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Chris-Craft – A Brief History of the Classic Boat Builder From 1874 to 1930
Christopher Columbus Smith built his first wooden boat in 1874 when he was only 13 years old. This first boat designed for duck hunting was a lake boat. For the next seven years, Christopher Smith continued to build boats part time. He seemed to have a natural talent for building wooden boats.
In 1881, Christopher went into partnership with his brother Henry and began building wooden boats full time. Smith Brothers Boat Builders produced steam powered boats ranging in length from 25 to 40 feet. The wooden boats that the brothers produced were a great success and word quickly spread that their boats were of exceptional quality.
In 1901, the company changed its name to Chris Smith & Company Boat Builders.
In 1910, the two brothers, along with several other partners, formed the Smith Ryan Boat & Engine Company. At this time, the company focused on building fast, reasonably priced boats for mass market distribution. The company exhibited its products at the New York and Chicago Boat Shows. The reputation of the Smith brothers grew and grew. The boats they built were not only stylish but also comfortable.
Around this time, the brothers began experimenting with hull designs and more powerful gasoline (petrol) engines. The result was extremely innovative and very fast hull designs with elegant, sleek lines. This quest for speed led to an interest in boat racing and, from 1914 to 1919, Christopher Smith’s boats won six consecutive American Power Boat Association Gold Cup racing awards. A boat built by the Smiths also won the 1920 Harmsworth Trophy and then, in 1921, another of their boats, Miss America II, set a new world speed record of over 80 miles per hour.
In 1922, the Smiths sold their remaining interest in the family boatyard to Gar Wood (who had helped finance their racing activities). Christopher and his four sons, Jay W., Bernard, Owen, and Hamilton, founded a new company in Algonac, Michigan: Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company. Two years later the company became Chris-Craft. The Company prospered and Chris-Craft’s reputation spread far beyond America; the brand became an internationally recognized symbol of performance and pleasure.
At first, Chris-Craft production averaged one powerboat per week. An early newspaper ad notes that four different Chris-Craft boats were available in the early 1920s: a 24-foot, 18-mile-per-hour run that sold for $2,200; a 26-foot rear-drive single-cockpit boat that sold for $2,800; a 26-foot front-drive double cockpit that sold for $3,000; and a 33-foot Baby Gar, a boat that can perform at speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour, which sold for $7,500.
Chris-Craft boats, with their distinctive mahogany hulls, soon became well known. The Chris-Craft legend was born.
In the late 1920s, Chris-Craft began assembly line production at the Algonac plant. Previously, all the boats were built by hand. This move allowed Chris-Craft to extend its market into the middle class and became one of the first major manufacturers of pleasure boats. The company adopted innovative advertising campaigns, which promised a slice of the “good life”, and sold boats on an installment plan, which made them among the first powerboats available to the general population.
In 1927, Jay Smith, son of Chris, became President and General Manager, a position he held for 31 years. By this time, Chris-Craft was the largest builder of mahogany powerboats in the world.
Copyright 2010 Clive Goodhead
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