April 6, 2020

This Week in Herreshoff History: April 6

A little mongrel craft, cruising in France, a new foundry and architectural drawings

April 6, 1874

On this day 146 years ago, Captain Nat launched a little sailing dory, L'ONDA in Marseilles. Captain Nat was staying with a cousin in France at the time after "being banished from home to recover [his] health," as he dramatically recalled in a letter to W.P. Stephens in 1935. NGH had gone abroad to recover from exhaustion caused by overwork - likely a combination of carrying on a full time job at the Corliss Steam Engine Company of Providence, RI, while also moonlighting as a designer for his brother JBH back home in Bristol, RI.

Early cover demonstrating the kind of adventures one could expect in a Rob Roy canoe!

At the time, there was quite a fad among the gentlemanly set for small-boat camp cruising in a style of canoe known as the "Rob Roy." The design and double-paddle approach to thin-water exploration were both popularized by John MacGregor in a series of books beginning with "A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on the Rivers and Lakes of Europe," first published in 1866. NGH wrote amusingly of his experiences cruising in L'ONDA in company with a larger dory he also built called RIVIERA and a "Rob Roy" double paddled canoe belonging to an acquaintance during his time in France. You can read excerpts of that trip in both "Their Last Letters" and in "Recollections". The canoe craze swept Europe and the United States during the late 1800s; it was written about extensively in Yachting and other magazines of the period. You can read one particularly charming 1886 article in Leslie's Popular Monthly by W.P. Stephens here.

RIVIERA did make it back to the States and was kept for many years in the Herreshoff family boathouse; she was eventually destroyed in the Hurricane of 1938. Image from the HMM historic photo archive

L'ONDA, the "little mongrel craft approaching a dory" as NGH called it, met a sad end when NGH tried to ship her back to the States from France. As he recalled in Recollections, "The importing charges were so unreasonable at the bonded warehouse in New York, I abandoned the boat." However, the half model NGH carved before he built her came home in his pocket from France, and is still in the Model Room at the Herreshoff Museum today.

Half model for L'ONDA (12'10" LWL, 13'6" LOA) carved by Captain Nat while on vacation in France in 1874; now on display in the Model Room at HMM

Historically, dories were small open work-boats commonly used in the Atlantic fishing industries. They have been adapted to all sorts of other uses, from surf boats to pleasure craft. The relatively simple stackable type has a centuries-long history that has been endlessly modified but its most typical characteristics are slab sided construction and a tombstone transom. There are several museums still keeping the working tradition alive today - check out Lowell's Boat Shop and the Shelburne Dory Shop Museum to learn more.

April 7, 1899

In "Notes and News of Local Interest - Bristol Vicinity," the Bristol Phoenix notes work has begun on the brass [sic] foundry building on Burnside St. as HMCo.'s business continues to expand and the company increases manufacturing capacity. People are often surprised to learn that HMCo. produced drawings for all the buildings on campus in their own drafting offices! You can see some of those plans in the MIT Museum online collections.

Detail of an HMCo. office building drawing from the MIT Museum