A lot has been written about the origin of the celebrated flat-bottomed wooden boats used on the James and White rivers. Outdoor writer Robert Page Lincoln wrote a long article on these boats, published in the March, 1948 issue of Fur-Fish-Game magazine, for which he extensively interviewed Galena river guide and boat builder Charley Barnes.
Robert Page Lincoln was a prominent writer on hunting and fishing in the 1930s through the 1950s. Seen here dressed like a running buddy of Ernest Hemingway, Lincoln observes Charley Barnes crafting a float boat. Lincoln wrote Barnes didn’t care for the name ‘johnboat.’
Charley Barnes guided Galena-to-Branson floats for forty years and built more than three hundred of the craft used in these trips. In a 1956 interview with Springfield News-Leader reporter Don Payton, Barnes said although he had “taken commercial floats on the Current River” and heard the term johnboat applied there, “We have never used that name here.” Barnes got in to the James River float business during its earliest commercialization, but soon realized, “‘the boats available weren’t big enough to accommodate occupants for much longer than a day.’ Barnes quickly came to the realization that greater cargo space was needed for tents, food, equipment, and other gear. The result was that Barnes, still working in Branson, fabricated a boat ‘about 20 feet long and a yard wide with a snub nose and flat bottom.’” The classic “float boat” created by Barnes and other Galena builders was more stable than “jack boats” as earlier long, narrow, flat-bottomed wooden boats were called. Johnboats couldn’t be as easily poled upstream but return by railroad made going upriver by boat unnecessary.
The caption from Robert Page Lincoln’s 1948 article reads: