When spring finally comes to Ithaca after a cold and dismal winter the students at Cornell shed their winter gear, bid farewell to the endless grey above and turn their faces at last to the sun. It is said that Ithaca sees more cloudy days per year than the Olympic Peninsula, the record holder.
April’s social centerpiece then was spring house party weekend the Saturday of which was Spring Day, a more or less pagan celebration featuring weekend long “dates” (“blind” or otherwise); women allowed—under some sort of chaperonage—upstairs in the fraternity houses; more alcohol than might be prudent; and widespread organized inanity. Among these: pie throwing contests, the hotel school’s Waiter’s Derby, the architect’s Dragon Day parade entry, fraternity and sorority floats and parties, and in 1948, the recently established Inter-fraternity Crew Race.
A fifty yard course on Beebe Lake crossed above Triphammer Falls. The rules were simple: human effort only (no motors, no wind), and five crew members. This last to eliminate sophisticated racing shells. Entries comprised anything that would float from rafts of beer kegs to brass bedsteads made seaworthy.
We at Sigma Chi decided to build a paddlewheel boat. The naval architecture and ship building expertise fell to me and to Al “Oop” Thomas.
We first conceived a Mississippi riverboat arrangement with a paddle wheel on each side but soon abandoned that idea as impossibly unstable; even at small departures from the vertical we couldn’t get the center of gravity below the center of buoyancy. We had thought at first that one boat and two wheels would be easier to make. And so it became a center-wheeler with a pontoon boat on either side.
Al proved expert at building these using pine freeboards and a galvanized sheet iron bottom with carefully fashioned lock-seam joints. The wheel, eight feet in diameter, had eight paddles driven by a crank handle on either end to be turned by four of the strongest among us.
In deep secrecy we took the parts down to Cayuga Lake Inlet and reassembled them there for trials. It was windy and cold and the water choppy so we spent less time evaluating results than we might have. It seemed fast enough but the enthusiastic man-power overcame some of the structural elements which had to be re-detailed for strength. One crucial aspect of the design’s shortcoming went unnoticed.
We christened it the “Big Red Wheel” in homage to the world of Cornell “Big Red” sports and—incidentally of course—to the bawdy barroom song. The engine room comprised Bill Konold, Bob Rath, Ed Rorke, and Al Thomas.
Reassembled on Beebe Lake before dawn on the day of the race it passed a strength test; we were ready.
The race was almost an anti-climax. We churned forward way ahead of the competition. But owing to unexpectedly large counter-torque the stern was sufficiently depressed that we took on water at a rate large enough to cross the finish line essentially submerged. The rules had not addressed this submarine possibility and we were adjudged the winners—both for speed and originality of design.
That was the year we stayed for summer session and Bob Rath and I painted the Lansing high school building. The Big Red Wheel spent all summer on the lake gradually falling into disrepair at the hands of whoever could manage to keep it afloat.
Wm. C. Atkinson, 2016