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Everglades - History of the Airboat

Posted by Manny Miami on 8th Dec 2014

Miami Everglades Airboat Tours

The first airboat built was called the Ugly Duckling, and was built in 1905, in Nova Scotia, Canada. It was used to test various engines and propulsion configurations. An intimate associate of Dr. Bell, Glenn Curtiss reportedly registered the first airboat used in the Florida Everglades, in 1920. It was called the Curtis Scooter, and  had an enclosed cockpit design.

A story published in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of the Airboating Magazine, showed a unique design known as the Free Bottom Craft which was built in the mid to late 1920s, which was comprised of a wood hull, a Curtiss aircraft engine, and was exhibited at the New York boat show. The airboat was built by Charles Post and Herbert Ballantine from and in NY, and was tested on Long Island's Hewlett Bay.

By the 1930's, homemade airboats started appearing in the swamps and marshes of South Florida and Louisiana. One company in Florida lays claim to have been providing airboat rides as entertainment as early as the mid-1930s. Over the years a variety of designs were tried and through trial-and-error, the standard design used today evolved into an open, flat bottom boat with the engine mounted on the back of the boat hull, the driver was positioned in an elevated seat, and a cage to protect the propeller from objects flying into them was incorporated. One well documented case of a homemade design (though certainly not the first) was an airboat built by staff at the Bear River Bird Refuge near Brigham City, Utah in the 1940s. It appears to have involved collaborative efforts by three employees of the refuge - Leo Young, G. Hortin Jensen and Cecil Williams.

In 1987, a story published in Ducks Unlimited magazine mentioned Young and Jensen and dated the building of the first boat as early as the year 1950. Refuge records, however, show the first boat actually came into use in 1943, with several photos of running air boats dated 1947. Prior to the introduction of the airboat, refuge biologists were obligated to either walk through shallow water and deep, sticky mud or push unpowered flat-bottom boats with long cumbersome poles. Staff had experimented with an boat called the "Mud Queen," which had small paddle wheels on either side that pushed the boat. They built their first airboat nicknamed "Alligator I" from a flat-bottom boat pushed along by an aircraft engine purchased for $99.50. Young reported that he called the first airboat an "air-thrust boat." Once word got out about the boat, Leo Young built and sold boats all over the world.

Read more about Everglades airboat tours