The Raising and Restoration of the “Wa Chee We” – The Original Written Story


On Friday we featured a very cool video on the raising and restoration of “Wa Chee We” a beautiful 1923 Ditchburn Fisher-Allison Class Race Boat which is now in the final stages of restoration by Gary Clark of Clark Wood Boats in Bracebridge, Ontario, near Gravenhurst. (If you missed the “Wa Chee We” story / video link on Friday, you can click here to go there)

Since we ran the video, we have received a number comments and e-mails from our viewers asking to learn more about the history of “Wa Chee We” and subsequent restoration details. The original written story of “Wa Chee We” was recently published in Classicboat Magazine, the wonderful quarterly publication of the Toronto Chapter ACBS. Fellow Woody Boater and Editor of Classicboat Magazine – Kathy Rhodes kindly obtained authorization for Woody Boater to re-print this great story, so here it is…

The Raising and Restoration of the Wa Chee We
By John D. Unsworth – As Told to William N. Wallace

Unsworth, the 62-year-old lawyer/ inventor, tells the beginning, the root of the romance.

The day seems like yesterday. I was 12 years old and waiting with my father and mother and two brothers, Peter and Jim, for the Muskoka water taxi at Government Dock. It was a sight, the northerly wind pushing down the big lake, large rollers beating against the dock.

A magnificent stately mahogany boat, that seemed larger than a football field, circled around and nudged the dock with no bump. Its name was “B’Isle” and at the helm was Wib Archer.  He was the son of Captain Westley Archer, one of Lake Muskoka’s pioneers and who had operated 100-mile summer tourist tours for many years on this lake and adjacent lakes Rosseau and Joseph. The three are 220-250 km. due north of Toronto.

As I stepped into the compartment in the stern of the boat, I noticed the strange checker-board arrangement of the frames (ribs) and battens, reinforcing the mahogany planking. I had not seen this on any boat before, my experience then being limited to cedar strip boats where there are only ribs.

I fell in love with this boat. When I grew up I would own her … or one like her.

“We then made the crossing, scarcely taking notice of the turmoil of wind and wave, just the steady beat of the engine and the music of water splashing on the wood planking.”

Archer, who at first seemed aloof, in subsequent months and years, explained to the inquisitive Unsworth the mysteries of boats and the materials in their construction.  One day he told Unsworth the story of his “B’Isle”, the last of the “Five Sisters.” These were the derivatives of the Rainbow I built by the Ditchburn Company over at Gravenhurst to the southeast. Identical in hull design, including beam of 6’ 6”, but at 35’ in length, they were three feet longer than the Rainbow I, to be more spacious for passengers.

The odd batten and rib construction was unique to the Ditchburn built “Rainbow I” and his derivatives. “Rainbow I” had attained fame as a race boat. Twice it had won the Fisher- Allison Cup, the first time in 1920, when owned by Harry Greening of Hamilton and Lake Muskoka; and again in 1921, when owned by S. B. Eagan of Buffalo, beating the much chagrined Greening in his “Rainbow II.”  The race series was initiated to encourage the construction of fast, reliable, and robust boats which a family could enjoy even in rough conditions.

The “Rainbow I” and the derivatives were designed by George Crouch, a well-known American marine architect who also taught mathematics at the Pratt Institute in New York City. Crouch turned out many successful racers during this period when powerboat
competition was on occasion a major spectator sport.

Archer knew of two of the four other Five Sisters: the Prohibition, owned by a Pittsburgh industrialist named Henry Hillman of Gibraltar Island on Lake Muskoka, and the Ionic III which belonged to Colonel Thomas A. Duff whose cottage was in Honey Harbour. The latter boat also participated in the Fisher-Allison Cup races.

In later years Unsworth tracked down the missing two sisters, enabled by the notebook he acquired in which Herb Ditchburn had written down, in pencil, his sales by boat owners’ names. One was “Tirzah”, sold in 1924 by Ditchburn to Lew Wallace Jr., an American who had a World War I Liberty aircraft engine installed for its use on Michigan’s Burt Lake near the Mackinac Straits. The other sale, also in 1924, was to Wilson P. Foss, of Nyack, N.Y., proprietor of the New York Trap Rock Company who probably sold the boat soon after he took delivery to a Mr. William J. Workman.

Unsworth continues. “Wib told me that the B’Isle was purchased by his father, Captain Archer, in the late ‘30s from the Reed family of Lake Rosseau, and its original name was the “Wa Chee We” which means ‘’dancing girl.” Captain Archer renamed it the “B’Isle”, the short form for Muskoka’s Browning Island, largely owned by the Archers.

“The first owner was Carl Reed of a large and successful insurance company, Reed Stenhouse, in Toronto. Delivered in 1923, the boat was built for speed. It had a double bottom: cedar arranged in a herringbone pattern on the inside and longitudinal planks of mahogany on the outside.

“The sides of the boat were sheathed in a single thin layer of Honduras mahogany and reinforced with steam-bent white oak frames (also called ribs) and mahogany battens, covering the side plank seams. Vertical blocks were placed in the space between the elevated frames (elevated by the battens) and the side planks, greatly strengthening the hull.

Between each white oak frame – they were 6 inches apart – two brass screws set vertically from the inside secured the batten to the planks.

“As mentioned, the “Wa Chee We” was three feet longer than the “Rainbow I.”  It had a single rear compartment rather than the double compartment of the Rainbow I to make it more comfortable for as many as eight passengers. Like the other Five Sisters, the forward compartment had a removable mahogany cap with a rounded leading edge. This gave the boat an appearance similar to the raised deck of the “Rainbow I.”  This cap apparently was rarely used and in the case of the “Wa Chee We” replaced with a canvas cover.

“True to its race heritage, the copper rivets attaching the bottom and side planks to the boat frames were not bunged and in the case of the side planks, left exposed and gleaming beneath the varnish.”

“One interesting feature was the two fuel inlets. One was just forward of the engine compartment, its contents used to start the original Van Blerck engine which had no fuel pump. So, on start-up, gravity fed fuel to the engine, before the vacuum of the turning engine would allow it to draw fuel from the aft larger tank. The second fuel inlet was located on the aft deck.”

“The first power plant for “Wa Chee We” was an 8-cylinder Van Blerck, manufactured in Chicago, with three spark plugs per cylinder. The first was attached to an early coil distributor ignition. But this was hampered by the primitive batteries of the time and thus was used only as a boost for starting the engine.”

“The second spark plug was attached to an ‘impulse magneto’ which was also designed to help start the engine. It was spring loaded prior to the spark position and then, as the spark position approached, the spring unloaded, projecting the coil forward across the fixed magnet to create a hotter spark than would otherwise be the case. Once underway, the impulse mechanism would automatically disengage, making it act like a standard magneto.”

“The third spark plug was attached to a second but standard magneto circuit which would provide a hot spark only when the engine was operating at or above idle speed.”

“In addition to the two starting ignition systems, it was necessary to fill a number of priming cups threaded into the heads of the engine. When opened with a screw twist, these priming cups fed a metered amount of fuel into each cylinder to increase the chances that the engine might start. Keep in mind the operator had to open the engine hatches and reach over the engine with small gas tank in hand to start the cold engine. We can appreciate that any operator would soon tire of this chore. Perhaps this is why Carl Reed sold the “Wa Chee We” to Captain Archer in 1937, three years prior to his death in 1940.”

Archer, added Unsworth, went back to Ditchburn to modify the deck layout, opening it up to be more suitable for the passengers in his taxi service and relocating the engine closer to the stern. A Kermath marine engine, more reliable and easier to start, replaced the Van Blerck and later on it in turn was replaced with a Chrysler Crown, a standard marine motor of the time.

Wib Archer told Unsworth that after many years of service the hull of the “B’Isle” loosened up. Unsworth said, “Interested parties made substantial offers for her; but Wib couldn’t let go of his father’s boat and he didn’t want to see it mistreated. So instead he decided to put it in storage, where he could later retrieve it when he had the time to repair it.

“So he stored it in a place within sight of his home where others could not interfere with it. Where? Right in the lake,on a ledge some 30 feet below the surface of the water.
…the bottom was black, cold and as frightening as a tomb.
“But things did not go quite as planned. The wind suddenly freshened, and just as it was about to go down, the wind pushed the boat closer to shore. Although, closer to shore, the water was deeper, and the boat settled in a 100 foot deep bowl.”

The grown-up Unsworth was aware of the unconventional storage, and still smitten with memories with the glamorous boat of his youth, he made his move in 2001 when Wib Archer was 80 years old. Unsworth first approached his son, John, and broached the idea of a purchase. Father and son agreed and Unsworth, for an agreed price, acquired an old boat somewhere down there.

Unsworth again. “I then set out to recover the boat and execute the plan Wib had made so many years before. But finding her turned out to be much more difficult than I imagined.”

“Beginning in 2003 sidescan sonar skipped over the top of the bowl and saw nothing below. Cameras were drawn along the bottom, but missed the boat. Months turned into years of searching. I began to wonder if the boat had simply floated away. Everyone thought I was crazy. At Muskoka gatherings I came to dread the inevitable question: ‘How’s the boat search coming?’ A wry smile might follow, a knowing glance at others listening.”

“Finally, on that wonderful day, Wednesday, August 19, 2009, at one o’clock in the morning, the underwater camera revealed a ghostly apparition that, upon closer and repeated inspection, turned out to be the bow of the “Wa Chee We.”  I was with my brother, Jim, and our friend, David Gruggen. Astonished, thrilled, gratified? All of the above.”

“After waiting so long but now knowing this great boat could again see the sun and rush forward on Muskoka’s waters, I pressed onward. A barge was bought and, with the help of friends, we fitted it with beams and winches. I dived almost 100 feet down a line to locate the exact position of the boat, and discovered the bottom was black, cold, and as frightening as a tomb. Having determined the exact position of the boat, we were now ready to secure the boat and to raise it to the surface.”

“Dwayne James, a diver friend of mine, dove down the line, which I had placed, and found that the boat was still floating above the bottom in a slightly denser silt/water suspension. Dwayne found that he was able to push himself under the boat and pass the lifting slings beneath the hull at the bow and the stern. After he returned to the surface we slowly began to lift the boat, ever mindful that it might break up if we were not careful. We moved it closer to shore and then set it down again in about 27 feet of water to decompress for three weeks. This was done to prevent the hull from being damaged by the sudden expansion of any gasses trapped in the wood.

“Three weeks later, with stewards of Muskoka’s collection of antique and classic boats that included Stanley Hunter, James Osler, and Ron Nicholson, we moved the boat near the shoreline where John Archer, using two excavators, helped us raise the boat to the surface. At twilight, we set her down beside John’s barge and returned the next morning to finish the job of raising the boat. We installed pumps and raised it slowly so that the level of the water was always the same inside and outside, thus equalizing the pressure on the hull.

“After enveloping her in a large tarpaulin that prevented water from leaking into the hull, we towed the boat to a yard where it was cleaned and the engine removed. “Wa Chee We” (I adopted her original name) turned out to be in remarkably good shape. The waters at 100 feet were cold, dark, and preservative, thus making restoration relatively easy.”

Unsworth assigned the restoration to the firm of Clark Wood Boats of Bracebridge, Ontario, near Gravenhurst. He said,”Gary Clark and the employees of Clark Wood Boats are members of that elite group of boat builders and restorers we are fortunate to have here in Muskoka and who are recognized for their excellence throughout the international boating community.”

“The craftsmen at Clark Wood Boats recently produced a stunning replica of the “Rainbow I.”  The research gathered by Gary and construction methods developed to complete that boat were applied to “Wa Chee We”.”

The first task was to assemble the new wood, and over many months Clark used his contacts to locate the best. For the bottom he located mahogany from Nicaragua, logs submerged in a river for decades making them rot resistant. Above the waterline, Clark found 20-foot lengths of mahogany harvested from a single tree with clear straight grain, medium density, and in color blonde with a golden fleck. This meant the single-tree wood would have the color and texture as uniform as that of the boat which left Ditchburn’s yard in 1923.

After an indoor drying out over the winter “Wa Chee We” was surveyed and lines taken off by Frank Mee. This was done to establish the shape and any deviations from the original, due to wear and tear, by comparing the lines with the original George Crouch plan “158“ of a 35’ “Rainbow I” derivative. These plans had been provided to us by Tom Frauenheim of Buffalo, N.Y., whose father had once owned “Rainbow I.”  So the boat was blocked by Clark and coaxed into its original shape. Once the straightening was completed in the fall of 2010, the restoration could commence, as described by Unsworth.“

“The first task,” he said, “was to replace all the frames, the ribs, except those that dead ended into the hog timber, meaning the stem and forward section of the keel. These were steam bent and then temporarily fastened to the original planks with screws and washers.

“After turning the boat over, the keel, hog timber and stem were replaced and attached to the frames. Next the remaining half frames were steam bent into the bow section and screwed into place. Since the boat is a vee bottom with a hard chine, the chines were steam bent and fixed in place. Wedges were added to square the round corners of the bent frames to support the bottom planks. The cedar bottom and mahogany bottom were next fastened to the frames. By the summer of 2011 the bottom will have been completed and also the new deck.”

Although virtually every original piece of wood will have been replaced on the “Wa Chee We”, it will be considered an Original Boat according to criteria developed by the Antique and Classic Boat Society.

As for the power plant, it will be new too, an Ilmor 710 producing 700 horsepower. This much modified motor uses the same alloy block as found in the Dodge V-10 Viper sports car. Needless to say Wa Chee We will go fast, very fast.

So how much has this enterprise cost the dedicated Unsworth? Restoration does not come cheaply, as we have come to know, and he is reluctant to add up his bills. “Let’s say the total will be within budget, as are all these projects.”

His final words were these: “What I have come to recognize in the course of restoration is our responsibility to preserve the information contained in this last surviving “Rainbow I” derivative, which is in some respects different from the other Ditchburn boats. We are committed to ensuring that the hands and minds of Herb Ditchburn and George Crouch move forward in time and are available to those who have a passion for their preservation.

“I most certainly appreciate the selfless assistance of the many dedicated lovers of wood boats without whose help this project would not have been possible.”

There is an epilogue here from co-author Bill Wallace of Westport, Conn.

“When John Unsworth somehow found me in 2010, a firecracker went off when he asked if I knew anything about a boat named “Tirzah” that had belonged to a Lew Wallace Jr. I most certainly did, the beautiful, marvellous “Tirzah” of my youthful Michigan summers.

“The name, which fits so well on transoms, came from the novel Ben Hur written by my great grandfather, General Lew Wallace, and published in 1881. In this Biblical story, “Tirzah” is the sister of the hero, Ben Hur. Wealth inherited from royalties generated by the novel, its theatrical adaptations and movie rights, gave the Wallace family, beginning about 1905, the means to have boats supplementing the summer cottage on Burt Lake, where “Tirzah” was the grandest of all for about 15 years.

“I had some photographs and a home movie clip of 1933 that I gleefully contributed to the restoration and which
Unsworth claims were helpful.

“Keeping the cranky Liberty engine going was a testing and expensive proposition during the Depression years and my
father, Lew Wallace Jr., sold the boat in 1937. He never said to whom and a search by John Unsworth decades later turned up no clues.”

William N. Wallace is a writer, editor, published author, and journalist who resides in Westport, Connecticut. He may be reached at

John D. Unsworth is now developing a fusor reactor with a team out of MIT and may be reached at

Special thanks to William N. Wallace and John D. Dunsworth for sharing this amazing story with us here at Woody Boater. Also special thanks to Kathy Rhodes, Editor of Classicboat Magazine (the quarterly publication of the Toronto Chapter ACBS) and the Toronto Chapter ACBS for your granting us permission to re-print the Wa Chee We story today.

An absolutely remarkable story – Texx

UPDATE: October 20, 2012 from John Unsworth

“Texx: We had a great summer with the WA CHEE WE. As hoped it blasts along at a GPS 50 MPH and the smiles just keep coming. I thought you might like to attach this picture to complete the story of the restoration of our boat. Putting up the boat for the season, but looking forward to next year. Reading your publication will help me get there – Thanks Texx.”

Thanks for sharing your story and this great photo of WA CHEE WE with us John, she looks fantastic! – Texx

7 replies
  1. Kim Kadimik
    Kim Kadimik says:

    Wow, reading this added the missing pieces to yesterday’s story. Unbelievable way to store a boat, they were lucky to find it.

  2. Greg Lewandowski
    Greg Lewandowski says:

    Great story. The video was interesting, but this adds the meat behind the story that completes it. The personal insight is wonderful!

  3. jimmuh
    jimmuh says:

    And I thought finding our boat in a barn was pretty cool!

    I can identify with Mr. Unsworths comment on restoration costs; ours too was “within budget”, it’s just that the budget keeps moving, right along with the project……

  4. Cobourg kid
    Cobourg kid says:

    Great story! wierd though that Cpt.Archer would go to all that trouble to sink her if he had offers on the table.

    BTW Matt since those original planks are not being used perhaps Mr Unsworth might donate them to woodies for boobies!

  5. Don Paterson
    Don Paterson says:

    Thanks for bringing back memories. As a kid we used to go to Archer’s store for candy and groceries. Grace ran the store.

    l understand the Mildred was also restored. Do you know where she now is? Pictures would be great.

    Don. Paterson (from Muskoka Lake in the ’30s)

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