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Celebrate the 100th anniversary of Chris-Craft at The Michigan Chapter Antique & Classic Boat Show in Algonac, on June 24 – By Jim Bloch

By Jim Bloch

The 100th anniversary of the famous Chris-Craft boat-building company will be celebrated in Algonac, the city of its birth, at the Michigan Chapter Antique & Classic Boat Show, on June 24.

The show is open to the public free of charge 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Algonac Harbour Club, 1999 Pointe Tremble Road, Algonac.

Organizers are expecting more than 90 boats to be displayed on land and in the water, including Miss America X, the 38-foot mahogany-hulled boat powered by four Packard V-12 engines that famed racer and boat builder Gar Wood piloted to Harmsworth Trophies in England in 1932 and 1933.

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The show will offer free antique boat rides from 1-3 p.m., kid’s events, including building mini wooden boats, a visit by Tootsie the Clown, live music, food, and ice cream.

Organizers will pitch a special Chris-Craft tent and cram it with historical artifacts from the company.

Photo courtesy of Michigan Chapter Antique & Classic Boats
The poster for the Algonac boat show celebrates the 100th anniversary of Chris-Craft boats.

Birth of a legend

Chris-Craft was formed in Algonac in February 1922 when famous boat builder Christopher Columbus Smith and racer Wood dissolved their six-year partnership in the C.C. Smith Boat & Engine Company. Wood had piloted Smith-built Miss Detroit race boats to American Power Boat Association Gold Cups in 1917, 1919, 1920, and 1921.

The famous pair saw their futures differently. Smith wanted to manufacture smaller, more affordable boats for a larger clientele. Wood wanted to build bigger, faster boats for more exclusive buyers.

Both men succeeded, but Chris-Craft ended up exceeding the wildest dreams of Smith and his sons. 

The new company was known as Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company and didn’t officially become Chris-Craft until 1930. Wood meanwhile bought the old Smith shop to build his own boats and the Smiths bought 20 acres of land at Pointe du Chene to build a new factory.

Smith & Sons manufactured 22 26-foot powerboats in the first three quarters of 1922 and 22 rowboats, according to Scott M. Peters in his 2015 book Making Waves: Michigan Boat-Building 1865-2000.

Known as runabouts, the powerboats featured long foredecks, open cockpits, comfortable wicker seats, and 90 HP Curtiss aircraft engines; they sold for $3,200. The company produced 33 powerboats in 1923, 48 in 1924, and 111 in 1925, when they added a window. The company topped $1 million in sales in 1927, manufacturing 447 powerboats, and introducing the Cadet model, selling at $2,250.

The firm poached Jack Clifford from the failing Wills Ste. Claire car company in Marysville and Clifford helped launch a dealership network and top-flight advertisements for the Smiths, divorcing sales from manufacturing and enhancing both.

The Smiths built the 33-foot Baby Gars for Gar Wood, Inc. through 1925, which Wood continued to build on his own in Algonac1925-1929. In 1927, Wood introduced the 26-foot Baby Gar Jr. which sold 103 units. The success prompted him to build a new factory in Marysville.

By the 1950s, Chris-Craft dominated pleasure boat manufacturing, producing nearly 160 models, including high-end boats for movie stars.

Historical context: Rum-running, boat racing, the auto industry, and recreation

Four broad currents in American history ran together to produce the ideal context to make Michigan the boat-building capital of the world.

Michigan instituted laws prohibiting the sale, distribution, and possession of alcohol in 1918, nearly two years before the U.S. Congress enacted the Volstead Act, which launched Prohibition nationally.

With rum-runners smuggling liquor into Michigan from Canada across the narrow bodies of water such as the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, the demand for fast boats grew dramatically among both smugglers and law enforcement agencies, fueling boat manufacturing.

The rise of boat racing as the largest spectator sport in the world, led by Gar Wood, sparked the imagination of the masses and created a demand for fast boats from the general public.

The rapidly expanding automobile industry provided a template for mass production adopted by boat builders and helped create a prosperous working and middle-class clientele to buy boats for recreation.

“By the eve of the Great Depression,” wrote Peters, “Michigan boat builders had created the fastest boats in the world, produced them in the greatest volume ever, and made them available for purchase by buyers of virtually any income.”

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com.

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