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The History of Cowell Boat Works

Cowell Boat Works was the brainchild of entrepreneur Thomas Cowell. Tommy, as he was known, had succeeded in a variety of ventures in the '40s and '50s near Erie, PA, including the Lake View drive-in movie theater and a pinball and slot machine company. But of all his endeavors, Cowell Boat Works was the one that allowed him to pursue his love of wooden boats.

Thomas Cowell (photo reprinted with permission from the Erie Times News) 

Hear Thomas Cowell's son Richard reflect on his father's legacy:

The Original Cowell Logo

The swooping, fluid lines of the Cowell logo suggest smooth sailing in what one Cowell brochure called "the rough water boat." This original, unused logo from the Cowells' private collection is cast red plastic with a silver-grey matte finish. This logo design, seen most often in solid black, adorns all the surviving models (see our Models section).

Thomas Cowell began building boats at his home at the mouth of Six Mile Creek near Erie, PA, in the summer of 1953, in part because he couldn't find a 13' boat on the market that was suitable for the livery business.   Click on the thumbnails of the brochures below to view high-resolution scans (Cowell family document scans courtesy of the Erie Maritime Museum.)

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Boat rental operations were Cowell's largest customers, but as time went on, individual boaters ordered the 14-foot "Pal" and "Pride", and the 16-foot "King" and "Royal."  At the height of its operation, Cowell produced the 17'7" "Sportsman", and the 20-foot "Windswept" inboard-outboard.

A "King" rolls off the line

Ron Smith, a young craftsman who worked at Cowell Boat Works during most of its history, is now a builder in North East, PA. Ron recently offered these reflections about Cowell Boat Works.

"Back in those days we used to drive the truck to the lumber company near the tracks and pick up a train car load of wood, drive back to the shop where we would stack the wood for drying, forming, etc. Each boat was built entirely by hand. Each plank was cut and fit over a jig and then removed, brass screws and rivets were all applied by hand. The nose piece was formed by steaming , gluing, cutting to fit each boat. Ribs were all oak cut from rough cut oak, run through a machine, put in a steamer and bent over the jig."

A surviving Cowell Boat Works jig in 2007.  Photo courtesy of the Erie Maritime Museum

"Two other employees were Dick Brunner and Ray Scott. Joe Dedinsky was the boss of the outfit. Joe taught all of us how to use the tools. All employees, including myself, were from Harborcreek PA."

"The boat works address was Erie, PA but it was located in Harborcreek Township. At that time my starting wages were 1.60 per hour. Every boat that came off the line during that time,I worked all the mahogany work....decks, rails, some of the painting. Pretty much from start to finish."

Cowell Boat Works checks showing the Erie address.

"Joe made about 10,000 or 15,000 per year, and that included caring for the beach and all the tenants. I can not believe they ever made any money on the boats. I can say they were probably one of the best built boats you will ever find...not just because I was building on them but because all the material put into them was the best grade. Joe was an expert craftsman." [As evidenced by the two Kings picured below--Ed]

 

Many thanks to Ron for sharing his memories!

Tom Dedinsky, son of Joe Dedinsky who headed the Cowell Boat Works operations for many years, adds these photos and comments about Cowell construction:

"This picture is of Tony - an employee of Cowell Boat Works (driving) and Tom Dedinsky, Ray and Johnny Meyers off the shore of Lake Erie in front of the Boat Works: they were either testing or taking photos for advertising brochures."

"This picture I believe was taken at the Cleveland, OH boat show. A dealer from Huron, OH used to cosponser with Cowell Boat Works every year in the show."

"The Boat Works started as a boat livery and Tom Cowell just wanted to make boats for his livery to rent at first: They built a small building and about 15 cottages, a snack bar on the beach and opened a Lake Erie Resort or Vacationland - Cowells Boats & Beach. Almost immediately, customers began asking if they could buy boats so Tom started building for sale and sought out dealers in the tri-state area to sell the boats. (Above): they were loading boats on a semi and trailer for transport ot a dealer they were sold to, from a storage barn about 1/2 mile from the Boat Works. The man on top in both photos with the hat is Joe Dedinsky. This is about the time they put an addition on to the building about doubling the size."

"This 1953 Pontiac Wagon was the first company car. Behind is the storage barn where the stored inventory: they also had a pickup truck and a larger stake body truck that pulled a trailer with three boats and a rack with one on the truck for delivery of four boats at a time to dealers."

"This is the first production 'livery boat' for their own use and for sale-It was a 13' 0".

"This is the first production 19'0" day cruiser at 6-Mile Creek in the livery area of the Boat Works. It was an outboard but they also made an inboard/outboard using Volvo engines in some of the day cruisers and the larger open boats. the people are Wanda, Patti, Larry & Tom Dedinsky- Joe's family."

"This is a picture of two brothers from Buffalo,NY: they bought matching Cowells - 16 1/2' Vikings and used to travel to the Boat Works via Lake Erie from Buffalo: These were taken off the shore at the Boat Works. They bought the boats from Hoover Marina in North Tonowanda, NY."

"This is the first Day Cruiser, 19'0", inside the factory. Half of the building was for all the assembly/rough-cut work and millwork, etc. Then the boats were moved into the second area through large doors where it was clean /dust free for painting; varnish and final installation of windshields, steering, hardware, cushions etc. Again the same people (Joe Dedinsky's Family) staged this picture."

"In the later years, they began adding a fiberglass bottom to the boats to increase the strength over the pounding of the waves. This procedure involved putting a resin on the bare wood, then a layer of fiberglass cloth covering all seams and laps, then several layers of resin (white, yellow or aqua--depending on color of boat), then finally paint."

"The Cowell was deeper than Lymans, Cruisers, or Grady White etc, and could ride waves and bad weather in worse conditions than one should be out in: they were made that way by design."

"When some customers in the Buffalo, NY area began telling of long trips and getting into bad weather and how well the boats took the waves, Joe Dedinsky began looking at ways to strengthen the hulls, and the fiberglass did just this, as well as protect the wood from rotting, bug infestation , and mildew etc. He also felt this was a round-about-way to combat some of the points of fiberglass boats which were beginning to make in-roads in the marketplace."

"They actually used to take boats out in Lake Erie and have an employee lie under the deck as the boat rode the waves, looking for and feeling the deflection in the hulls, and then inspect them in the shop afterwards. A boat hull does bend and flex as it rides the waves, and this fiberglass was a way of making a stronger and safer boat."

"Cowell was the first to offer a fiberglass covered bottom as an option, and I believe on some models it was a standard: I don't remember if any other manufacturers began offering it or not."

"I lived at the Boatworks with my dad from kindergarten until high school when it closed. I worked as a kid hanging around with Ron Smith and the others, sanding boats, cleaning shop, etc. I went to all the boat shows and hung around them as my Dad and the dealers sold boats. I know I skipped a lot of school to go to Chicago, Cleveland and other places."

Thomas Cowell attending a boat show in the mid 50s.

"I unloaded trucks, went on deliveries to dealers, steamed ribs, butted rivets, glued the keels and bows etc, not as a certified worker of course but just helping out the way a kid helps out on a farm, until I got older--then I did a lot more."

"When I was 16, in 1966, I bought a 1957 chevy and I fixed it up in the closed Boatworks. My Dad painted the thing in the paint room still intact from the boats. The electricity was still on. The paint booth, the compressors and the outdoor overhead hoist they used to load boats on trucks were all working. I used that hoist to lift the car and install new springs."

"There was a pier built off the beach in front of the Boatworks, and on a few occasions they hired a professional photographer, but mostly Ron Smith drove the boats (he was best able to swerve the boats towards the camera for the best view, and my Dad took photos off a tripod. These photos were used for the brochures and they made new ones every year just like the auto makers did."

"At that time, the Beach had about 20 or so cottages they rented out by the week to people from Pittsburgh, and there were a lot of people around and my dad would get someone different to ride the boats and take photos in action: I am pretty sure that on the one picture in the brochure on the site is Ron Smith driving and me and a friend sitting in the front."

"This is in front of the factory in winter (obviously). It would get so bad with drifts, that they could only dig a path to get inside and work. No shipments could get in or out for several days at a time. Also since the Boat Works was at sea level with the livery, many times in spring the ice in Six Mile Creek would break, jam and flood the inside of the building, since the lake was still frozen, and the broken up creek ice had nowhere to go. More than once they used dynamite to actualy blow the mouth ice up to free it so it would flow into Lake Erie thus eliminating flooding of the factory."

Thanks to Tom for these insights.

You can see surviving examples of the 1957 King (our boat at the top of the home page page of this site), a later model King (Rip and Judy Bodman's 1959 boat in the Models section), the Viking (including Captain Seaweed's and Tom Murray's), and the Pride.

The advent of fiberglass, the constraints of manufacturing capacity, and Tom Cowell's untimely death all contributed to a premature end to this elegant and affordable line of recreational watercraft.  The last boat made in 1960 bears the hull number of 3219. This beauty survives today, and belongs to Bob Dancause (see Models section). This site is dedicated to finding and recording the stories of Tom Cowell's legacy.