Encyclopedia Of Detroit

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Smith, Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus Smith was the founder of the Chris-Craft Boats company, a worldwide boating empire that became synonymous with speed and craftsmanship. The company led the way in the production of civilian powerboats for more than 60 years. Born on May 20, 1861, Smith became interested in boating at an early age when his family moved to Algonac, Michigan, known as the St. Clair River delta region, or St. Clair flats. He built his first wooden boat in 1874 at the age of 13.

Living in an area abundant with fish and game, he and his older brother Henry became guides for recreational hunters from nearby Detroit. When they began building boats for their friends upon request, Smith was thrust into the boat manufacturing business. The two brothers began producing duck boats, canoes, and small rowboats full time in 1881. When Smith became the first to put an internal-combustion engine in a skiff, he was on his way.

On his own, Smith started the company, C.C. Smith Boat Builder, to pursue his interest in gasoline-powered boats. Smith found financial backing in John Ryan, a Cincinnati movie theater owner, and the two started the Smith-Ryan Boat Company in 1910. The company built racing boats for the owner of what would become Warner Brothers. When Ryan’s money ran out, by 1913, the company became C.C. Smith Boat & Engine Company.

Challenged to build a Gold Cup hydroplane contender, Smith built Miss Detroit, a winner that was later bought by Gar Wood, who became a partner in the Smith Company. Together the financier racer and boat designer won five Gold Cup races in six years, along with a Harmsworth Trophy with Miss America I.

Smith’s four sons, Jay, Bernard, Owen and Hamilton were part of the team that split from Gar Wood to become Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company, in 1922. Smith’s Detroit-area company became well known for its production of sleek racing boats, dubbed Chriscrafts by son Hamilton, and sold high-end powerboats to wealthy patrons such as Henry Ford and William Randolph Hearst.

Chris-Craft extended its market to the middle class by the late 1920s, becoming one of the first mass producers of civilian powerboats. By this time, the company had begun assembly line production of powerboats at its Algonac plant, dramatically reducing the production cost of the formerly hand-built boats. In 1927 Chris retired to be chairman of the board while son Jay became president. In 1930 the company name changed to Christ-Craft Boats.

Chris-Craft boat sales suffered during the Great Depression, but reached their peak during the massive American consumer expansion of the 1950s, making the Chris-Craft brand name synonymous with pleasure boating. The boats were often luxuriously made, with liberal use of mahogany, brass, and teak, and several high-end boats were sold to famous customers including Katherine Hepburn, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley.

The Chris-Craft Boat Company continued successfully until 1960, when it was succeeded by Chris-Craft Industries, followed by other name changes and owners, winding up as a division of Winnebago Industries in 2018. Christopher Columbus Smith missed much of the success of his boat company however, passing away on September 9, 1939.

The Chris-Craft archive is in the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia.

 


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