The Elco Story: By William Swanson
John Jacob Astor owned four of them. Grand Duke Alexander of Russia, attending a naval review in New York in 1893, saw one of Astor’s launches and wanted one so badly he insisted on buying the one already ordered by the captain of the newly launched cruiser USS New York, who then had to wait for a new one. When the Grand Duke’s cousin, Czar Nicholas II, saw Alexander’s launch, he liked it so much he bought one too. Admiral Dewey owned one, and so did Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild. Charles Lindbergh had one customized for his honeymoon. Actors Wallace Beery and Reginald Denny each had one, as did comedian Ed Wynn. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison kept theirs at their adjoining Florida estates. John F. Kennedy got his “used” and it nearly cost him his life. Lt. John Bulkeley saved the hide of General Douglas MacArthur in one, and later won the Congressional Medal of Honor with it.
The special thing that each of these men owned or operated was a boat built by Elco, the Electric Launch Company, one of the world’s premier builders of power boats.
In its years of boatbuilding, Elco produced more than 3,000 pleasure boats and more than 1,500 military vessels, from the 55 electric launches introduced to the world at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, to the 399 PT boats it built during World War II. Not only did Elco set the pace in design and construction, it pioneered marketing, sales, advertising, and customer-service techniques that are the hallmarks have todays “Elco”.
There were boat builders who built faster boats — although Elco built one of the first “planing” hulls, the Elcoplane Bug, in 1911 — and there were boat builders who built larger boats. A few companies built more expensive boats, and many companies built cheaper boats. But pound for pound and dollar for dollar, nobody built boats like Elco. Elco’s two crowning achievements were its WWI production of 550 sub-chasing 80′ “motor launches” for the British Admiralty in 488 working days, and the construction of 399 PT boats- one every 60 hours- for the U.S. Navy and for Allied navies in World War II.
Many Elco customers put their prized possessions in winter storage at the Elco yard in Bayonne, New Jersey, where full winterizing and other services were available. Need to ship your new 60-footer to Lake Tahoe? Elco arranged shipment of yachts almost anywhere in the world, by freighter, by specially equipped railroad car, or on their own bottoms.
Although Elco advertised heavily in the boating magazines, its reputation for service and discretion was spread by word of mouth among the very wealthy. Well-heeled customers often 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 wells 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 cruiser. Insurance executive George Stoner needed a red brick fireplace in the main salon of his 57′ deckhouse cruiser. Elco, as always, obliged.
When Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic in May of 1927, he became overnight “the most famous man in the world.” The Lone Eagle spent much of his time flying over water, about which he was ignorant, and he decided to learn something about seamanship. He chartered a 38′ cruiser from Elco in 1928, and spent the summer learning how to maneuver a powerboat, with Elco executives as instructors. The following winter, Lindbergh met his bride-to-be, Anne Morrow, and set a secret wedding date for May 29, 1929. He approached his friends at Elco, advised them of his secret plans, and bought a 38′ cruiser on the condition that his purchase be kept confidential. Elco’s chief designer, Glenville S. Tremaine, drew up a modified aft-cabin arrangement with a double berth in lieu of the standard pair of single berths. The alterations were made secretly, and Elco General Manager Irwin Chase delivered the completed boat, named Mouette, to a deserted stretch of beach on Long Island on the evening of the wedding. That night, the Lindberghs came aboard and then “disappeared” for their honeymoon. Only a few Elco executives knew how they had made their escape from the press and the public.
Long after the Lindberghs sold their Elco, it was acquired by a New York advertising executive, who renamed the boat Abel Hand. In the early 1970s, he had Abel Hand restored at Dutch Wharf Boatyard in Branford, Connecticut, at a reported cost of $150,000. Lindbergh had only paid $10,750 for her, brand spanking new. The ad exec’s motive was simple: He remembered going into New York with his father during the 1920s and 1930s and standing at the window of the Port Elco showroom next to Madison Square Garden dreaming about owning an Elco someday. Such was — and is — the magic of these boats. Abel Hand spent years cruising Michigan waters, and was owned by a descendant of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly.
The extended family of financier Bernard Baruch owned five big Elco cruisers at the same time, and the whole Baruch clan — aunts and uncles, children, brothers and sisters — went cruising together in their fleet. Had their Elcos been equipped with a time machine — one of the few pieces of equipment Elco was unable to provide — one wonders what other Elco customers they might have encountered on their voyages. Fellow philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, perhaps? The several members of Alfred DuPont’s family? (Alfred liked to experiment with new types of paint on the engine room sole of his Elco.) Distillery tycoon Hiram Walker or textile king George Drexel? Mrs. George Westinghouse, out for a spin in her launch? Lord Aberdeen, taking an afternoon of as Governor General of Canada? Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson Jr., with one eye on the helm and the other in one of his father’s books? Restaurateur/hotelier Howard Johnson? What a splendid raft-up they could have assembled. Too bad the DeBeers family couldn’t attend — they kept their Elco near their diamond mines in Kimberly, South Africa.
Elco’s corporate origins remain something of a muddle. Few records from the early days deal with who founded Elco and who the key employees were. The first papers of incorporation were filed on March 12, 1892, in Trenton, New Jersey, by Philadelphians John Parker and Ralph Gihon, and John Holloway of Camden, under the name Electric Launch and Navigation Company. Then, on November 10, 1892, the General Electric Launch and Navigation Company was incorporated. The founders of this firm included Henry R. Weston, who was the attorney for the first filing on March 12. The two companies existed simultaneously and appeared to have had overlapping ownership. The personnel are unknown.
The event that sparked these incorporations may have been a small notice that appeared in Thomas Fleming Day’s monthly magazine Rudder, Sail, and Paddle (later to become Rudder magazine). In February, 1892, Rudder noted that “Launch and boat builders are requested to send to Chief Burnham, Marine Division, Transportation Exhibits Department, World’s Fair, Chicago, bids for supplying fifty 34-foot boats to be propelled by power of any description, and to be able to carry thirty people. Lieut. A. C. Baker, U.S. Navy, has been placed in charge of the marine division of the transportation exhibits department.” Chief Burnham and Lieutenant Baker scheduled demonstrations for four companies in July of 1892. Willard & Co. and Meeker & Co. each brought a steam launch, while the Columbian Launch Company and the new Electric Launch & Navigation Company demonstrated electric-drive launches. According to Scientific American (then a weekly magazine), Columbian’s Volta was thought to be superior to the others, including Electric Launch’s Electra.
The impetus for the effort to recruit electric launch builders came from world-famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who had traveled to a world’s fair in Edinburgh, Scotland, and seen several reputable electric launches there. After the try-outs the Electric Launch & Navigation Company won a contract to supply 55 electronic launches, each 36′ long, to the Chicago exposition. As Rudder noted, these launches were designed by Charles Mosher, partner of William Gardner, and apparently were constructed under Mosher’s supervision by Charles Seabury & Co. of Nyack, New York, as well as by the Racine Hardware Mfg. Co. of Racine, Wisconsin.
What role the Electric Launch & Navigation Company played in this isn’t clear; a good guess is that Elco acted as the general contractor, farming out the design work to Mosher and the construction to Seabury and Racine. These electric launches were a resounding success, and they established Elco’s reputation. The launches made 66,975 trips during the six and a half months of the exposition, carrying 1,026,346 passengers 200,925 miles and earning $314,000 for the World’s Fair organizers. Not bad for a company that incorporated a month after the first bids were requested, and which had no plant, no equipment, no staff of boat builders or designers, and no track record.
A year and a half after the World’s Fair closed, the General Electric Launch Company — whose role in the exposition is still unknown — filed papers to change its name to the “World’s Fair Electric Launch Company.” Henry Weston, attorney for the Electric Launch and Navigation Co., and a founding partner of the General Electric/World’s Fair Launch Co., signed the papers, as did several other executives who had a leg in each camp. Five months later, the World’s Fair Electric Launch company changed its name back to General Electric Launch Company. Two months later, on January 25, 1895, the firm solved its identity crisis by changing its name one last time- to the Electric Launch Company. Simultaneously, the stockholders of the initial firm — the Electric launch & Navigation Company — voted to dissolve their corporation. At last there existed a single corporate entity, and it existed under the name it kept for the next half century.
At this point it’s imperative to discuss five men whose importance and contribution to the field of electric launches cannot be exaggerated: William Immisch, J. C. Chamberlain, and the brothers Anthony and Frederick Reckenzaun. The Frenchman Gustave Trouvé outranks all of them, and should be considered the “Father of the Electric Boat.”
The first successful propeller-driven electric boat was designed and built by Trouvé. On May 8, 1880, he took out a patent on his ideas on how to propel a boat with electricity. A year later, on May 26, 1881, Trouvé launched the boat that incorporated those patented ideas, near the Pont Royal on the Seine in the heart of Paris. This was a simple 18-foot open boat powered by a small electric motor. Electricity was supplied by six Faure-Plante accumulators (the term for batteries in those days, because the devices accumulated and stored electrical charge), a kind of battery that used bichromate of potash as the electrolyte.
(The word “battery” comes from the French, batterie, to beat, going back to Old French, bat(t)re, to batter. The word evolved from batter, a series of blows, to battery, a series of weapons [cannons] that deliver blows, to any series of objects. Thus, a series of cells that deliver an electric charge is a battery of cells, or simply, an electric battery.)
Trouvé ‘s electric motor was also positioned in a novel way: it was mounted atop the rudder post. The motor shaft led aft, and a chain led down to a sprocket on the propeller shaft, the sprocket being positioned behind the three-bladed prop in the wash. This whole assembly – rudder, propeller and propeller aperture, and the motor at the top – was detachable from the boat, the rudder being suspended in the tradition pintel-and-gudgeon manner. Thus, Trouvé’s apparatus was also the world’s first successful outboard motor.
On June 26, Trouvé took his 18-foot boat to the lake in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne for more testing. This time he used a four-bladed propeller and a new battery bank system, this one using Ruhmkorff-type batteries incorporating Bunsen plates. The electrolyte was a mixture of one part hydrochloric acid, one part nitric acid, and two parts water, contained in a porous vat to reduce the nitrous fumes that system gives off.
Even with a primitive battery like this, Trouvé reported a phenomenal speed of almost 14 mph over a very short course. We don’t know what the rowboat looked like, but an etching suggests that the boat was a long, narrow punt or scow-type of craft, If so, and if the bottom was fairly flat, it is theoretically possible – though still highly doubtful – that Trouvé ‘s vessel was actually planning at a speed/length ratio of 2.4.
Trouvé then reported that after running for about three hours – and as the battery started running down – the speed had dropped to about 6 mph. After two more hours, the speed was measured at about 5 mph, a fairly realistic hull speed for a punt. While Trouvé ‘s reported speeds are certainly suspect, there is no doubt that the vessel actually worked. The boat was sufficiently noteworthy enough to be exhibited at the Paris Exhibition in 1881.
Trouvé then built a 29-foot combination paddleboat/screw propeller boat for a client named M. de Nabat. The boat, La Sirene, tested at a speed of 9.3 mph, according to reports. On Oct. 8, 1882, M. de Nabat entered the vessel in a Yacht Club of France sailing regatta held on the River Aube southeast of Paris. Shoving off five minutes before the starting gun for the sailboats, the Nabat boat completed the 3,500-foot course in 17 minutes, averaging about 6.9 mph. This was the first recorded use of an electric boat at a sporting event, a competition that would become quite common in the next three decades.
Like most pioneers, Trouvé built his success on the failures of earlier inventors. In 1859 another Frenchman, the Count de Moulins, used an extremely primitive Grove battery bank to try to drive a paddle-wheeled vessel on Bois de Boulogne lake. Details of this work are scant, but it is probable that de Moulins’ failure was the result of poor battery bank technology; paddlewheels had been around for half a century, and there’s no reason paddlewheels wouldn’t have worked if the motive apparatus was functioning properly.
Count de Moulins’ invention was built on the experiments of a certain Russian physicist and electrician named Professor Jacobi, who designed and built a paddleboat with an electric motor in 1839. Jacobi’s patron was no less than Czar Nicholas I, who spent the equivalent of about $12,000 on Jacobi’s work. Jacobi’s paddleboat, 28 feet long with a beam of 7 feet and a draft of 2 feet 8 inches, started paddling up the River Neva near St. Petersburg at about 2 mph, but was experiencing some trouble with the battery bank. The Grove battery used 128 zinc plates that dissolved in an electrolytic solution of both hydrochloric and nitric acid. This system gave off intense clouds of nitrous fumes, nauseating the crew and threatening them with suffocation; the fumes even drove spectators away from the bank of the river. Before the vessel had gone very far, the battery was disconnected and the zinc plates were removed from the electrolyte, shutting down the system and aborting the cruise. Jacobi and Czar Nicholas I appear to have abandoned their interest in electric boats at that point, and Nicholas let Jacobi keep his head, for he went on to become one of the early pioneers in the field of electroplating. (Nicholas’s great-grandson and namesake, Czar Nicholas II, would own an Elco electric launch.)
Once again the problem was the battery rather than the motor. While Jacobi’s motor was extremely primitive, it was based upon a successful electro-magnet motor that had been exhibited in 1834 before the Academie des Sciences in Paris (so we are back to the French again).
It wasn’t long, either, before the military began to pay attention. In 1887, the French Admiralty installed an electric motor and a battery bank in a 29-foot cutter, for testing at Le Havre. Some French military intellectual then calculated that the motor and batteries weighed about 100 pounds more than a comparable steam boiler system; so, rather than work to lower the weight or otherwise improve the system, the French Navy abandoned the trials.
The only other government that seemed interested in electric launches in the 1880s was Chinese. In 1888 Chinese customs officials in Shanghai somehow heard about electric boats, and ordered a 49-foot, steel-plated launch designed by Trouvé, weighing about 8 tons. The vessel, equipped with an electric headlamp with a range of more than 3 miles, was intended to sneak up quietly in the dark on opium smugglers. This vessel, too, was exhibited at the 1889 Paris Exposition before she was shipped out to China.
A full discussion of Immisch and his work may be found in the excellent book Electric Boating on the Thames. Beginning in 1888 Immisch created a fleet of about 50 electric launches from 20′ to 65′, and he and his firm designed and built electric motors from 1.5 hp to 12 hp to power these craft. Whether by prior design or by experience, Immisch seems to have realized the difficulty of selling electric boats, and bypassed this marketing dilemma (which exists to this day) by renting his boats out on a daily basis. He also created a series of charging plants up and down the Thames, and even put some charging plants on floating barges. Immisch was the guy who established beyond a reasonable doubt that electric boats not only worked, but worked well enough, safely enough, and reliably enough to rent and sell to the public. In other words, he’s the guy who took electric boats from the experimental phase to the production and commercial use phase.
Immisch was so successful that his company was soon purchased by a larger firm, General Electric Power & Traction Co. In 1890 G.E.P. & T. took Immisch’s technology as well as his marketing plan and built for the Edinburgh International Exposition four electric launches used to ferry paying customers around the exposition. From May 31 to Oct. 11, these craft took 71,075 passengers for rides. It was these boats that so charmed Olmstead that he demanded that similar craft be built for Chicago’s fair. When the Elco founders proposed to build a fleet of 55 launches for the Columbian Exposition three years later to meet Olmstead’s requirement, they had a precedent showing their plan would not only work, but that it would attract thousands of customers and, most important for investors and fair organizers alike, the fleet would make money. For that assurance they could thank Immisch.
Anthony and Frederick Reckenzaun were Austrian-born brothers and electrical engineers who did most of their work in England and then in America. Working for a battery manufacturer called the Electrical Power Storage Company of Millwall, England, in 1882, Anthony built the first electric boat in the United Kingdom, an iron-hulled launch called Electricity. In 1887 he built a 37-foot twin-screw launch called Volta, which made a widely-reported trip across the English Channel from Dover to Calais and back. It may well have been this voyage that convinced Immisch—among many others—that electric boats were not just oddities or laboratory experiments, but practical, seaworthy and dependable craft.
At about this time, Anthony and his brother Frederick emigrated to the United States, and in 1888 in Newark, N.J., they built for their own use the first electric boat in America, a 28-foot launch they named Magnet. Thomas Commerford Martin, the co-author of the book Electric Boats and Navigation (an excellent reproduction of which is available today from Boat House in its Elliot Bay Classis series), himself took a long, meandering voyage of some 50 to 60 miles around New York Harbor and down to Newark in Magnet in 1888 – interesting, because it establishes that Martin had six years of personal experience with electric boats prior to his book’s publication. That makes Martin both something of an expert as well as a (reliable) eyewitness to history.
We don’t know what Anthony Reckenzaun was doing in 1893, but we know that his brother Frederick was a stockholder in the Electric Launch & Navigation Company, and did the electrical work on its prototype launch, Electra. Reckenzaun also seems to have played a key role in bringing the fleet rental experience of Immisch and of the Edinburgh exposition to America. In 1890, he wrote a long article for Martin’s journal, The Electrical Engineer, on the design and construction of electric launches, and in that same year he prepared an extensive financial analysis of a hypothetical fleet of 12 launches, each 28 feet long and carrying 20 passengers.
One way and another, Anthony and Frederick Reckenzaun possessed more knowledge about the design and construction of electric boats as well as economics and business potentiality of such a fleet than any other men in America. Although they are mentioned only a few times in Martin and Sachs’ book, their knowledge and experience inform every single page of it. They may not have written that particular book, but there is no doubt the Reckenzauns “wrote the book” on electric launches in America.
J. C. [Jacob Chester] Chamberlain is also mentioned a few times in this book, but it is clear that he, too, had a great deal to do with educating Martin and Sachs about electric boats. Chamberlain had a long, interesting and important career. Born to missionaries in India, he graduated from Rutgers and was trained for years by Thomas Edison. He worked in Edison’s labs and on Edison’s projects including the Pearl Street Station, the world’s first central power plant, in Manhattan. Working for Elco, he designed and built the first post-exposition electric launch, the Corcyra, for a client who happened to be the richest man in the world, Col. John Jacob Astor IV, who is Elco Customer No. 1. From 1893 to 1899 Chamberlain seems to be the man who built and managed the Electric Launch Company, held the titles of general manager and vice president, and for several years was the sole owner of that firm.
To advance this story, we must first go back to 1880, when a Philadelphian named William Woodnut Griscom received a patent for a small electric motor intended for sewing machines. Griscom then created the Electro Dynamic Corp. to manufacture those motors, along with a growing variety of products from voltmeters to switchboards to storage batteries, as well as lighting systems and steering gear for ships. Griscom’s company might have rivaled Westinghouse or General Electric had not a series of disasters struck. One of his subsidiaries went bankrupt, an electric power station that Griscom built in Haverford in Philadelphia burned down, and Griscom himself was killed in a hunting accident in 1897. At the time of his death, Griscom was negotiating the sale of patent rights for his electric motor with Isaac Leopold Rice, the man who put together the foundations of an empire today known as the General Dynamics Corporation, builder of nuclear submarines and one of the world’s largest defense contractors.
Rice was born in Bavaria, came to the United States with his family when he was six years old, and graduated from Columbia University Law School in 1880. In 1886 he became a railroad corporation lawyer during the years of financial turmoil that led to the Depression of 1892 and the Panic of 1893. He made his reputation reorganizing the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad after its 1893 bankruptcy. Rice was a chess expert, and is remembered today as the inventor of the Rice Gambit chess opening. In addition to his other pursuits, Rice dabbled in electrical inventions. In 1888 he acquired the patent rights for Clement Payen’s “chloride accumulator” battery — the electric storage battery as we know it today — and he founded the Electric Storage Battery Company (later to become famous as Exide) in Philadelphia. Rice immediately plunged into a series of “patent wars” with other battery manufacturers until, by 1897, he held a monopoly on all battery manufacturing in the United States. The only patent Rice needed to maintain a lock on battery-powered transportation was Griscom’s “master patent” on the electric motor. Rice had offered Griscom a million dollars in cash for those patent rights, and negotiations were in progress when Griscom died in the hunting accident. So, instead of buying Griscom’s patent rights, Rice bought the entire Electro Dynamic Company from Griscom’s heirs.
Rice’s battery company had been selling batteries to the Electric Launch Company, and Griscom’s Electro Dynamic (now owned by Rice) had been selling them motors. Rice purchased the Electric Launch Company from Chamberlain and merged it, on February 7, 1899, with another recent acquisition, the famous Holland Torpedo Boat Company, developers of America’s first submarines. The Electro Dynamic Co., the Electric Storage Battery Co., the Electric Launch Co., and the Holland firm were then consolidated into the Electric Boat Company. This was possibly the world’s first “holding” company and was the birth of General Dynamics (renamed in 1952), now on of the world’s largest defense contractors.
The man who managed Elco for Rice was Henry R. Sutphen, a minister’s son from Morristown, New Jersey, and an electrician by trade. It appears Sutphen joined Elco as early as 1892, and may have been Chamberlain’s field manager on the World’s Fair project. By 1902, the list of Elco customers included Admiral Dewey, two Romanovs, Mrs. Westinghouse, Hiram Walker, John Jacob Astor IV, Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, and a host of other luminaries. In April 1902 Sutphen was named general manager of Elco, and in June 1904 he became a director of the Electric Boat Co., the parent organization. In 1905, Rice named him a vice president and put him in charge of the Elco division.
In 1906, Sutphen obtained a contract — possibly through the assistance of Rice’s Electric Boat Company contacts in Washington, D.C. — to build the first six of an eventual 120 self-bailing, self-righting 34′ lifeboats for the Life Saving Service (later to become part of the U.S. Coast Guard). The designer of these life boats is not known; from about 1900 to sometime in 1906, Elco’s staff naval architect had been Alfred “Bill” Luders. In 1905, the University of Michigan graduated a naval architecture student named Irwin Chase. There are two versions of what happened next. One version has it that Luders committed the unpardonable sin of signing his own name to an Elco design, and that Sutphen fired him. The second version contends that Sutphen wanted to hire Chase anyway, and had to get rid of Luders to do it. In any event, in 1906 Chase was in and Luders was out. Competence doesn’t seem to have been an issue; Luders moved to Stamford, Connecticut, formed his own boatbuilding firm, and went on to become one of America’s top designers. Another possibility about Luders’ departure concerns sailboats. During this period Elco designed, built and sold a small handful of sailboats, which were almost certainly Luders’ work, and he became well-known not for his powerboats but his sailboats. It is possibly his split from Elco concerned a disagreement whether the firm should continue to try to build and sell sailboats, or drop them from its repertoire.
Either Luders or Chase could have designed those 120 lifeboats for the Life Saving Service. Chase stayed with Elco for the next 43 years, was chief designer from 1906 to 1923, and was general manager from 1923 to 1949.
Unlike Luders, Chase was a powerboat man to the core. He particularly loved to experiment with high-powered boats, and is credited (at least by Elco) with designing one of the world’s first “planing hulls,” a 20′ “Elcoplane” named Bug, in 1911. Chase spent countless hours on the water developing high-speed small boats, and like other designers of his time his experiments involved “stepped” hulls. He designed another 20-footer with a perfectly flat bottom, and then corrugated metal sheets were applied to the aft half. Using special shims, Chase could alter the angles of the boat’s steps. He also experimented with step angles to correct the boat’s tendency to slip sideways on high-speed turns.
The submarine business was not especially lucrative prior to 1915. Rice made up by selling licenses for the Holland submarine for any foreign firm that had the cash. One such customer was Vickers Sons & Maxim of England, at that time vying with Krupp as the world’s largest defense contractor. Vickers’ famous managing director, Sir Trevor Dawson, bought a submarine license in 1900 and began building subs for the Admiralty at the Vickers yard in Barrow-in-Furness. Vickers’ relationship with Rice and Electric Boat continued through World War I, and Vickers was even a major holder of Electric Boat Company stock. This relationship led to the construction of the sub-chasing motor launches.
“It was in February 1915, that we had our initial negotiations with the British naval authorities,” Sutphen later wrote. “A well-known English shipbuilder and ordnance expert was in the country, presumably on secret business for the Admiralty, and I met him one afternoon at his hotel.” The Admiralty representative was Sir Trevor. Sutphen and Dawson discussed the German submarine menace, and Sutphen recommended that the Admiralty purchase “a number of small, speedy gasoline motorboats for use in attacking submarines. My idea was to have a mosquito fleet big enough thoroughly to patrol the coastal waters of Great Britain.”
Whether the idea originated with Sutphen was not clear. Dawson had been dispatched to America by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill, in turn, seems to have been prompted by the First Sea Lord, Admiral John “Jacky” Fisher, the man credited with dragging the mighty British Navy — kicking and screaming most of the way — into the 20th century. In a handwritten note unearthed at my request in Admiralty files and dated February 3, 1915, Fisher wrote to “Dear Winston”:
“I earnestly press you to hire Sir Trevor Dawson at once to go to America as our Buyer … we want a ‘pusher’ like Dawson … send him and then arrange afterward the necessary authority (to negotiate) … ‘Munitions are the breath of war!’ What use millions of Russians without rifles or our monitors without cordite. This is a Big War! So send Sir Trevor Dawson by the [steamship] Adriatic sailing tomorrow from Liverpool to New York.”
It appears that Dawson’s mission was to purchase rifles from a source in Brazil, as well as nitroglycerine. There is no mention of sub-chasers or Elco, so it is conceivable that Sutphen did originate the anti-submarine “mosquito fleet” idea, and that he obtained an interview with Dawson to propose it. How Sutphen knew Dawson was in New York has not yet been explained, nor is it clear why so important a man as Sir Trevor was necessary to negotiate the purchase of Brazilian-made rifles. It is not even clear why Fisher and Churchill were interested in rifles and nitroglycerine in the first place; while neither man could ever be accused of minding his own business, rifles and chemicals were a long way from Fisher and Churchill’s designated responsibilities.
Using code sent through the Office of Naval Intelligence, Dawson cabled the details of Sutphen’s proposal to the Admiralty, along with details of the Brazilian arms deal. The cable traffic was couched in the formal language of the era, and has the tone of Hornblower’s correspondence:
“The Director of the Intelligence Division presents his compliments to the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and begs to request that the attached telegram may be sent, if no objection is seen, to Sir Trevor Dawson, c.o the British Ambassador, Washington:
“Your telegram of [March] 21st Admiralty will take 50 torpedo launches provided that the speed of 19 knots can be guaranteed … the boats must be thoroughly sea-worthy and strong enough to carry a 3 pounder gun forward. Torpedo tubes are not required … Do not forget that all purchases must be made through Messrs. Morgan [J. Pierpont Morgan’s bank] with whom you should keep in close and harmonious relation. Dispatch is necessary.”
The contract for these 50 motor launches was signed on April 9, 1915, and by the first of May Elco had the first boat’s frames erected. This boat would be used to create standardized patterns for the remainder of the order. The speed with which Elco prepared the drawings and patterns strongly suggests that Chase and Sutphen had been working on this project well in advance of the authorizing order, and possibly as far back as the initial negotiations in February.
On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania sailed from New York, to be torpedoed by the Krupp-built U-20 on May 8, with great loss of life and considerable international repercussion. Dawson was scheduled to return to England on May 8, and was treated by Sutphen to a farewell lunch at Delmonico’s restaurant when the news of the sinking arrived. Sutphen later wrote that Sir Trever was “much depressed as indeed was natural enough, and also very thoughtful. Before he said good-bye he intimated to me that he intended advising the admiralty to increase the number of ‘chasers’; he asked me if I thought I could take care of a bigger order. I told him I would guarantee to build a boat a day for so long a period as the Admiralty might care to name.”
Shortly after Dawson’s arrival in England, Elco received a telegram ordering 500 additional “Sutphens” — their code name for the motor launches — and the supplemental contract was signed on July 9, 1915. Terms called for completion of 550 boats by November 15, 1916; excluding Sundays, Elco was being asked to build 550 boats 80 feet in length in 501 working days, an unprecedented assignment. Elco fulfilled this $22 million contract in 488 days, two weeks ahead of schedule.
How many Krupp submarines were sunk by Elco motor launches? Just one. But sinking submarines was not the only chore performed by these tough little boats and their volunteer reserve crews. Elco launches put in hundreds of thousands of hours on patrol in the nastiest waters of the North Sea. Their finest hour came when 62 motor launches accompanied the block ships at Admiral Sir Roger Keyes’ famous Zeebrugge and Ostend raids. In this action of April, 1918, several obsolete cruises attempted to block the canal entrances at the two Belgian ports that served as major outlets for German subs and destroyers. The action was not entirely successful, for the channels were hardly blocked, but the commando-style raids were tremendous morale boosters in England. Eight Victoria Crosses, England’s highest decoration, were awarded for gallantry that day, along with dozens of lesser citations. Three Victoria Crosses went to motor launch skippers who evacuated crews under the withering enemy “mentioned in dispatches” for their efforts.
The period between the two World Wars was Elco’s golden age, for during these two decades the company built the cruising powerboats for which it is best remembered today. The world’s most popular cruising powerboat was the Elco Cruisette, first drawn up by Irwin Chase in 1915. Only one Cruisette from before World War I is known to exist today, although a hundred or more of the Cruisettes built after 1919 are still around. The first of these boats was a 32-footer with the famous rounded “hunting cabin” forward and a small cuddy cabin aft, with allocation for no less than nine “sleeps,” as Elco designers referred to berths. After the Great War, the Cruisette was lengthened to 34′, then 35′. (For many years, Elco kept the name “Cruisette” sacred, and used it to refer to only one particular model. That tradition broke down in the 1930s when Elco began to use the name to refer to many types and sizes of boats.) The hunting cabinet was gradually phased out in favor of a more conventional house, and the aft cabin never survived the war. These boats were built in lots of 50 as early as 1919; the pre-war Cruisettes were the world’s first “standardized” yachts. In some years, Elco built three and four “lots,” and instituted the unique idea of installment purchasing: a $2,450 Cruisette could be had for only $915 down and payments of $135 a month for 12 months.
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.
Tremaine had been a shipfitter’s apprentice at the Bath Iron Works in his native Maine, and he took correspondence courses in draftsmanship at the same time. He studied yacht design under Henry Douglas Bacon and was “loaned” to naval architect Morris Whitaker for a brief assignment to New York in 1912. When work at Bath slowed down, Tremaine answered a newspaper ad for a draftsman and started work at Elco on March 4, 1913, on the day Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated. The following day, Tremaine turned 21.
Tremaine was Chase’s apprentice and assistant draftsman until the 1923 shake-up; after his promotion, Chase never again set foot in the design office “unless he was dragged in” to solve a problem. He was no longer much interested in design problems. Tremaine carried on the Elco design traditions that Chase began in 1906, and he drew wonderful cruisers and motor yachts through the Roaring Twenties, aided by his new assistant, Alfred “Bill” Fleming. Tremaine loved to create new boat designs, and he loved tinkering with new ideas; he had little patience with details, however, and left that to Fleming. In time, Fleming became Elco’s premier stylist, while Tremaine remained the conceptualist. Significantly, the sales department had nothing to say about the new designs; these always originated in discussions among the design team.
To many an eye, the prettiest Elco ever built was the 42′ deckhouse cruiser, the famous Elco “flattop” that often featured a “Cleopatra’s couch” mounted on the aft-cabin roof. The deckhouse cruiser was a developmental design that had seen many an adjustment since well before World War I. Perhaps more than any other boat, this design was influenced by shifts in American society. At the turn of the century, only the wealthy could afford yachts, and as a consequence pleasure boats were large and had accommodations for paid crew. From that day in pre-history when the first caveman crossed a stream on a floating log to many centuries after Columbus, the helmsman stood in an exposed position, steering the boat while wind and rain lashed him mercilessly. It was a little different in 1900; the wealthy yacht owner could retire below to his warm and luxuriously appointed cabin, while his poor helmsman peered through fog, rain and sleet.
World War I helped to change that in two ways. First, experience conning motor launches through English Channel gales showed that it was no longer necessary to subject helmsmen to these conditions: Give the blighter a proper roof over his head and a windshield in front of his face. Second, the war economy and the boom years of the 1920s produced a new social class of American, the “middle” class. It took a few years for these things to develop, but in time Elco was building powerboats for middle-income families, and these boats featured a new and controversial device: the windshield. It seems so simple and obvious now, but during the 1920s the windshield was a controversial item. Of course, high-speed runabouts had windshields as early as 1910; low freeboard and vertically driven spray required them. But the notion of a windshield in a slow-speed, high-freeboard cruiser — well, only a sissy needed such protection. That was easy to say when you were rich enough to hire a helmsman; but when you were the operator as well as the owner of the yacht, you were the one getting wet. Thus, the birth of the enclosed deckhouse. Elco led the way, and geared its advertising to family-oriented boating.
Tremaine developed a flotilla of Elcos from 26′ to 56′ to meet this new market for cruising-size stock boats: Cruisettes and cruisers (the distinction between these two designs was that the Cruisette had a single sheer line while the cruiser had a broken sheer line), Veedettes, Marinettes, and flattops. In 1924, while on vacation at his summer cottage on the New Jersey shore, Tremaine fought boredom one afternoon by sketching on the back of a large envelope his ideas for a new 26-footer that would become the “Model T” of the boating industry. If his calculations were correct, this model might sell for the unbelievably low price of $1,750 each. The following year, Tremaine and Bill Fleming overhauled the entire Elco fleet, designing the flattop, the new Cruisettes and cruisers, the Veedettes and Marinettes, and the 50′ and 56′ deckhouse cruisers.
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, not unlike the automobile industry.
If World War I created a new boatbuilding market, Prohibition certainly created another — and much faster — clientele. Many a firm made its mark building rumrunners; Elco, as a rule, built few high-speed boats 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 reputation 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 boat builders, 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. One can compare Winnebagos to Corvettes, but I don’t see the point.
The Depression hurt Elco, as it hurt most boat builders, but the effects of the Depression didn’t make themselves felt right away. Elco continued to build boats and pay for eight-page advertising spreads in boating magazines well after 1929. The low point came in 1933, when Elco was reduced to only three full-time employees: Chase, Tremaine, and general foreman Charles Lamont. To keep busy, they personally fulfilled orders for spare parts, answered correspondence, and ran exhaustive dynamometer tests on new engines, just for something to tinker with. Gradually, over several years, the old employees were rehired and boatbuilding slowly resumed.
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 an Elco), asked Sutphen to go to England to investigate high-speed patrol boats being built by Hubert Scott-Paine’s British Powerboat Co.
Sutphen and Chase left Tremaine in charge of the store while they sailed to England aboard the Queen Mary on February 10, 1939. They spent two months talking to Scott-Paine, as well as to officials of Thornycroft and Vosper. On his own initiative (but with the U.S. Navy’s blessing) Sutphen purchased a new Scott-Paine motor torpedo boat for $300,000, and had it shipped to Electric Boat’s Groton plant. Dubbed PT-9, America’s first PT boat was subjected to numerous sea trials, alone and against other PTs in prototype stages. Over the next two years, PT-9 and subsequent Elco-improved PTs won a series of comparison “plywood derbies,” and Elco emerged along with Higgins Industries as the prime contractors for PT boats. By the end of World War II, 399 Elco PTs had been built. Higgins built 199 or 205 Pts, depending on which figures are used. Thirty-two PT boats were made as kits and shipped to Russia on the famous Murmansk Run convoys.
Navy Lt. John Bulkeley, 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 America’s entry into the war. The book and the Robert Montgomery-John Wayne movie They Were Expendable remain as testaments to Bulkeley’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 two rammed and sunk by the enemy), while another 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 built by Elco, Higgins and British firms, and operated by other Allied navies, probably sustained equal casualty and combat records.
At the height of its PT boat production, Elco employed more than 3,000 men and women working three shifts a day six days a week. They produced, on average, one PT boat every 60 hours. This brought 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 2,000 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.
At the end of the war Sutphen, Chase and Tremaine scrambled to find virtually any kind of work to keep the remaining 1,000 workmen gainfully employed. In addition to new boat designs, Elco used its extensive woodworking equipment and expertise to produce the hardwood trim for special-edition Plymouth station wagons (“woodies”); they built bowling lanes and bowling pins; they even produced baseball bats field-tested by the Chicago Cubs during one spring training. It didn’t matter; the war had effectively killed Elco. In 1939 Sutphen had doubled the size of Elco’s plant and tripled its capacity in order to build PTs; now he had to carry that useless overhead. The market for pleasure yachts wasn’t promising, since GIs returning from the war were more interested in raising families and resuming or starting careers. There wasn’t much discretionary income for buying top-of-the-line cruisers.
Elco’s parent company management was no help. In 1947, John Jay Hopkins became president of Electric Boat, and he envisioned a defense contracting empire that would have made even Isaac Rice and Sir Trevor Dawson envious. Electric Boat had built 74 of the 245 submarines bought by the Navy during World War II; its corporate branches included major shipbuilding as well as submarine construction, aircraft manufacturing, electronics and much more. Elco, still building wooden pleasure boats, was a low-tech dead-end as far as Hopkins was concerned. He told Tremaine that the $10 million profit on PT boats was “water over the dam.” The new motto of Electric Boat Company was grow or die, he said. In 1948 Hopkins gave Elco a year to grow; in April, 1949, the unhealthy limb was pruned. Tremaine was given the task of laying off the remaining employees — an even more sorrowful task than previously — and of organizing auctions to sell the plant, equipment, and inventory. On the last day of 1949, Glenville Sinclair Tremaine padlocked the gate of the Electric Launch Company, handed the keys to an Electric Boat Company security guard, and drove home.
Henry R. Sutphen died in 1951 — of a broken heart caused by Elco’s demise, some say. Irwin Chase transferred to the Electric Boat Company’s Groton plant after the 1949 Bayonne closing, and died in 1974. Bill Fleming died in 1971. Glen Tremaine retired to St. Petersburg, Florida, and died in 1986 at the age of 94. The author of this article acquired many of Tremaine’s documents, files and memorabilia, as well as many hours of tape-recorded oral history. Many of those doments were donated to the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va., where they comprise the Glenville S. Tremaine Collection.
In late 1949, when Tremaine and his staff culled through 57 years of Elco records, drawings, and blueprints, they threw out all but the most important papers. They tried to keep one copy of each design and many advertising brochures. The records they kept were placed in a “fireproof” room in a two-story building at Elco’s sister firm, William Woodnut Griscom’s old Electro Dynamic plant in Avenel, N.J., not far from the Elco facility. This building burned to the ground in 1963. For many years it was thought that everything was destroyed in the fire. But in the late 1980s it was discovered that the night watchman at the plant, aided by firemen, had managed to rescue many boxes of files and records. It isn’t clear if the fireproof room survived, or if the firemen just managed to save some things. The night watchman stored them in the basement of an adjacent building – and forgot about them for more than 20 years. Those files were rediscovered and eventually found their way to Mystic Seaport and its extensive library and archives.
The number of Elcos that have survived is unknown. My best guess is about 200 out of the more than 4,500 boats the company built. About a dozen electric launches built prior to World War I are known to exist. 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. Two of the WWI 80′ motor launches remain in England; one of them participated in the famous evacuation of British and French troops at Dunkirk in 1940, and so is proudly numbered among the 700 illustrious and revered “Little Ships of Dunkirk.”
The most common survivors are Cruisettes, cruisers, and “flattop” 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. One of the most beautiful Elcos ever built (a Tremaine design built in 1930), named Gatsby, a 56’ “flattop” cruiser, can be seen in the opening scenes of the 1980 sci-fi movie The Final Countdown, starring Martin Sheen and Kirk Douglas. In the movie the Gatsby is drifting happily about 260 miles from Hawaii (don’t ask) on Dec. 6, 1941, when it is spotted by two Japanese Zero aircraft from the IJN fleet sneaking up on Pearl Harbor. As luck would have it, the (modern) aircraft carrier USS Nimitz manages to get caught in a “time storm” (I hate when that happens) and pops up 39 years earlier on the horizon just as the Zeros attack the poor defenseless Gatsby. (Spoiler Alert!) A pair of F-14 Tomcats dispatch the Zeroes in a dogfight but not before Glen Tremaine’s beautiful, graceful, elegant Gatsby is destroyed (by some awful CGI work; the real Gatsby is alive and well). Oh, rue the day!
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.