Everybody has heard of the America’s Cup, right?
The America’s Cup was won by the United States yacht America in 1851, taking the title from the British in the most famous sailboat race of all time. But did you know that the America came to Gloucester and actually lived here for 20 years? This is the kind of history that will undoubtedly come out of the woodwork as we approach our 400th anniversary as a city.
Here’s the story. From meager beginnings, Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler had made a financial fortune for himself, profiting from his substantial holdings in the Middlesex Mills Company. Butler had increased his net worth from $150,000 in 1862 to about $3 million in 1865.
He had been able to earn a major general’s commission by sponsoring a Massachusetts regiment of the Union Army. At one point during the Civil War, on leave, he summered in a tent with his son on the Gloucester shore of Ipswich Bay. He named the spot Bay View. At the war’s close, he returned to that exact spot and erected a substantial home of local granite. He was elected to the U.S. Congress as a member of the House of Representatives. He bought extensive quarry acreage adjoining his estate to form the Cape Ann Granite Company. He amassed an even more considerable fortune.
Meanwhile, America had throttled the English at their own game on their home turf. And while she was a national hero, initially America was beaten by another yacht in the next defense trials, which were not until 1870 because of the war. Butler bought her in 1873. America had served with distinction in both Civil War navies during the war. There were rumors that the general had gotten an “insider’s price” at a mere $5,000, but nothing came of it. Butler commissioned three substantial alterations of America over the next two decades. The first modified her rig, added two cabins and replaced the tiller with a steering wheel. Ten years later, Edward Burgess, the legendary naval architect (my distant relative) reset the masts slightly forward of plumb (for speed), lengthened the deck both fore and aft and enlarged the keel so she could carry more sail. She was even faster, winning race after race in Marblehead and Boston.
Butler sailed America all around Gloucester Harbor and New England until he died in 1893. The boat then went to his daughter, Blanche, and her husband, Gen. Adelbert Ames, a decorated war hero (Bull Run) and US Senator (Mississippi during Reconstruction). They kept America in Gloucester until the turn of the century. In 1901, America sailed her last race, 50 years after her first one. Sold, she lay under wraps in Boston for 15 years, unloved. A group of loyalists from the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead bought her and donated her to the U.S. Navy in 1921, for the sale price of $1.
America returned to Annapolis for the next 20 years. Wartime priorities prevented the Navy from investing in a restoration proposal and floating museum by President Franklin Roosevelt himself. Finally in 1940, she was surveyed and was in such need of repair the funds were allocated and a work shed built over America to protect her and enable the work. But a massive snowstorm hit the area and collapsed the shed. The America collapsed too. She was eventually destroyed by wreckers with sledgehammers.
The only items left to history were the rudder and the eagle insignia that had graced her transom.
The rudder made it way to the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, while the eagle insignia somehow made its way to hang at The Eagle Pub on the Isle of Wight. It stayed there until the Royal Yacht Squadron -- organizers of that first America’s Cup in 1851 -- bought it back and presented it to the New York Yacht Club, where it hangs to this day in the front entrance of its magnificent building in Manhattan.
The America’s Cup still remains the most sought-after racing prize in the world. Syndicates wager hundreds of millions of dollars on years-long campaigns to win it, as we just saw with those crazy foiling cats in Bermuda. It all began with America and Gloucester still shares a piece of that history, not known by everyone. But now that you know and you’re American, go for a sail and honor a Gloucester rock star!
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.