Missing History: The S.S. Jamestown

It was a five-foot long painting of the S. S. Jamestown—a really special steamboat that was the largest craft to ever grace Chautauqua Lake.

She was built at the boat landing on the lake by Isaac Hammett of Pittsburgh and then launched to great fanfare on May 24, 1875. One-hundred and sixty feet long, she took after the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez of Mississippi of steamboat racing fame. Its four decks accommodated 3,000 passengers and by all reports it was often filled to capacity, with one whole deck reserved for dancing. She was, it’s been said, the undisputed queen of the lake.

This was the heyday of Chautauqua Lake— the time of bath houses and bathing caps, of steamboats and trolleys, of wealthy visitors from northeast industrial cities lazing by our shores. It was a time of sturdy and grand wooden hotels that dotted the lake and assorted picnic groves, and rowing clubs and railway depots.

And my great-great-grandfather was there to see it all.

He was a part of that time from the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s when everyone in the region “enjoyed the golden days of navigation.” A druggist by trade but a painter at heart, Frederick F. Green was as melancholy as anyone when that beautiful steamship was lost in a fire while moored at its dock at the boat landing.

One day, many years later, he decided to paint a picture of the S. S. Jamestown, recreating what he must have thought was a marvelous time to be alive.

He told the Jamestown Journal when dedicating the painting to City Hall, “Painting this picture was never a task but always a real joy, as I remembered the old days on the lake and sought to transfer to the canvas something of the old thrill which I always experienced on seeing the old steamer chugging along with flags flying fore and aft, water dripping from the stern wheel and smoke pouring from the twin stacks.”

The painting, according to the newspaper, was five feet long by three feet wide, and shows the old steamer making a bend in the outlet at Clifton, “with woodland right down to the water’s edge and the backwash from the wheel sweeping up on the shore.”

It was dedicated to City Hall sometime around 1944—a gesture that was long forgotten by my family through the years, and only rediscovered when a family friend was helping to unearth the Hickman family genealogy.

There is no sign of the painting at City Hall today, which makes sense since it was hung so very long ago. Times change, tastes change, and even special things serve their time in the attic.

Such is the stuff of life.

But we looked for it there recently, hoping by chance it had been stuck in a spare room or an old office on some distant day.

There is no sign of it yet.

The Fenton Center told us they’d been looking for it, too, as they’d stumbled upon the same article we’d found about it’s dedication.

Just as interesting to me as the picture, though, is to stumble upon reflections of an old family member living his life in Jamestown nearly 125 years ago.

To know that this man liked to come down and sit by the lake as I do, to watch the boats, to frame what he was seeing through an artistic lens; to think of him riding on that boat as a younger man, maybe dancing on the deck with a pretty girl, passing by Midway on a summer’s night, the sound of jazz drowned by summer laughter.

He was part of a beautiful time here.

And all these years later, I am here, traversing the same ground, stepping where he may have stepped, making the most of my life as he did, looking for ways to drink in the summer, to float through it with unabashed passion.

He tried to capture his time here, to show us what was best about the days he lived, and for him, that old steamship was a symbol of “the old days.” In some ways, we haven’t quite recaptured the epoch of the grand times of the past. I wonder if Frederick Greene could come back for a visit if he’d feel as if his time seemed grander, more fantastic, more exciting on the lake. There was such a grandeur to that era that we’ve lost in America. It would be wonderful to live one day with him in his time.


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