surrounds the early history of the Whitehall rowboat. The origins of this
distinctively elegant and extremely practical craft are unclear.
In earlier times, however, builders were often sailors or seafaring
men. Taught by the sea to be conservative, they stuck with the tried
and true. Successful designs for large and small craft alike evolved
slowly and as certain desirable qualities were attained and perfected
they rarely changed.
Some hold that the Whitehall rowing boat design
was introduced from England. However the famed nautical historian
Howard I. Chappelle, cites the opinion of the late W. P. Stephens
that in New York City there is a Whitehall Street and this was
where the Whitehall was first built. Chapelle, Stephens and others
agree that the design came into existence some time in the 1820ís
in New York City, having first been built by navy yard apprentices
who had derived their model to some extent from the old naval
for "Rudder" magazine, August 1943, Captain Charlton L. Smith
states a somewhat contrary view, "This delver into nautical lore
has never been able to ascertain whether the Whitehall boat originated
at Whitehall, New York, or at Whitehall, England. It is extremely
likely from the latter place. At any rate the model of a "pure
breed" Whitehall that was so useful a rowed-on-the gunnel workboat
at Boston and at The Battery at New York City and, later, at San
Francisco, evolved from the English Wherry."
Howard Chapelle states in his book
"American Small Sailing Craft" that "The Whitehall represents
a refinement in an old type rather than a distinct and local innovation.
This rowboat is on the same general model that was used in very fast
pulling boats, the wherry, cutter, and gig from 1690 or earlier,
on to the end of the nineteenth century." All of these rowboats were
of course constructed of wood, the only medium used at the time.
Chappelle further states that "Originally the Whitehall was lap-strake,
but caravel had become common in the New York boats by 1850."
John Gardner, "The Whitehall was not a shipís boat, but a vehicle
of harbour and coastwise transportation. Intended primarily to
be rowed, but capable of a good showing under sail as well, it
was fast, seaworthy, and trim. Whitehalls were in great demand
in the days of sail on the waterfront of a big commercial port
such as was New York City in the early nineteenth century. Not
only were these boats the choice of crimps and boarding house
runners, but of nearly everyone else as well who required reliable
and expeditious transportation about the waterfront from one part
of the harbour to another ship chandlers, brokers, newspaper reporters,
insurance agents, doctors, pilots, shipís officers, port officials,
and many others."
Whitehalls ranged in size from single
rowing station 12 footers to five station boats topping out at
24 feet overall. The small rowboats were used as for-hire craft and
the transport of one or two passengers. Larger rowboats of 16 to
18 feet were used by shipís chandlers to carry samples or to take
out gear in an emergency. The largest were used by small groups
of thugs called press gangs, who rounded up the often drunk and
disorderly shipís crews and returned then to their vessels.
stories are associated with the "runners" who under oar and sail
ventured out to meet sailing ships as they approached harbour.
A salesmanís lot was certainly adventurous in those days as this
chap was a highly competitive representative of one of several
"deep water boarding houses" actively engaged in lining up clients.
Closing with the approaching sailing ship they would swing their
Whitehall about and, rowing furiously, approach the larger shipís
bow. Using a long slender pole, a grapple hook and line would
be slipped onto the fore lee chains, line payed out to a safe
distance, and the Whitehall then warped alongside, where one of
the runnerís crew would slip nimbly aboard. A half pint slipped
into the right hands assured him of a welcome aboard and an ear
or two to ply.
Captain Smith, who was born in Boston
in 1869, and who personally witnessed this era tells in the aforementioned
"Rudder" article the story of a deep water boarding house owner
by the name of Sorenson. "Captain Alfred Sorenson usually got
what he went after, whether he was in quest of sailors for his
boarding-house or to pluck a fellow being from a watery grave.
He outran the fleet of Whitehalls once. He reached a point off
the tip of Cape Cod. Came a howling winter gale. Was Alfred fazed?
He was not. Rolling, or furling his sail tightly he bent on his
warp. With this sea anchor he lay head to it. After thirty-six
hours of exposure, he spotted a ship and came home." According
to Captain Smith it was because these boats rowed so easily in
calms and sailed so well in a breeze that they were even used
by the New York Harbour Police.
The Whitehall skiff was the recognized
champion in speed and it was only natural that unofficial competition
led to organized racing. Many stories are told of the inter-city
competition between Boston and New York and the large sums that
were wagered on these challenges, Rowing became the principal
American competitive sport on the Eastern seaboard from the middle
to the end of the nineteenth century and it was the influence
of the Whitehall as much as anything else that made it so.
Whitehall represents an example of a "golden period" of marine design
and craftsmanship and its maritime heritage is renewed in Whitehall
Reproductionsí replica designs. Growing interest in marine heritage
and clean, healthy recreation is causing a rebirth of these traditional
craft which are a fusion of the fine workmanship of the past with
the best of modern materials available today. They embody the appearance
of beauty of a Whitehall and offer the ease of maintenance and the
durability of modern materials. These classic reproductions provide
the experience of traditional rowing, slide seat rowing or sailing
in a legendary classic design that reached it’s pinnacle over
a century ago.