Elco PT Boat and History
Electric boats are definitely not a new concept. Elco first introduced the electric engine to boating in the 1800’s. Electric Launch Company (Elco), originally incorporated on December 31, 1892, was first to introduce electric boats in the United States at the Chicago Exposition in 1893. Elco was requested to build fifty-five (55) 36-foot electric launches for this event. Ticket sales to transport people around the Chicago area lakes and rivers exceeded 1,000,000. That was over 120 years ago and at that time electric motors were the preferred form of propulsion. Elco’s “Picnic Launch” became the essence of a perfect lake cruise.
The Golden Years of Elco and the PT Boat
According to noted Elco historian William C. Swanson, the “operational genius” behind Elco’s success was Henry R. Sutphen, who joined Elco in 1892 and may be considered the visionary of the company. Sutphen ran Elco from 1895 to 1949 and, according to Swanson, helped build the pleasure power boat industry as we know it today.
The list of Elco owners during this period reads like a social register, the name Elco is sewn into American history with owners like, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindberg, Mrs. George Westinghouse, The De Beers Family, the list goes on and on. This speaks to the quality, the attention to detail and the overall Elco experience.
Elco’s reputation for service and discretion was spread by word of mouth among the very wealthy. Well-heeled customers asked for custom work, and they got it: Czar Nicholas II ordered his 37′ gig’s oak hull sheathed in brass. Velvet carpets in the cockpit were required to soothe Romanov feet, and no royal buttock could sit in a wicker chair that wasn’t first upholstered in Russian leather. It was unthinkable for a peasant to share the Czar’s cockpit, so two small circular walls were installed fore and aft for the two crewmen aboard the gig. In a later era, the H.J. Heinz family requested that a logo representing a jar of one of their 57 varieties of pickles adorn each side of the false smoke stack of their Elco. Insurance executive George Stoner needed a red brick fireplace in the main salon of his 57′ deckhouse cruiser. Elco, as always, obliged.
In the same vein, the list of designers Elco employed to design its launches and yachts reads like a Who’s Who. Notable Elco designers include Charles D. Mosher, partner of designer William Gardner, Alfred “Bill” Luders, Irwin Chase, and Glenville Sinclair Tremaine. The team of Sutphen, Chase, and Tremaine together grew Elco into the preeminent builders of cruising pleasure boats and classic motor yachts.
In 1923, Elco opened its famous “Port Elco” showroom in downtown New York, and for the first time customers could walk in off the street and browse among a selection of yachts from 32′ to more than 50′ in length. Henry Sutphen not only borrowed standardized construction from the auto industry but began to adapt Detroit marketing techniques as well. In that year, Sutphen also shook up Elco’s management. Before leaving town on a business trip, he had assigned Elco General Manager Thomas Hanson the task of preparing new boats for the 1923 Motorboat Show. When Sutphen returned to Elco, he found out that little or nothing had been done for the show, so he fired Hanson. Sutphen then promoted Irwin Chase to the position of general manager, and named Glenville S. Tremaine chief designer.
Elco was not alone in its design changes; everybody built boats for the middle and upper middle income family. Dawn, Consolidated (the old Charles Seabury/Gas Engine & Power outfit), Matthews, Wheeler, Richardson, Mathis, Chris-Craft and a host of others turned out boats as fast as trees could be felled. While it is grossly unfair to say these companies all copied one another, there is a remarkable similarity in many of their designs. It was just as tough then as it is now to distinguish one company’s boats from a competitor’s at 100 yards.
If World War I created a new boatbuilding market, Prohibition certainly created another- and much faster- clientele. Many firms made their mark building rumrunners; Elco, as a rule, built few high-speed votes for this somewhat unusual trade. Had Irwin Chase stayed in the drafting room, perhaps Elco would have continued its work on planing hulls and racing hydroplanes. As it was, the company made its mark with cruising powerboats, and left the speedboats to Gar Wood and Chris-Craft, among others. There is a tendency to compare Elco and Chris-Craft, America’s two biggest and best-known boatbuilders, but the comparison should be resisted. Chris-Craft certainly built more hulls, although these hulls were invariably both smaller and faster; Elco certainly built more cruisers. Chris-Craft and Elco had different clientele and different markets, and seldom competed boat-to-boat, even during the 1930s when Chris-Craft began to produce cruisers in quantity.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s relationship with Elco dated back to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, when Roosevelt’s father took him to the fair. Young Franklin took one of his first boat rides in one of the electric launches, and may have developed his lifelong interest in things nautical from this experience. During World War I Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had worked closely with Sutphen and Chase on the motor launch project. Sutphen and Roosevelt maintained their friendship through Roosevelt’s Presidency. In 1937, General Douglas MacArthur asked Roosevelt for a fleet of small, fast boats to help carry out defensive maneuvers in the Philippines; as it happened, the U.S. Navy had been looking into this subject- although without much funding or enthusiasm- since World War I. Roosevelt, through Assistant Navy Secretary Charles Edison, whose famous inventor-father owned Elco, asked Sutphen to go to England to investigate patrol boats being built by Hubert Scott-Paine’s British Powerboat Co.
Lt. John Bulkley (whose father had worked for the company that supplied uniforms to Elco workmen back home in Bayonne) won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his PT boat exploits during the opening days of the war. The book and the Robert Montgomery-John Wayne movie They Were Expendable remain as testaments to Bulkley’s achievements, not the least of which was spiriting MacArthur out of the Philippines. (MacArthur returned several years later, as he’d promised, aboard Elco’s PT-525.) Lt. A. Murray Preston also won a Congressional Medal of Honor for his daring rescue of a downed flier 200 yards from enemy gun positions in 1944; Preston’s two Elcos had been under fire for more than two hours on that occasion. Twenty-two Navy Crosses were awarded to PT crewmen, along with hundreds of lesser citations. Of the PTs built by Elco and Higgins, 48 were lost in combat (Lt. John F. Kennedy’s Elco PT-109 was one of only two rammed and sunk by the enemy), while antother 21 PTs were lost to non-combat causes (seven were sunk by Allied forces by a variety of mistakes and accidents). Casualties aboard these U.S. Navy PTs were 306 dead and 438 wounded; PTs build by Elco, Higgins and British firms, and operated by other Allied navies, probably sustained an equal casualty and combat record.
At the height of its PT-boat production, Elco employed more than 3000 men and women working three shifts a day for six days a week. They produced, on average, one PT boat every sixty hours. This brough Elco six consecutive Navy “E” Awards for defense contracting excellence, and earned the company $10 million in profits on a cost-plus basis. Laying off some 2000 of these employees when the war work ended was the worst job Elco ever asked Glen Tremaine to do. In 1939 he had been promoted to works manager and had day-to-day charge of Elco plant operation, including PT-boat design, throughout the war.
The number of Elcos that have survived is unknown. The best guess is about 400 out of the more than 7500 boats the company built. About a dozen electric launches built prior to World War I are known to exist; perhaps there are two or three more stowed away in long-abandoned boathouses. Only one pre-WWI Cruisette is still around, although its date has not been proven. There are about two dozen PT boats in the United States, some built by Elco and some by Higgins. None of the WWI 80′ motor launches are thought to remain in Europe. The most common survivors are Cruisettes, cruisers, and “flat-top” deckhouse cruisers built between the wars; there are also a number of post-WWII Elcos, like Abel Hand, are in mint condition, and many are in serviceable shape; many others, however, are in need of expensive attention.
For a number of years, there has been a rumor that one of Elco’s original 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition launches still exists- nobody seems to know quite where, or who the owner might be. If she could be found…
A New Era for Elco Classic Motor Yacht
Today, the Elco legacy continues with all the strength and passion that Henry Sutphen once brought to it. With a sound reinvestment in energy and enthusiasm, along with a focus on advancing the electric drive, our company’s namesake, Elco continues to make history in American yachting. Elco motors, boats, and yachts today are built to the highest standards just as they were from the beginning. And just as it has always been, the Elco name today stands for quiet beauty and sound innovation.