Ernest Hemingway in an earlier duck boat. Note the duck decoys in the bow.
The Chris Craft dynasty really began in 1876 when Christopher Columbus Smith began helping his older brother Henry build duck boats and fishing skiffs for hunters and fishermen, and later for use as rentals in their boat livery at Algonac, Michigan. Time passed. In 1884, Chris married Anna Rattray and went on to raise four sons and two daughters. When old enough, Chris employed the children in his workshop, helping to build rowing, sailing and small motor driven boats.
By 1906, Chris was building 26 foot boats that would reach speeds of eighteen miles per hour, fast for the time period.
In 1910, a wealthy theatre owner, John Ryan, engaged Chris to build a boat that would reach thirty miles per hour. Pleased with his new purchase, Ryan soon offered to become Chris’ business partner, providing funds for the venture. Smith began building single-step hydroplanes, which promised speeds of up to fifty miles per hour. The $20,000 price tag for such a boat was an astronomical price in the early 20th century.
Boats built by Smith and his sons won a number of races and the company’s fame grew accordingly.
After Ryan’s fortunes dwindled, Chris connected with a group of Detroit businessmen. They created the Miss Detroit Powerboat Association with the object of building a hyroplane that might win the 1915 Detroit Cup.
Their 25.5 foot Miss Detroit, with thrust from a 250 hp Sterling engine, bested the competition to become the Gold Cup Champion.
Following that episode, after which the Smiths were left with unpaid bills, Garfield Wood appeared on the scene. Already a factory owner, he inspected, then purchased Miss Detroit. Both Chris Smith and Gar Wood were creative achievers who loved fast boats. They both wanted to be the best in the world. W”Well’-heeled” Wood eventually bought the assets of the Smiths, relieving them of debt while allowing them to continue producing boats.
Miss Detroit II (and next year III) designed by “Nap” Lisee, was completed in time to enter the 1917 Gold Cup race, which she won with a record speed of fifty-six miles per hour. Success continued in the 1918 and 1919 Gold Cup races when they replaced the Sterling engine with a Curtis aircraft power-plant then a Packard built Liberty aircraft engine.
Note: Information for this article is condensed and adapted from the book Chris-Craft Boats, by Anthony Mollica Jr and Jack Savage. The book is available through MBI Publishing Company, Galtier Plaza, Suite 200, 380 Jackson St, St Paul, MN 55101-3885 USA
Stay tuned for Part II!