By John B. Manbeck
A Brooklyn Historian
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Naturally, Brooklyn has been known for its boat building skills. In 1800, John Jackson purchased land in the area we now call Vinegar Hill and opened a shipbuilding enterprise. The United States government thought this was such a good idea that they purchased land from Jackson and established the New York Naval Shipyard, colloquially known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Since we live on a peninsula, others thought this was a good idea, so shipping and shipbuilding grew along the East River coast in Greenpoint, in Red Hook and the Atlantic Basin, and in Coney Island. In Gravesend Bay, the most famous shipbuilding company was the Wheeler Shipbuilding Corporation, a collection of wooden sheds at the foot of Cropsey Avenue in Coney Island Creek founded by Howard Wheeler — a Bensonhurst resident — in 1910. A second Wheeler yard was opened on the East River at Whitestone, N.Y.
Focus on this business has re-surfaced because it is mentioned in the new book, Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson (Knopf). It seemed that in 1934 Ernest Hemingway commissioned Wheeler Yachts, the Cadillac of yacht builders, to build a 34-foot yacht, the Pilar, which he sailed to Cuba and used for fishing expeditions as well as for inspiration for his novels, To Have and Have Not and The Old Man and the Sea. Pictures of Hemingway on the boat with his catches appeared on the covers and inside the pages of Time and Life magazines.
Hendrickson goes into detail on Hemingway’s dealing with the Wheeler family, from the 1933 brochure he received to his purchase of the $7,495 yacht in 1934. Then he quotes a gossip-style entry from The New York Times: “Back from writing about picadors in Spain and ambulance drivers in Italy, Ernest Hemingway, who has gone to his home in Key West, has taken up motorboating and last week bought a 42-foot cruiser [sic] at the Wheeler shipyard in Brooklyn.” The bit cited that Hemingway preferred a black hull rather than the standard white one.
During World War I, Wheeler Shipyards had built wooden-hulled submarine chasers to patrol U.S. coastal waters. After the war, the shipyard turned to steel merchant ships as well as wooden yachts. At one point, the Wheeler operation was important enough to retain its own marching band and have a Park Avenue showroom. By World War II, the Navy purchased land next to the Coney Island Wheeler Shipyards in 1942 to build wooden-hulled minesweepers and small steel-hulled freighters for both the Army and Navy. Wheeler also supplied 230 patrol craft for the Coast Guard. Even macho Hemingway joined the anti-submarine searches with forays aboard his Pilar.
After the war, the adjunct Navy Yard was closed and Wheeler returned to constructing yachts and small commercial vessels, but as orders became rarer, the Coney Island yard closed permanently in 1948. Hendrickson revisited the site of the shipyard but found no trace of the business, its closure attributed to the depressed economy as well as the putrid condition of Coney Island Creek. He traced references to the Pilar in Hemingway’s novel Islands in the Stream.
The subsidiary yard in Whitestone continued operation until it moved to Clason Point, the Bronx. In 1961, it closed, the same year that Hemingway died. During those 50 years, the shipyard built over 3,500 hulls for ships. A recent online story reported that Wesley Wheeler signed an agreement with Bennett Brothers Yachts to begin building yachts once more, this time in North Carolina.
Records online document the history of Wheeler boats that were sold by the U.S. government to foreign countries, many to Cuba and South America in the 1940s.
Of course, yachting developed into a major American sport with yachting clubs sprinkled throughout the borough’s coastline. A sport that developed from early 19th-century privateers, it mushroomed into a competition for the gentry when the New York Yacht Club challenged British yachtsmen for America’s Cup.
After the Civil War, millionaires such as New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, William K. Vanderbilt and newspper mogul William Randolph Hearst competed for the most luxurious yachts. Yacht clubs grew in Brooklyn in Sheepshead Bay, Bath Beach and Canarsie. The most famous yacht club was built by Sir Thomas Lipton in 1898 along the shore of Sea Gate, but burned down in 1933.
Now fewer yacht clubs exist in Brooklyn although the best in Sheepshead Bay include the Miramar, the Brooklyn Yacht Club and the Hudson River Yacht Club, with the Paedergaet Yacht Club over in Canarsie. On the other hand, the Gowanus Yacht Club in South Brooklyn is anything but a yacht club; it’s a restaurant in landlocked Carroll Gardens.
© 2012 John B. Manbeck