By Michael A. Smith
Why are Julius, Heese, and the team so impressed by the name that they would risk millions of dollars to return the company to its former glory? Christopher Columbus Smith (no relation to this writer) built his first boat, a skiff for duck hunting, in Algonac, Michigan, in 1874. By the 1890's he was building hulls up to 40 feet long and soon became famous around the Great Lakes for his fast, able boats. In 1915 he teamed with powerboat-racing legend Gar Wood. By the early 1920's, Wood had won a half-dozen Gold Cups, Smith's boats, called Chris-Craft's, had set at least that many speed records, and both men and boats were famous enough that regular folks wanted to buy one. To meet the demand, Smith developed "standardized" models, built en masse at the factory and sold as complete vessels. Rather than waiting months after placing their order, customers now could lay down cash and drive away the same day.
The boating public responded by buying millions of dollars worth of Chris-Crafts. By 1930, the company line-up included boats from 22 to 48 feet; today, refurbished 34- and 38-foot Commuters from this era are favorites with classic-boat aficionados. (Julius and Heese plan to have ten models ultimately, ranging from 22 to 60 feet.) Prosperity continued through the decade, with company managers, all named Smith, adding models at both ends of the size range--and in the middle. When Christopher Columbus Smith died in 1939, Chris-Craft was without a doubt the world's preeminent boatbuilder, with several factories and even its own railroad to haul finished hulls from the Algonac plant to Detroit for delivery worldwide.
During World War II, Chris-Craft built more than 12,000 vessels for the government; legend says a Chris-Craft was the first landing craft to hit the beach on D-Day. Chances are that many of the men who bought Chris-Crafts in the postwar years were introduced to the company while in uniform. By 1959, when company chairman Harsen Smith appeared on the cover of Time magazine, illustrating an article on "The New Boom in Boating," the Chris-Craft line encompassed 72 models, from 17 to 52 feet, some built out of wood, others out of steel. Experiments with a newfangled material called fiberglass hadn't worked out, though.
In 1960 the Smith family decided to sell. A conglomerate of businessmen bought the company and in the next decade added more boats, expanded manufacturing to more plants, continued building in wood and steel while adding aluminum and, finally, fiberglass. The first all-glass Chris-Craft was the 38 Commander in 1964, and the last wooden boat was a 1972 57 Constellation. (Some yachting historians, including this writer, feel that Chris-Craft's decline began with the delivery of the final wooden yacht.) To cover all bases the company developed a line of sailboats, and even a couple of houseboats. By 1970, whether you wanted sail or power, to fish or to cruise, or to putter around on a houseboat, there was a Chris-Craft just for you.