There's no mention in encyclopedias and little information on the Internet, and as surprising as it may seem, the airboat, that runabout boat with a propeller, originated here in Utah.

The first airboat was built by staff at the Bear River Bird Refuge near Brigham City back in the 1940s ... and not in Florida or Louisiana or Canada or by resort operators in the Caribbean.

Who gets full credit for the craft is uncertain. It appears, however, it involved collaboration by three employees of the refuge — Leo Young, G. Hortin Jensen and Cecil Williams.

The three would go on to build airboats for people all over the world.

A story in Ducks Unlimited magazine back in 1987 mentioned Young and Jensen and date the building of the first boat in 1950.

Refuge records, however, show the first boat came into use in 1943, with several photos of running airboats dated 1947.

Said Young in the DU story, "Hortin Jensen and I each had a model. We would borrow one another's ideas in building the boats.

"We had a lot of problems along the way. The biggest problem with the airboat is that it is built for wet mud and not water. It has to have a flat bottom, and you don't have control of a flat-bottomed boat like you do one with a V-bottom. The flat-bottoms are harder to operate," he reported.

Prior to the introduction of the airboat, refuge biologists had to either walk through shallow water and deep, sticky mud or push unpowered flat-bottom boats with long poles. It was exhausting work and required long days and even weeks to complete a project.

Staff had experimented with a boat called the "Mud Queen," which had small paddle wheels on either side that pushed the boat. It never worked well.

Young reported that he called the first airboat an "air-thrust boat."

The DU article went on to say that once Young had worked out all the bugs, "DU contacted him and purchased one."

Lyle Young, the son of Leo Young, said that once word got out about the boat, his dad had orders from all over the country.

"I'd get home from school and, after dinner, I'd be out working with my dad on a boat someone ordered. One day he said he was tired and wasn't going to build any more boats. That night there was a knock on the door and a man from California asked if he was the one who built airboats and wanted Dad to build him one. It was all chrome and beautiful.

"I remember Dad used to travel to airplane crashes to buy the motors."

Many airboats today still use aircraft engines because they are air-cooled and are in sync with the propeller. Some of the new boats using automotive or marine motors need a converter to operate the propeller.

The story in the refuge education center gives a similar account and reported that Williams and Jensen needed to traverse the refuge to help stem the spread of avian botulism but lacked an efficient means of transportation.

They expressed their needs to headquarters in Washington, D.C. The response was, jokingly, that they should "get an alligator from Louisiana, saddle up and ride the critter during their botulism studies." Eventually, they would name their first boat "Alligator I." It was a flat-bottom boat pushed along by an aircraft engine purchased for $99.50.

It is reported that Jensen and Williams also got into the airboat business and shipped crafts all over the world. The last boat built by Jensen is currently on display at the refuge's Wildlife Education Center west of Brigham City.

Many of the early crafts built at the refuge were shipped to Florida. Early records show it cost roughly $1,600 to build a boat, including engine.

One thing is certain, however, and that is that the first airboat did, in fact, skim over the shallow waters of the Bear River Bird Refuge and went from there to marshes all over the world.


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