Michigan’s maritime legacy: Exploring the history of Chris-Craft Boats in the Blue Water Area

This story is the first installment in a series highlighting the regional roots of wooden boats and the people dedicated to their preservation.

Michigan’s state motto is “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” For boaters, an apt motto might be, “If you see a beautiful wood boat, it’s likely a Chris-Craft.”

Christopher Columbus Smith, Founder of Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company later known as Chris-Craft Boats.Surrounded by the largest amount of fresh water on the planet, Michigan’s indigenous peoples first took to our blue waters in what crafts they had: sleek canoes made from an abundance of wood. Years later in Algonac, Michigan, in 1874 13-year-old Christopher Columbus Smith had begun building boats that were soon in demand from friends and neighbors.

Smith’s building prowess grew such that eventually, in the 1920s, the slogan, “Where It All Began,” let people around the world know that Algonac and Chris Smith had secured a place in boating history.

The legacy of Chris-Craft and other wooden boat builders such as Gar Wood captivates boaters and those who love to see mahogany on the water to this day. The love of boating fuels their passion which is highlighted by the Port Huron to Mackinac Race, now sailing into its 100th year of competition.

As a bookend to July’s longest-running freshwater sailboat race in the country, September 8-9 will see Boat the Blue Antique & Classic Boat Show in downtown Port Huron, a celebration of cars and antique boats.

A large part of the area’s rich legacy of boating can be seen at the Maritime Museum in Algonac, 9,000 square feet full of boating memorabilia, boats, posters, and other nautical artifacts.

Digging a little deeper beneath the surface of the Chris Craft legacy, one can find not-so-hidden treasures in the stories of those who built a boat company that was second to none.

From 1947 through the early 1960s, Algonac High School offered a boat building program in its curriculum.
Just ducky

The cliché of humble beginnings applies to Algonac’s teenage Smith brothers, Henry and Chris, who in 1876, started building duck boats and fishing skiffs for local hunters and out-of-town sportsmen. Encouraged by their father’s interest in guns, the boys became skilled hunters – particularly of ducks – while also making a living by providing supplies and guiding other sportsmen. 

When Chris wasn’t building small boats, he was carving decoys, fishing, or hunting. Today, one can buy a duck decoy made by Chris Smith. In 1884 when Chris was 23, he married Anna Rattray from Harsens Island.  Eventually, the Smiths raised a family of six – four boys and two girls – and a generational business was born. Chris had the children work in the family boat shop where they built rowing, sailing, and small motor-propelled boats.

More speed please

At the beginning of the 1900s, interest in faster boats propelled Chris Smith and his family to new heights. By 1906, the boat shop in Algonac was building 26-foot boats that would reach 18 miles per hour.

Such unheard-of speeds attracted the attention of wealthy individuals. Chris Smith cruised along for a time with well-to-do partners such as successful Cincinnati movie theater owner, John J. Ryan and J. Stuart Blackston of England then Long Island. Partnerships produced boats that were winning races and gaining recognition. In 1914, Blackton’s Baby Speed Demon II, a boat designed with a Smith innovation of a shallow step bottom that helped reduce drag, won the Gold Cup regatta with an average speed of over 50 miles per hour.

But on their way to early fame and fortune, World War I, plus the extravagant lifestyles of the wealthy men, sank the early hopes of Chris Smith and Sons. 

A rescue from Detroit

A group of Detroit businessmen – tired of the East Coast dominance in boat racing – hooked up with Smith and formed the Miss Detroit Powerboat Association. Detroit sportsmen such as Hugh Chalmers, head of Chalmers Motor Company; publisher William Scripps; Horace Dodge of Dodge Brothers Automotive, and Harold Wills of Wills Saint Clair Automotive, bankrolled Miss Detroit. Success came in 1915, when the Smith-built, single-step hydroplane Miss Detroit – featuring a 250-horsepower Sterling engine, captured the Gold Cup.

But again, wealthy donors proved fleeting, taking their suddenly flat wallets away from Smith and Sons.

Gar Wood built boat on display at the Maritime Museum in Algonac, Michigan.

Gar Wood

In 1915, skilled engineer, successful entrepreneur, and an aspiring boat racer, Gar Wood moved to Detroit from St. Paul, Minnesota to be closer to automotive and truck manufacturers for whom he was building hydraulic lifts. Wood wanted Smith to build a newer, faster version of Miss Detroit for the 1917 Gold Cup Championship. The men sealed the deal with a handshake, and after winning the championship, the men looked to improve and capture victory again in 1918, which they did. And again in 1919 – victory was theirs.

Winning time

According to authors Anthony Mollica and Jack Savage, “The Wood-Smith team proved to be the most accomplished combination of designer, builder, mechanician, and driver in the history of racing.” The team went to England and won the Harmsworth Trophy, returning home to great acclaim. By 1921, they had won their fifth consecutive Gold Cup and set a new world speed record of more than 80 miles per hour in Miss America II.

Time for Chris-Craft

In 1921, Chris Smith was 61 years old, and his sons, Jay W. and Bernard, were in their 30s, ready to strike out on their own. The Smiths bought 20 acres of waterfront at Point du Chene in Algonac where they started fresh, forming the new Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company in February 1922.

Modeling their new manufacturing process after Henry Ford and others, the Smiths began building their empire by building boats for “Everyman,” streamlining the process and driving down prices. In 1924, the new name of Chris-Craft first appeared. Suggested by Jay’s youngest brother, Hamilton, the name first appeared on the Gold Cup winning boat, Packard Chriscraft.

Chris Smith & Sons Boat Co in Algonac, Michigan.

The company increased sales through 1929 when it produced a $300,000 profit — equivalent to $5.63 million today. Orders from around the world helped spur growth; in 1928, the president of Columbia, Miguel Mendez, received a 26-foot sedan, intended as a state barge; by the end of 1928, foreign orders would represent 13% of Chris-Craft sales. However, the company knew the Great Depression had arrived in 1930 when they posted a $100,000 loss. 

When the stock market sank, investors from the house of Morgan, who had reportedly put down $250,000 as an option to buy one-third of Chris-Craft, pulled out of the deal. However, the savvy family from Algonac had carved a contract that stipulated if investors changed their minds, they would forfeit the entire deposit.

For years afterward, Jay Smith openly admitted that the pre-Depression fund had “saved us.”

Several competitors didn’t survive the Depression: Sea Lyon, Dart, and Dee Wite folded, as did Doge in 1936, leaving Chris-Craft along with Gar Wood, Hacker, and Century. Competitors found that the savvy Chris-Craft business model now stretched worldwide and was the strongest in the industry. In 1936, confidence soared with the introduction of 66 new models.

Labor strife

A labor strike in 1937 decreased production and changed the relationship between management and labor, moving the Smiths further from the men who were not only their workers, but neighbors as well. More strikes followed, and management looked elsewhere to build production plants.

When production resumed, Chris-Craft offered a wide range of craft: runabouts, utilities, and cruisers ranging from 15 and 1/2 feet up to 55 feet. Sales grew between 1937 and 1941 with designs and styling that led the industry. Philippine mahogany lumber was the featured product for all Chris-Craft boats, its luster a lovely sight. 

On Sept. 9, 1938, family patriarch Christopher Columbus Smith died at age 78, but the company managed under Jay W. Smith and his brothers did not miss a beat.
That same month, the company announced plans for a new manufacturing facility on 22 acres across the state in Holland, Michigan, where the decimated furniture industry had skilled woodworkers ready to work making world-class boats.

In January 1941, Chris-Craft purchased 125,000 square feet of production space, and in less than five weeks, 18 and 22-foot utility boats were being produced. The growing demand for boats and an awareness of global turmoil helped management decide to expand. Either way, the company was poised to offer peaceful ways to enjoy leisure time or be a company that made materials essential to war. 

Engine department at Chris Smith & Sons Boat Co in Algonac, Michigan.

War years

Chris-Craft gained valuable experience losing a government contract in 1940, but in May 1941, won a contract to supply the Army Air Corps with 27 standard 22-foot utility boats to rescue downed pilots in May 1941. When America went to war on December 7, 1941, Chris-Craft was prepared to convert factories to full production for the military.

Soon, 36-foot landing craft and navy picket boats, 27-foot army target boats, 42-foot command boats, and 60-foot quartermaster boats rolled off production lines. Through the war, savvy management again learned about building plywood boats and were introduced to Thiokol sealants – a critical component particularly when launching the plywood boat division and sea skiff division in the 1950s.

All through the war, Chris-Craft continued its colorful, full-page ads showing its military craft in action or a postwar design for its customers to anticipate. These attractive ads helped make Chris-Craft such a common term that non-boaters were also using the phrase to describe all pleasure craft.

By early 1945, Chris-Craft had produced 10,000 landing craft and had earned the Army-Navy Award for Excellence at each plant more than once. Most of the craft were LCPs (Landing Craft Personnel) and LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel). The year 1945 also saw the shipping of the first postwar recreational boat in July, just weeks before the atom bomb helped end the Pacific conflict.

Postwar, Chris-Craft was well-positioned to keep buying mahogany and make its own engines, becoming largely self-sufficient as opposed to its competitors. Gar Wood closed its doors in 1947; in fiscal year 1950, however, Chris-Craft made $1.5 million on $14.5 million in revenue.

Chris-Craft Kit Boat on display at the Maritime Museum in Algonac, Michigan.

Expansion, kit boats, and moving

To meet growing demand, management established production plants around the globe: Falkoner, New York; Jamestown, Virginia; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Caruthersville, Missouri; Salisbury, Maryland; and Hayward, California, as well as in Italy and Taiwan, some of which failed, but management had more hits than misses.

George Burgess, Docent of the Algonac-Clay Township Historical Society.According to George Burgess, docent for the Algonac-Clay Historical Society, too much red tape made building in Taiwan cumbersome, so after the production of 60 boats in the early ‘70s, management shut down business in Taiwan.

Burgess says production was also limited in Italy with runabouts being featured in limited production during the late 1950s.

Outboard motors were becoming more popular, which led to the development of Chris-Craft’s own outboards. The company moved into the entry-level boats to hang the motors on through its Kit Boat Division in 1950. Yes, boaters received complete kits to build their own Chris-Craft.

“The boat kits were very popular,” Burgess says. “They were produced from 1949 to the early 1960s. Eight-foot prams were featured, but they also made 12, 14, 16, 18, and even a 33-foot-long kit delivered in a box.”

The company expanded eventually into fiberglass and aluminum boats which are featured today.

The Smith family had been building boats in Algonac since the 1870s, employing locals and bringing international fame to the small town. In 1957, the Smiths announced that they were moving the company to Florida where Chris-Craft, continues to build fiberglass boats, now using teak wood instead of Philippine mahogany, and has expanded its Sarasota production plant.

For those who want to read or see more about Chris-Craft and Gar Wood, the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, houses a vast Chris-Craft Collection, including the paper records of the Chris-Craft company from 1922 to 1980. marinersmuseum.org

The Maritime Museum in Algonac has an abundant collection of Chris-Craft and Gar Wood memorabilia, including pristine boats. achistory.com/ach1
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Read more articles by John Lusk.

John Lusk taught composition and journalism at St. Clair County Community College level for over 30 years. Serving the Port Huron community and practicing the writing craft is his current focus. You may reach him at sutherlandforever@gmail.com.