The History of Grumman's Aluminum Canoes
The first aluminum canoe was invented at the most unlikely time, but served an essential role in assisting families and kids in getting out and exploring the outdoors as we, as a nation, recovered from World War II. Leading up to present day, the classic Aluminum Grumman Canoe has had a resurgence and has become a timeless icon in American culture.
It all began during a tumultuous time in our history with Nazi Germany invading Western Europe. In the states, our government and military were debating our involvement in the war and working with Allied forces to plan a counter attack to the Nazi invasion and the German atrocities of genocide.
Grumman Aerospace was one of the nation's top manufacturers supporting the war efforts, supplying the United States Air Force with several key military aircraft needed to defend our allies and protect our troops overseas.
With the war raging on and the anxiety and stress put on our nation and the world, it would seem unlikely for a new canoe and canoe company to be born. However, likely due to a desperate need for a break from the current anxiety, that all changed on Memorial Day weekend of 1944.
Where the Adventure Began. Memorial Day Weekend, 1944 in the Addirondack Mountains
Native American Family Canoeing: Photo from the Library of Congress
On May 27th, 1944, just a week before the US and Allied Forces invaded Normandy, known as D-Day, one of Grumman Aerospace's executive engineers, Willam J. Hoffman, took a wooden canoe skinned in canvas, his fishing pole, and escaped to the Adirondack Mountains for a relaxing weekend of trout fishing. Although not documented, he and Grumman Aeronautics likely would have been coming off a busy push to fulfill their military contracts, and William and Grumman Aerospace’s other employees would be in need of a break.
Although William considered himself a big boat, offshore fisherman, he wasn't opposed to small craft in-shore fishing, or the adventure of canoeing. When he was 13 years old, he built his first canoe using barrel hoops as the canoe ribs and skinned it using some second-hand canvas he was able to cobble together. Although the canoe he took to the mountains was much more sophisticated than his youthful attempt to build a boat, it was far from the ideal watercraft for what turned into an epic adventure in the Adirondack Mountains.
William launched his fishing trip from Inlet, New York, where he hired a float plane from Fourth Lake, dropping him, his canoe, and fishing gear into Limekiln Lake. From there, he fished his way across the lake, where he decided to push deeper into the wilderness by paddling and portaging his way several miles up to a remote lake known as Squaw Lake, now known as Muskrat Lake. His childhood sense for adventure pushed him on to a remote lake where he dreamt of large, hard to access scenery and abundant trout fishing.
Looking back from today, using documentation of William’s weekend adventure, and using google maps and topography, we pieced together his famous portage to Muskrat Lake. By all accounts, it would have been an ambitious and challenging attempt, even with a modern canoe. William's reports on this trip said that his canoe was the biggest bourdon. The wooden canoe was heavy, the painted canvas was waterlogged, and it was a struggle lugging a 100+ pound canoe upstream and through the brush to Muskrat Lake.
During this multi-mile portage, he had a lot of time to think, and his creative mind was thinking that the aluminum they used to build the world's best fighter planes would be far superior to the antiquated material of his canoe. He felt he could cut 50% of the weight out of his 13-foot canvas canoe and provide one that had superior durability for such a trip.
As with any beautiful fishing trip to the mountains, he returned from nature energized and excited to test his concept. First thing Tuesday morning, he scheduled a meeting with Grumman's President, Leroy Grumman, and the Executive Vice President, Jake Swirbul, to propose developing an aluminum canoe. William was convincing, and the men agreed an Aluminum Canoe could be an excellent product to consider as the company and country were about to transition into a post-war economy.
With approval from Leroy Grumman, William Hoffman was granted a small team of engineers, and the team went to work to design and build the world's first Aluminum canoe. According to a 1977 document written by Dwight Rockwell Jr., William Hoffman started his canoe R&D prototyping project, convincing a Macy's department store to loan him one of their only modern canoes so he could closely study the shape and lines to guide him in his designs.
Leroy Grumman, Grumman's President
The team built a full-scale die with ribs out of maple and used this to see how well aluminum would shape into a canoe. They were pleasantly surprised to find the same aluminum sheets used to build aircraft wings worked perfectly to wrap a canoe. These symmetrical aluminum shells were merged along the keel line with rivets to form the first aluminum canoe.
During research end development, the Grumman design team partnered closely with Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), the nation's number one aluminum supplier, to perfect the aluminum alloys for skins, the rivets, and the development of the keel and rib extrusions to perfect the canoe. A key development was the longer aluminum sheets that Alcoa forged, allowing for a seamless canoe that minimized weight and production time. Without it, the canoe's weight would make it cost-prohibitive.
Dwight noted, "This first canoe was made with .032 skin and weighed just over 38 pounds!" This was much lighter than Wiliams's expectations, but over time and with testing, they felt they needed to reinforce aspects of that production canoe to withstand the play and abuse the canoes would see from kids, camps, and the general public. When William's design team finished, the final production weight of their canoe was 55 pounds, which was very close to his initial goals. When Grumman introduced the 13-foot Grumman Canoe for sale, they offered two versions, a standard canoe and a lightweight performance model that weighed 44 pounds.
A 13-foot canoe is great, but is too small for a large percentage of those interested in canoeing. With the 13-foot canoe complete, they ultimately began designing a 15 and 17-foot canoe. While collaborating with Alcoa, Russell Bontecau, a member of the Alcoa team working on this project, took point on designing the 17-foot Grumman canoe, making him a new key member of the team. Boatecau soon transitioned from Alcoa to Grumman Aerospace, joining Hoffman's aircraft manufacturing and engineering department full-time, with the agreement to be the Grumman Canoe sales manager when the war ended and Grumman began selling their aluminum canoes.
Bethpage, New York (1944 - 1952)
The birth of Grumman Canoe originated in Bethpage, New York, at Grumman Aerospace and remained there until 1952, when it became evident that the canoeing and aerospace companies were so uniquely different. At this time, Grumman Canoe and its aluminum boat complete boat line of products and brands moved to Marathon, New York, where it resides today. The interesting thing about these canoes is that they were initially engineered using the aluminum stretching machines used to make World War II fighter planes and are still being manufacture, to their authenticity, with the same care, processing, and machinery.
The Post-War Boom
After the war everything changed. People began to relax, and family members were reunited with loved ones returning from overseas. Families and individuals gravitated to nature to heal and refocus on what would become the country’s most prosperous era. At this time, Grumman Aerospace set up a 20,000-foot production facility in Marathon, New York, under Hoffman's direction, and went into production to supply this need.
Hoffman and Bontecau reacted quickly to this growth, expanding the product line to include ten double-end models that were available in both standard and lightweight aluminum. After that, the Grumman engineers designed shallow-draft whitewater canoes and square-stern canoes to accommodate anglers' and hunters' needs. The Sport Boat 15, along with the 13, 15, and 17-foot canoes, are time-tested classic designs that were initially designed in the mid-nineteenth century and are still available today.
Grumman Goes to Hollywood
Screenshot from the 1972 Movie "Deliverance"
The Movie Deliverance
In 1972, at the peak of growth and prosperity in the United States, Hollywood cast a Grumman Canoe as a significant supporting role in their best-selling movie, Deliverance. In this movie, Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight take off on a canoe adventure similar to William Hoffman's canoe trip back in 1944. However, the Burt and Jon river trip turned into a twisted fight for survival on Georgia's wild and scenic Chattooga River. The success of this movie gave Grumman canoe sales another accelerated boost as it introduced canoeing to mainstream culture, and people left the theater to explore their area's lakes and rivers.
Aluminum Canoes Transform the Industry
In the 1970s, Dale Fox, a Grumman employee and a marathon canoeist, stated that Grumman Canoe was producing 50 canoes per day and employed 200 people. Although some purists in the canoe world were slow to adopt this new material, the market responded with Grumman and their aluminum canoes becoming the fastest selling due to their weight, strength, durability, and prices. Grumman Canoes passed the test and were instrumental in introducing thousands of kids to canoe, as Grumman was the number one supplier to summer camps and liveries.
Although some of canoeing’s purists were slow to adapt to aluminum, it has been known that some, such as Eric Morse and one of the most notable canoeists, Bill Mason, chose an 18-foot aluminum Grumman Canoe on family trips to the French River, Georgian Bay, and Lake Superior, and paddled an aluminum canoe on his descent of the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories.
Grumman Canoe, An American Classic
Grumman Canoes were a groundbreaking innovation in the day, and thanks to the durability of aluminum, they have become a classic that has been passed down for generations. Where plastic canoes will eventually “UV-out” and lay waist, Grumman’s Aluminum will last for generations. (link to oldest known photo - my friends father has an old classic in excellent condition) Kids across the country have memories and stories of learning to canoe during summer camp and canoes have become a part on popular culture thanks to Hollywood's movie, Deliverance.
Now, like other famous non-paddling brands from that era, Grumman has been cemented as a classic, and there is a small, but diehard following as a result. These individuals will go to great lengths to find, restore, and preserve these timeless canoes.
1977 document written by Dwight Rockwell Jr.
Paddle Magazine Article, Grumman History
American Aluminum of America History
Gear Junkie; How Aluminum Revolutionized The Canoe