March 1, 2017

The Curator’s Log: March 2017

Foundations of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company

Foundations of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company


Just as todays Bristol boatbuilders take inspiration and lessons from the success of the Herreshoffs, so too, over 150 years ago, the Herreshoff brothers drew upon Bristol's maritime heritage, infrastructure and capable citizens to found and succeed in their business.

What were the foundations in 1863 upon which the blind, 22-year-old John Brown Herreshoff (JB) started and achieved early success in his new boatbuilding business?

In Captain Nat Herreshoff The Wizard of Bristol, L. Francis Herreshoff relates the story and influences of the family, Nat Herreshoff's education and designs, JB's early years and the works of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company (HMCo). Francis devotes his first chapter, The Time and the Place, to the history of the town and some of the early vessels built there because, "I believe that the traditions of Bristol and the craftsmen who lived there had a profound influence on Mr. (Nat) Herreshoff's character". He quotes Capt. Nat's tribute to those craftsmen, "If I could get together some old fashioned mechanics of the kind we had when we started business I could build yachts cheaper and better without many power tools than with a whole shop full of modern machinery."1

In this paper we explore the Bristol of JB and Nat Herreshoff's youth and identify some of JB's first employees. Thanks to Norene Rickson for helping to get the story straight; any errors though are mine alone.

Museum Resources

There is no better place to research this question than the library of the Herreshoff Marine Museum with its first-class collection of books on the maritime history of Bristol and Rhode Island.

Additionally, work is well underway on a database containing information on employees of HMCo and its antecedents. Volunteer Marian Wenge has assisted staff archivist Norene Rickson compiling the database using information from the museum curatorial files, the HMCo archival collection, visitor information and the archives of the Bristol Phoenix. As of now, there are approximately 3,000 entries.

The Maritime and Industrial Character of Bristol

As young boys JB Herreshoff (1841-1915) and Nat (1848-1938) experienced the end of whaling, decline of both sea commerce and shipbuilding, and the growing industrial character of the town. .  The family farm on Poppasquash Point and move in 1856 to a home at 132 Hope Street, fronted on the water by a tannery, gave the boys front-row seats to work in the shipyards and on the wharfs as well as the changing scene of Bristol commerce and industry. Though blind in both eyes at the age of fifteen, JB could see through the eyes of his younger brother and comprehend the significance of each description, discussion, sound, smell and touch to his future endeavors.

Bristol's sea commerce had been in decline since the War of 1812; war losses, effects of Bristol's "great" financial panic of 1825 (caused by D'Wolf family financial reverses) and loss of foreign trade to the bigger port of Providence all played a part.2 Replacement of whale oil by kerosene caused the Bristol whaling fleet to decline. Between 1830-1856, 60 vessels were built for both whaling and commerce, but the trend line was down, and in the 1830s industry in the form of the first cotton textile mills began to provide new employment opportunities.3

In 1840, just prior to JB's birth, Bristol totaled "3,490 (population) and 171 colored".4 The Bristol Gazette, which published extensive shipping news every Saturday, had ceased operation. (Due to the declining locally owned fleet.) To fill the void William Bayley in 1837 started publishing The Phoenix out of his home.5 The Phoenix later became Bristol Phoenix and its archives are the source of much that we know about the HMCo and its employees.

In the 1840s there was much to interest young boys. A large ropewalk manufactured rope, cables and rigging for ship customers throughout New England. Trade, manufacturing (barrel hoops, sugar refining and rum) and shipbuilding were conducted from three wharfs in the north end of town and ten in the south. Primary imports included molasses and sugar from Cuba, iron and hemp; exported were onions and potatoes. When molasses was being discharged boys "swarmed" the wharfs "lickin 'lasses" by running smooth sticks down the bung hole of a cask. The A. T. & J. T. Usher Company exported to the West Indies nearly all the onions grown in Bristol County; up to150,000 bushels per year. It was said, "What the smut and worms don't take the Ushers will".  Shipbuilder Thompson, Stanton and Skinner operated a horse-powered marine railway from one wharf and sailmakers Alger and Gladding both operated on Thames Street. A small steamer stopped at the Fall River Iron Works wharf each morning to pick up passengers and freight on its daily run from Bristol Ferry to Providence, returning later that day.6

Among the southern-most wharfs in town was one with a small building where Slocum manufactured the "first headed pin to be made in this country", later used by John W. Dearth for the manufacture of soap and then by Capt. Hugh N. Gifford for the tanning of hides. All had one thing in common; "none of them made any money".7  That changed in 1863 when JB started to profitably build boats on the site and continued for as long as he was in charge- another 52 years.

The 1850s brought more change to Bristol. The population was now 5,000. Two cotton mills (Bristol Steam Mill and Pokanoket Steam Mill), each employing about 170 workers, were by far the largest employers, followed by the sugar refinery and Ambrose Burnside's Bristol Fire Arms Co. The latter on the site of what was to be the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. In April 1855, Bristol was connected to Providence by telegraph. The Bristol Gas & Light Co. erected a gas works (known to the townspeople as "the heater") laid pipe, installed 20 lamp posts and on July 4th 1855 started service to the businesses and residences. Gone from the town was the odor of burning whale oil. A week later on July 11th passenger and freight rail service to Fox Point in Providence started on newly laid track with two trains per day making the trip in 30 minutes.8

The Early Herreshoff Employees

In the HMCo employee database there are currently four individuals whose employment pre-dates the incorporation of the HMCo in 1878. A possible fifth, William Thatcher, is in the 1866 photo of the Tannery and may also be an employee.9

  • Edward Isaac Thompson-Carpenter. Employed 1863-1904 with some break in service
  • Thomas L. Grant- Carpenter. Employed 1872 (length of service?)
  • Edwin F. Lindsey- Machine shop. Employed 1874-1921
  • Samuel W. Munro- Trade? Employed 1876-1918

Edward Thompson (1821-1905), age 42, was probably JB's very first employee and the one we know the most about. JB could not have chosen a better man. Growing up in Newport, Thompson started work at age 12 as a butcher's boy. At 16 his parents apprenticed him for four years with Amos Crandall of Bristol to learn the shipbuilders trade. Crandall's yard was off Thames Street between State & Bradford and at the time was building the schooner Pearl for a Bristol shipmaster. Continuing at Crandall's after his apprenticeship, Thompson experienced the building of the first propeller driven steamer of any size built in Bristol: the Washington, intendedfor service between Providence  and New York.

Thompson left Crandall about 1850 to work in other yards in Bristol, Fall River, Somerset and Warren where he gained more experience and skills. Tasks included operating a marine railway, "laying down" the first ship built in a new shipyard, followed by four US Government lightships; building three barks, a schooner, yacht and sloop in his brother Joseph's yard at the head of Bristol harbor.

Thompson was JB's shop foreman for eleven years before leaving for a short period during a drop-off of work. Returning to work until 1904 he witnessed the growth from a very small beginning to a large well-equipped plant.10

The database also contains three whose employment dates from 1878 when the HMCo was founded. (In April 1878 the Bristol Phoenix reported there were, "more than seventy skilled mechanics and workmen" employed.)11

  • Albert Sidney Almy- Carpenter, carpenter & boatshop foreman, superintendent. Employed 1878-1903
  • Charles F. Herreshoff, Jr.- Foreman on the wharf & yard 1878
  • Christian Hermann- Machinist, Machine Shop Foreman. Employed 1878-1918

Albert Sidney Almy (1836-1915) was born in Little Compton. He learned the carpenter trade while employed in Fall River and Providence.12  He probably started with JB before 1878 since he was given the key position of "Superintendent" in the new HMCo.  In 1878 Nat Herreshoff, JB's partner, was the engineer and designer, a position described in the Bristol Phoenix as "modeling and machine drafting".13  He did not assume the responsibilities of Superintendent-of-the-Works until later. Albert's younger brother Darwin (1848-1916) later joined HMCo, rising to boiler shop foreman before leaving to start his own business in Providence based on his patented Almy boiler.

The employee project is just starting. There is much to be learned about the early HMCo employees. If you have any information to add please contact Norene at [email protected].

John Palmieri

Figure 1 - The Tannery in 1866. Site of John Brown Herreshoff’s Boat shop.

Photographs are courtesy of the HMM Archives.

1 L. Francis Herreshoff. Captain Nat Herreshoff The Wizard of Bristol. (New York: Sheridan House, 1953) pgs. 19 & 142.

2 Charles O. F. Thompson, editor.  Sketches of Old Bristol. (Providence, RI: Roger Williams Press, 1942) Page 90 & 187.

3 "Historical and Architectural Resources of Bristol, RI" Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1990. Pgs. 18-19.

4 Thompson.  Sketches of Old Bristol. "Bristol Census". Page 411.

5 Ibid., "The Bristol Phoenix- A History". Pgs. 299-308

6 Ibid., "Bristol in 1840" written in 1907 by Old Bristolian. Pgs 29-37. "Old Bristol Reminiscences, 1840- 1850" by Grafton W. Carter, pgs. 40-66.

7 "Bristol in 1840". pg. 33.

8 Thompson, Sketches of Old Bristol., ("Bristol in the Year 1856", Page 89). ("THE OLD GASHOUSE" Pages 207-209). ("The Old Franklin Street Station", pages 239-250).

9 Maynard Bray & Carlton Pinheiro. Herreshoff of Bristol 2nd Edition. (Bristol RI: Herreshoff Marine Museum). See page 7 for a complete description of thee 1866 Tannery photo.

10 Thompson, Sketches of Old Bristol., "Edward Isaac Thompson (1821-1905)". Pages 322-24.

11 Bristol Phoenix, "The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company Works". April 13, 1878.

12 Bristol Phoenix, Feb. 12, 1915

13Bristol Phoenix, "The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company Works". April 13, 1878.