Insights into Famous Nautical Names

A wind-up toy sparks author’s interest in Michigan’s boat-building history
Scott Peters
Scott Peters often is a guest speaker on the topic of Michigan maritime history. Michigan BLUE learned about his book when he visited Troy Historic Village.
Photos courtesy of Scott M. Peters

With 3,200 miles of freshwater coastline, Michigan boasts a rich maritime history.

The Wolverine State also has played an important role in the foundation of the pleasure boating industry, launching a variety of well-known names like Tiara Yachts, Avalon Pontoon Boats, Four Winns, and, of course, Chris-Craft.

Making Waves
Peters’ new book is available from the University of Michigan Press.

Published in 2015 by the University of Michigan Press, Scott M. Peters’ book, “Making Waves,” highlights the history of the boating industry in Michigan from 1865 to 2000. The book is packed with stories about the birth and continued growth of the boating industry on Michigan’s shores.

Born and raised in Flint, Peters’ parents helped fuel his early interest in Michigan boating history. “They took me to a cabin on Hubbard Lake in the 1960s where we always had a rental boat,” Peters recalls. “In the 1970s, we would go camping in Algonac, where my dad loved to watch and photograph the big ships as they passed by” on the St. Clair River.

During college, Peters worked at the Alfred P. Sloan antique car museum, where he helped keep things clean and gave guided tours. With a growing interest in museum work, Peters decided to attend graduate school for museum studies at Case-Western College in Cleveland. After graduation, he returned to the Alfred P. Sloan Museum to become curator of collections from 1981 to 1984. It was there that a new display once again ignited an interest in Michigan’s boating history.

The museum was showing an exhibit on toys, and one of the pieces was a wind-up wooden racing boat named “Miss America.” Wanting to learn more, Peters began to dig into the history of early 1900s boat racing legend Garfield “Gar” Wood and his onetime partner, Chris-Craft founder Chris Smith.

Garfield “Gar” Wood and Chris Smith
The book shares stories about boat racing legend Garfield “Gar” Wood (right) and his onetime partner, Chris-Craft founder Chris Smith.

Growing up in Algonac, 13-year-old Christopher Columbus Smith built his first wooden duck boat with his brother, Henry, in 1874. Chris Smith’s interest in fast boats grew until he was tasked with building his first racing boat in 1905.

Smith’s innovative hull designs led to a partnership with industrialist Gar Wood, and the construction of several world-record-holding racing boats. In the early 1920s, Smith and his sons broke away from racing to focus on building reasonably priced runabouts and created the company that would become Chris-Craft.

“Once I learned about Gar Wood and Chris Smith, things just snowballed,” Peters says. “I spent the next 30 years digging around for articles and (learning about the) history of boat racing.”

In 1985, Peters left the Sloan Museum to become curator of collections at the Michigan History Museum in Lansing, while his interest in Michigan boating history continued to grow. “There were well over 1,000 boat-builders in the state,” Peters explains. “I’ve put together a list that’s closer to 1,200, and I know I don’t have them all.”

Quite a few boat-builders sprang up on the shores of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, although plenty more were operating elsewhere around the state.

The Chris Smith and Sons boat manufacturing plant in Algonac.
A historical photo from Peters’ book shows the Chris Smith and Sons boat manufacturing plant in Algonac.

“There were lots of interesting characters in the industry,” Peters says, “such as Clifford Brooks.” A former newspaperman, Brooks began designing and selling patterns for boats to anyone who wished to build their own at home. As the business grew, Brooks Boat Co. began shipping “knock-down” boat kits, which included all the pre-cut pieces needed to build the boat at home.

Other boat-builders played key roles during Prohibition — on both sides of the law. It’s estimated that 75 percent of all the illegal alcohol smuggled into the U.S. crossed Lake Huron during Prohibition.

Rum-runners were constantly looking for faster boats to outrun the law, while law enforcement agencies wanted boats fast enough to catch the outlaws. However, because of the short distance between Detroit and Windsor, Canada, tugs, planes, and even submarines were employed.

During World War II, many Michigan boat-builders shifted their focus to designing and manufacturing vessels for the war — building landing craft, utility boats, command boats, quartermaster ships, and target boats for the war effort. Chris-Craft even had a hand in important design changes to the landing craft that transported soldiers to the beaches of Normandy.

The postwar period saw an increase in demand for pleasure boats, and the industry continued to grow. Many boat manufac-turers emerged during this time, including Thompson Boat Co. and Slick Craft.

Michigan’s pleasure boating history continues to be an essential part of the state’s identity, and “Making Waves” does an excellent job of capturing the story of the industry’s innovation, passion, and growth. Still a boating enthusiast, Peters often is a guest speaker on the topic of Michigan maritime history and enjoys taking his kids out to enjoy the water in his aluminum runabout. 

Plan it!

Scott Peters’ book, “Making Waves,” is available from the University of Michigan Press.

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