Introducing “This Month in Herreshoff History” a new series featuring past events occurring in previous years of this month
THIS MONTH IN HERRESHOFF HISTORY- JULY 1915
John Brown Herreshoff the President and Treasurer of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company died in the early morning hours of Tuesday July 20, 1915 in his home on High Street in Bristol. He was 74 and the first in a family of eight brothers and sisters (the oldest then 81) to pass. Born in 1841 and totally blind since the age of 15 he had been an owner/partner in the boatbuilding business continually for 51 years. The Bristol Phoenixreported he had been in declining health, some six weeks earlier had suffered an attack of angina pectoris and died of “acute dilatation of the heart”. His younger brother, Nat Herreshoff, partner since 1879 as Designer and Superintendent of the Company wrote in his diary, “My brother John died last night at 2:30 quite unexpected of angina-pectoris.“ The New York Tribune under the banner, “J. B. Herreshoff, Yacht Builder, Dies: Blind, He Won Fame by Cup Defenders- Made Many Nations Boats” attributed his death to an illness characterized as “a general breakdown” of a month’s duration.1, 2, 3
But what if this dynamo of a businessman, a man of great pride and a person of “indestructible will and energy” found that he no longer mattered? No one paid attention anymore and possibly his last chance for business success had been thwarted by his younger brother. To what then would we attribute his rapid decline and death?4
There is a case to be made that he succumbed because there was no reason to continue on. Here it is.
Negotiating for the America’s Cup Defender 1913-1914
When in the early days of 1891 John, the “Blind Boatbuilder of Bristol”, chose to enter the NYYC 46-footer competition against the best Amercican racing yacht designers by contracting with C. O. Iselin to build Nat’s radical GLORIANA, (which we now know led to five America’s Cup wins for John and HMCo- 1893-1903) he took on significant risk. The company had a successful steam vessel business; good order book and steady workforce. John, personally, had an international reputation in steam and his demonstrations in command of the latest vessel and challenges to race were widely reported. Besides, the firm had practically withdrawn from sail, and had not builta large racing yacht in 24 years (47 ft wl schooner SADIE, 1867). A failure to meet the high expectations for their return to sail would be a financial disaster. He made the decision and it turned out well.
But by 1913, when the NYYC begins negotiations for a 1914 Cup defender, John no longer is the sole lead for the company. Cost is the #1 worry of NYYC Secretary George Cormack and the defender syndicate ; they start a three-way conversation about cost with letters between Cormack/syndicate and Nat and also separately with HMCo. (There is also a two-way conversation between Cormack & the syndicate with Nat only about the design.) No one is happy in the end. HMCo’s final contract exceeds the cost limits provided to the syndicate by Nat during the process. HMCo’s attempt to protect itself with a cost plus type of contract fails. John signs, but he has been squeezed and marginalized by the separate communication path with Nat.5
Through the construction of RESOLUTE and the 1914 defender trials there is not one mention of John in the press. The message is clear; he is superfluous to the process and the outcome.
The Russian Sub Chaser Affair 1915
In the summer of 1914, about the time the America’s Cup was postponed because of the war in Europe Nat, was in failing health. Confined to a hospital bed in November he then convalesced through the winter in Bermuda. While Nat was away John began negotiations with Mr. Boekel, a representative of the Russian government, to build 60-foot high-speed sub chasers to an aggressive schedule. This was his chance to establish a lead position in the forthcoming wadriven demand for such vessels. John had Nat’s son Sidney fashion half-model (#932) and bid for the vessels including a performance guarantee for speed and range. Boekel had approached other US boatbuilders as well, but apparently only HMCo signed up to the requirements. Nat returned to Bristol late on Monday April 12th and on that Friday HMCo received a cabled order and advance payment for 12 of the sub chasers. On the following Wednesday, April 21, Nat and John had a “tempest… about new launches”. L Francis Herreshoff offers that Nat may have opposed the plant expansion that was sure to be needed. Nat’s records show he objected that the combination of speed and range guaranteed could not be achieved; offering to redesign to new performance requirements. Failing to reach an agreement Nat spent the following weekend closeted with lawyers and the following week they demanded that John return the advance payment.6, 7
It was done. John’s quest for new steam vessel success had been thwarted. There was nothing left to do.
1. “Obituary John Brown Herreshoff”, The Bristol Phoenix Semi-Weekly, July 20, 1915
2. “Nathanael G. Herreshoff Diary, July 20, 1915”. Herreshoff Collection, Herreshoff Marine Museum. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.
3. “J. B. Herreshoff, Yacht Builder, Dies: Blind, He Won Fame by Cup Defenders- Made Many Nations Boats”. New York Tribune. July 21, 1915
4. Quote is from NGH letter of 9 Oct 1930 to J. A. Humberstone, Edison Inst. of Technology, Dearborn, MI. Herreshoff Collection. Herreshoff Marine Museum. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.
5. Correspondence NGH/Cormack; NGH/Syndicate Chairman H. Walters. 1913. Herreshoff Collection, Herreshoff Marine Museum. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.
6. L. F. Herreshoff, Captain Nat Herreshoff: The Wizard of Bristol. Sheridan House, New York 1953. P. 154
7. “Nathanael G. Herreshoff Diary, Summer 1914- May 1915”.NGH Correspondence 1915. Herreshoff Collection, Herreshoff Marine Museum. Access courtesy of Halsey C. Herreshoff.