the captain, the mail deliverer and a lone passenger, all of whom voted to return to Skaneateles and deliver the rest of the mail the next day.

Speaking of cliffs, a number of the cottages have waterfront lots, but it’s fifty feet down to the water, and so they build incredible wooden stairways, switchbacks with three, four, five flights of stairs, or straight runs of a hundred steps. Some are enclosed in huge frames, others appear to be naked, just pinned here and there to the rock face. At least one ended suddenly twenty feet above the water and its only traffic now was in weeds. You could just see these people standing at the edge of the cliff and saying, “Gol durn it, I bought waterfront and we’re gonna get to that water.” And then there were cottages built on narrow sills of land at the water’s edge, testimony to just how badly people want a piece of that lake.

At Higgins Harbor, we had the best delivery of the day, a certified letter that required a signature. Whitney passed the mail over in the fishnet, plus a pen and the receipt, and shouted that she needed a signature. The addressee, not the swiftest of men, (at least not now; he surely must have had it together at one time to make enough money to get to this place) took a while to absorb and process this information. All the while, the breeze was drifting the boat southward. By the time he got the message, the boat had been blown away from the dock and needed to go back out and come in again. While we were looping around, the breeze blew the gentleman’s mail out of his hands and into the lake. He leaned over, fished it out and began to sign. And sign. And sign. The captain, in his carnival barker voice, is using the microphone to say to us passengers in a muffled tone, “I don’t need a novel, just your name… It doesn’t have to be a neat signature… A scribble is okay.” And the boat drifts, and drifts, and the man finally finishes his name, clips the pen to the paper and drops it into the fully extended fishnet, and, on the captain’s cue, the boat erupts in applause.

The captain, who pilots dinner cruises on a Florida lake during the winter (Okeechobee, a lake he kept referring to as “the Big O”), was a real hot-dog. On one open stretch, he gave the wheel to Whitney, climbed out onto the roof, hung upside down and waved at her through the windscreen; but I had to like him because of his attention to the dogs on the route, courting their four-footed favor as smart postmen do everywhere. He knew where they were, the names of many, had biscuits for all of them, and stories about all of them, including one who hurt his paw one day and got a slice of prime rib from the dinner cruise that evening. They all wagged their tails as the boat approached, one from the end of a diving board. Some of the dogs even did tricks for their biscuits, and it was impossible to resent them for their opulent surroundings, because there is no such thing as a wealthy dog. They wear the same clothes regardless of their owner’s station in life, regardless of changing styles. (Have you ever noticed that in photos from the 19th century, it is only the dogs who look contemporary?) They were beautiful.

We pulled into the dock around 2 p.m., wind-burned but smiling, in possession of new perspective and plenty of fresh air. It was a lovely day.

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