Speedboat Kings :
The Dream Boat-Miss Detroit I
Miss Detroit I & II and the Gold Cups 1915-17
Disaster struck swiftly and suddenly at Chris Smith.
First, John Ryan left him. Ryan was the goose that laid the golden egg. But Ryan's gold melted at the race tracks. He had to quit the boat business.
That was all right. Smith could get along. He'd done it before; he could do it now. He and his sons could still build the fastest speedboats in America-and sportsmen were still demanding fast boats.
But then the World War broke loose. J. Stuart Blackton had been Smith's best customer. The war ruined Blackton. Germany had been his biggest market for Vitagraph pictures. Swiftly, suddenly, that market was cut off. Blackton had to quit buying boats. The cost was tremendous.
Someone asked Blackton how much boat racing cost him every year.
Blackton said, "I don't know. If I knew, I'd probably quit it. That's why I never figured it up. A man in this sport has no business counting his costs."
But he had to count his costs now. His best picture market was blown to pieces.
During the winter of 1914-15 Chris Smith went to New York to see Blackton in a final effort to sell him a boat. After four or five days there things looked pretty bad for Smith. One night a poker game had stripped him down to his last seven cents. He received a telegram from Detroit. He tipped the messenger boy the seven cents and went to bed.
That night he had a dream. He saw a beautiful speedboat being displayed on Cadillac Square, Detroit, beside the Pontchartrain Hotel and hundreds of beautiful flower girls were throwing basketsful of dollar bills into the boat. The money had been given by the people of Detroit. In his dream Smith even began to lay out plans for the boat.
"That's the idea," Smith told himself the next morning. "Build a speedboat for Detroit and raise the money by popular subscription."
He borrowed one hundred dollars from friends in New York and rushed back to Detroit. At the Pontchartrain Hotel he met Sherman Wooley and William J. Chittenden. He told them of his dream.
The men were interested. "That dream can be carried out, Chris," Wooley said. "It's the easiest thing in the world."
They called a meeting of civic leaders for March 30, 1915. Among those present were Hugh Chalmers, head of the Chalmers Motor Company; William E. Metzger, one of the original organizers of the E. M. F. Automobile Corporation; William E. Scripps, publisher; Horace E. Dodge, Sr., head of Dodge Brothers; Otto Barthel, Detroit attorney; Paul H. Deming, Dr. Crevier, C. Harold Wills, of the Wills St. Clair Company; Frank Boydell, John J. Barium, Arthur Waterfall, Chas. T. Bush, Havelock Northmore, Dr. James W. Inches. These men organized the Miss Detroit Powerboat Association. Later the author [J. Lee Barrett] was appointed secretary.
We talked about speedboats and racing that day, about rules and qualifications, about displacement and restrictions. No one in Detroit knew much about these things. Detroit had never seen a speedboat race of any importance. All the races for the Gold Cup Trophy had been held in the East-on the St. Lawrence river, Lake George, the Hudson river, Chippewa Bay. But never, never in the Middle West.
And the Harmsworth? The Harmsworth race had never been held west of Long Island. The idea of shipping English boats to the interior of the American continent was unthinkable in 1915. Even as late as 1930 Sir Henry Segrave didn't want to ship his Miss England II to Detroit. He said it was too far inland. He wanted the Harmsworth race held at Miami, Florida.
That's why some of us thought that Smith's dream sounded like the dream of a very young, imaginative boy. Detroit did not know speedboats. How could we raise enough money to build a speedboat in this town?
Well-we didn't. Chris Smith built the boat but we couldn't raise enough money in Detroit to pay him for it. And yet, that little meeting in the Pontchartrain Hotel in 1915 set the stage for the highest drama in Harmsworth history. It poured 600,000 race-crazy spectators to the banks of the Detroit River in 1931. It also set the stage for the Gold Cup races for many years.
It is true that Chris Smith didn't have the scientific equipment for building speedboats that other builders had. There was a great deal of technical work going on at the time among boat builders that was completely foreign to him. When he went to the National Motorboat Show in New York in 1914 the experts started to discuss friction, wetted surfaces, air resistance and model testing in the government tank at Washington.
Smith admitted openly that he knew nothing of these things; that he was just an ordinary speedboat builder who got his ideas for speed under actual tests out on the St. Clair River.
"Well, what about displacement. How do you figure displacement?" they asked him.
"Displacement?" he said, surprised. "I don't care about displacement. All I need is enough water to cool the engines, that's all."
And yet the boats he had built for Blackton won every important trophy in America in 1912, except the Gold Cup. His Baby Speed Demon II, built in 1914, was the first boat in America to travel over fifty miles an hour, officially.
Now, Chris Smith went to work building the dream boat, Miss Detroit I. It was a single-step hydroplane powered with a new Sterling engine of 250 horsepower which Charles Criqui had developed at Buffalo, N. Y. William E. Metzger took it out on the St. Clair River for a trial run. Before he stepped into the boat Chris Smith said to him, "Be careful, Billy. This is the fastest boat I've ever built."
And Smith was right. When Metzger came back to the boatwell after the run he said, "For the first time, Chris, the West will win the Gold Cup."
They shipped the boat to Port Washington, Manhasset Bay. The first heat for the famous Gold Cup Trophy in 1915 was run on Saturday, August 14. The Miss Detroit I and the Detroit crowd received scant attention at New York. For days before the race the sportsmen and the newspapers were talking chiefly of Blackton's Baby Speed Demon II and Baby Reliance V; Charles F. Chesebrough's Tiddledey Wink which was reputed to have traveled at 82.5 miles an hour over the government course at Glen Cove on July 23; Count Mankowski's Ankle Deep Too; Tech, Jr., owned by T. Coleman du Pont; and the P. D. Q. VI, owned by A. Graham Miles and Mrs. Henry Devereaux Whiton, Hewletts, L. I.; and Carl Fisher's Presto. The Miss Detroit I and her owners were barely mentioned in the advance reports.
And yet Smith's new boat was the only one-out of a field of i2that was able to negotiate the entire three heats without trouble. It was the greatest disaster in the history of American powerboating and the hollowest kind of a victory for Detroit. It is fortunate for American honor that this was not a race for the British International Trophy. America could have never lived that frightful race down.
It seemed almost that the gods of speed had frowned upon this race from the very beginning and had delegated a ghostly army of fiends under cover of night to tamper with the engines of these speedboats. After the race Blackton said, "Racing is like that. You never know what's going to happen to these fast boats." That was the famous racer's parting tribute to speedboating. He departed from the stage and passed into oblivion. Other sportsmen were to take his place.
The first warning of disaster came from Count Casimir Mankowski, of Lake George, N. Y., a few weeks before the race. His beautiful new $25,000 boat, Ankle Deep Too, hit a rock at high speed in a trial off Sands Point and sank immediately in Long Island Sound.
Then, suddenly, about the same time, Peter Pan VII hit a piece of driftwood in trial and ripped off one of the metal planes on the forward step. The boat was owned by J. P. Bicknell and flew the colors of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club of Toronto.
The P. D. Q. VI blew out a cylinder on the St. Lawrence River. Part of the crankcase was torn away.
The Hawkeye was severely damaged by backfiring.
The owners of these boats had all challenged Blackton for the Gold Cup Trophy. None of them were ready to start the first heat.
Detroit was having trouble too. Five minutes before the starting gun Billy Metzger, pilot of the Miss Detroit I, couldn't be found. A. A. Schantz, chairman of the Detroit committee was frantic. "Who knows how to drive a boat?" he asked the little group of Detroiters standing around him.
A freckled face kid from Algonac, Michigan, stepped up.
"What's your name?" Schantz asked.
"Can you drive a boat?"
Milot said he could.
"All right," said Schantz. "Get in there and drive."
Milot jumped into the cockpit beside Jack Beebe, the mechanic. He had no goggles, gloves, knee-pads-nothing. Before the heat was over Jack Beebe was driving the boat, taking care of the engines, and trying to hold Milot in the boat. The constant pounding in the rough sea had almost jarred Milot into insensibility.
But they won the race. At first Milot didn't know the course. Baby Reliance V, Blackton driving, was first over the line at the gun; Little Joker was second; Blackton's Baby Speed Demon II, with Robert Edgren driving, was third; Miss Detroit I was fourth.
Milot followed Blackton around the course for two laps-to get acquainted with the position of the buoys. At the start of the second lap Baby Reliance V was leading but the Miss Detroit I had pulled tip into second place. Milot stayed in second place for another lap. Then Beebe began pulling out the throttles. They passed Blackton and were leading at the beginning of the third lap. They stayed in the lead and won the heat, averaging 48.5 miles an hour.
As the Miss Detroit I swept across the finish line the gun on the judges' stand blasted the finish signal. But Milot and Beebe, strangely enough, kept going for two more laps while boat whistles blew and the crowds yelled to them to stop their boat. When they came near the judges' stand finally, engines throttled, someone yelled, "Why didn't you stop? You won the race long ago."
Beebe yelled back, "We forgot to count the laps."
Miss Detroit I won the second and third heats as easily as the first.
But during the following winter we were having our troubles with the Miss Detroit I. The boat was our white elephant and we were wondering what had happened to those basketsful of dollar bills Chris Smith had seen in his dream. We still owed $1,800 for the boat. With that indebtedness glaring at us we couldn't order a new boat built for the 1916 race. Smith built the Miss Minneapolis for a group of Minneapolis sportsmen. The Miss Minneapolis won three heats at Detroit and took the Trophy to Minneapolis. Our Miss Detroit I was a broken, battered hulk after the race, fit only for junk. Some of us were actually going to junk the boat. Metzger, Dodge, Barlum and Schantz ordered me to sell the boat to the highest bidder. "Maybe we'll get something out of it," they said. "Liquidate our obligations and wind up the affairs of the Miss Detroit Powerboat Association."
So one day I made a plea at the noon-day meeting of the Detroit Exchange Club for some loyal Detroiter to buy the boat. It so happened that the one man in all the world who was interested in a "used" speedboat was in that room when I spoke. He stood up-a slim, darkhaired, modest fellow about thirty-five years old. I had never seen the man before.
"How much do you want for that boat?" he called out from the back of the dining room.
Silence swept the room. The man didn't look to me like he could buy an $1,800 boat. I leaned over to judge Sherman Callender sitting at my side, said, "Shall I tell him the price?"
"Sure," the judge said. "Take a chance."
I straightened up and told the stranger the price.
"I've got $1,000," he said. "I'll give you a six-months note for the balance."
I whispered to the judge; "Is his note good for $800?" The judge replied, "His word is good for a million." The boat was sold-to Gar Wood. The man went almost immediately to Algonac to see the boat. While he was there he bought Chris Smith's boat plant. For six years after that Chris Smith and his sons built speedboats under Gar Wood's direction. It was the beginning of Wood's famous line of Miss Detroits and Miss Americas.
Wood and his men started immediately to build Miss Detroit II, a completely new boat powered with the engine of Miss Detroit I. He and Jay Smith took it to Minneapolis during the summer of 1917 and won the Gold Cup Trophy again for Detroit. Wood kept the Trophy for five years, until 1922, when the officials of the American Powerboat Association ruled his hydroplanes out of competition, changing the rules to allow only displacement boats to compete.
(Reprinted from Speedboat Kings : 25 Years of International Speedboating by J. Lee Barrett [Detroit : Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1939], Ch.3)
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