The Curator's Log: May 2016
The Herreshoff Brothers and SPRITE- A Partnership Begins
Where does one go to learn about the partnership that in 1878 established the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company? A good place to start is to visit the restored catboat SPRITE in the museum's Hall of Boats.
As young boys John Brown (JB) Herreshoff (1841-1915) and Nathanael (Nat) Greene Herreshoff (1848-1938) experienced the end of the whaling and sea commerce days of Bristol and the start of its industrial period. Between 1830-1856 sixty vessels were built; this ended when kerosene replaced whale oil for lighting and Bristol lost its foreign trade to the bigger port of Providence.1
The brothers learned to respect the experienced marine craftsmen of the town and some later became JB's first employees. Their father Charles Frederick Herreshoff (1809-1888) passed on the techniques of carving half models, building wooden boats and how to "properly" sail and care for a boat.2 Rather than play, JB preferred to visit the local boatbuilders and machine shops to understand how and why things were done. JB had lost sight of one eye due to cataract at about age seven; at eleven he was making boat models and then building boats. When JB lost the sight of his one good eye in a play accident at age fourteen it "haulted" him for only a few months. In 1859, desiring a larger boat, JB with his father's help built the 20 ft.-6 in. catboat SPRITE launched on June 28, 1860.3
JBs accident and his desire to build SPRITE also changed Nat's life; he became JB's companion and was given the first step in construction of SPRITE, "that of fitting templates over the model where molds were to be…".4 Young Nat learned to be very disciplined; focused on his own improvement, developing extraordinary powers of observation and critical analysis.
The launching of SPRITE was timed so that they could sail to New York to see the steamer GREAT EASTERN, arriving the very same day on its maiden transatlantic voyage. (They had first learned of the trip in the June 2nd Bristol Phoenix.) The largest vessel of its day and the first double-hulled iron ship, the 680-foot, 27,000-ton steamer (brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) took three years to build. With 11,000 horsepower she achieved a speed of 14½ knots powered by engines driving both a screw propeller and paddlewheels. Equipped with six masts and 6,500 feet of sail she was designed to sail to and from Australia without the need to refuel enroute. Proving to be a commercial failure as a passenger vessel, GREAT EASTERN succeeded in a subsequent career as a cable layer.
Even before this first transatlantic voyage her career had not gone well. The sideways launching took three months to accomplish and drowned her captain in the process, an early trial resulted in a funnel explosion and collapse, and her departure for New York was delayed one day because the crew was drunk.5
At the end of July SPRITE sailed by JB, Nat and a family friend, accompanied by their father in JULIA, sailed from Newport arriving off the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 28 hours. On Thursday August 2nd SPRITE circled GREAT EASTERN at anchor off Hoboken. Shipboard visiting pierside had ended three days before; in four weeks 144,000 had boarded GREAT EASTERN. What a wondrous and inspiring experience it must have been for the teenagers to have sailed in the boat they built, and for Nat to see and describe to JB the latest in marine technology. We can only imagine the inspiration in the eyes and minds of the young boat builders as they considered the possibilities of steam engineering.6, 7
It was 1860 and the brothers, together, had achieved success. The stage had been set for a winning partnership. In less than ten years they would be building their own steam vessels.John Palmieri
1"HISTORICAL AND ARCHITECTURAL RESOURCES OF BRISTOL, RI" Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1990. Pgs. 18-19.
2 Carlton J. Pinheiro, Editor Recollections and Other Writing by Nathanael G Herreshoff. (Bristol RI: Herreshoff Marine Museum, 1998). Pg. 12.
3 NGH letter Oct. 9, 1930 to J. A. Humberstone, Edison Inst. of Technology, Dearborn, MI. SPRITE Transfer Folder, Curator Archives Herreshoff Marine Museum.
4 Pinheiro. Recollections and Other Writing by Nathanael G. Herreshoff. Pg. 40.
6 Pinheiro. Recollections and Other Writing by Nathanael G. Herreshoff. Pgs. 12-13..
7 Bristol Phoenix, August 4, 1860