June 11, 2020

This Week in Herreshoff History: June 11

Skulkers around town, a once famous photographer (now forgotten) comes to Bristol, another's attempt to capture a nighttime launch ends in an unexpected tragedy, and trials two decades later

June 7 and 11, 1895

The Bristol Phoenix reports a group of skulkers attempting to gain entry to the Herreshoff shops to spy on the America's Cup contender, DEFENDER (HMCo. #452), under construction. The same edition of the paper recounts a visit by a number Government officials arriving in Bristol to inspect the plant in HMCo.'s own STILETTO (HMCo. #118) (at that point under federal ownership). It also mentions the likelihood of J.B. and N.G. Herreshoff's expected attendance at "ladies day" at the Rhode Island Yacht Club.

The precarious looking Rhode Island Yacht Club clubhouse in Cranston, RI, ca. late 1800s; image courtesy RIYC

June 9 and 13, 1899

An attack of apoplexy ends in a tragedy for a friend of the family in town to witness HMCo. #499 COLUMBIA's launch. Further speculation in the same paper about the launching as follows: "A great deal of nonsense has been printed in regard to Columbia but the story that she will be launched in 'petticoats,' that is with her underbody draped in canvas, to prevent observation of her lines, is one of the most ridiculous we have ever seen. The Messrs. Herreshoff never take the trouble to deny any of these 'pipe stones,' but we are in a position to state that the only reason for launching Columbia as late as 8 o'clock tomorrow is that the tide is sufficiently high at that time, and she will be hardly ready to go over board, as far as the work on her is concerned, an hour before that the public will be admitted to the wharf as usual, though, of course, no fireworks or flash lights [sic!] will be allowed on the wharves on account of the danger of fire. No effort will be made to restrain those who care to experiment with photograph by artificial light from the water..."

Little could anyone have predicted the launch would end in a fatal accident. A badly mixed batch of explosive flash powder from a photographer caused multiple serious injuries and the death of an 11 year old spectator in the crowd, Napoleon San Souci, who's father was a carpenter at HMCo. Flash photography was still a developing field at the time, and there were other photographers present trying their luck at capturing the launching despite the late hour. One in particular was the New York based John C. Hemment, famous enough for his pioneering high speed photographic methods at the time as to be mentioned in the papers and asked for his opinion on the accident. The multi-page coverage in the Phoenix is well worth taking the time to read, particularly because we are lucky enough to have copies of the Hemment photos described from the evening in our collection at HMM.

The Phoenix reports Hemment used a "pound and a half of flash powder" to take a photo of COLUMBIA's nighttime launch (quite possibly this very image) from the deck of the steam yacht CORSAIR without incident. The rest of the spectators made do with the bright calcium lights set up for the occasion; image from the HMM archive

June 11, 1920

VANITIE and RESOLUTE spar in the America's Cup Defender series over at three leg Brenton Reef course. RESOLUTE (HMCo. #725) would go on to win the series and the Cup, though it was a complicated win and public opinion in hindsight favored VANITIE as the faster boat. The pause during WWI and resulting re-rigging and re-handicapping and subsequent interference on the part of the Syndicate and Club members lead L. Francis to recount bitterly in his 1948 book, The Common Sense of Yacht Design: "The way the Wise Men of the Club bungled up Resolute was a great trial to my father [N.G.H.], who was about seventy-two years old at the time. Although he almost never used swear words, it was about then that he made the statement that he believed the world was now composed principally of three kinds of people. When asked what those three classes were, he said, 'Fools, damn fools, and sons of lady dogs.' Yes, the Resolute was an unfortunate and much maligned vessel... Vanitie did beat Resolute quite regularly after they were both rigged as staysail schooners and when they were rigged as leg-o'-mutton sloops, but Vanitie was undoubtedly handled much the best. I also credit the late good performance of Vanitie partly to Starling Burgess who designed her later rigs. Last impressions are often the most impressive and this has made many people think Vanitie a faster yacht than Resolute, but this was far from so the way they originally came out..."

RESOLUTE and VANITIE during trials; images from HMM photo archive