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Found Staten Island Stories 5: Defending the America's Cup 1870-1920

There is a T-shirt for sale that reads "Shaolin Yacht Club,"  the joke being "Shaolin" is the nickname given to Staten Island by native rappers Wu Tang Clan.  The "yachts" are, of course, the municipal ferryboats. Though Staten Island does have a few small yacht clubs today it's hardly a major player on the international yachting scene. This was not always the case. In yachting's "golden age" the world repeatedly came to the Island's shores to challenge for the America's Cup but, for 50 years, was turned away empty-handed.  

The America's Cup is the world's oldest international sporting trophy still in active competition. In the early days of the races its popularity was on a par with the Super Bowl or World Series today. Originally the Cup was known here as the 100 Guinea Cup  or Queen's Cup (both American names disavowed by the Royal Yacht Squadron which prefers "The Cup of 100 Sovereigns").  It was first awarded in 1851 to the upstart schooner America which defeated the reigning British competitors off the Isle of Wight and was helmed by Sandy Hook Pilot Richard Brown.

Queen Victoria, upon witnessing the victory, asked "Who finished in second place?". She was told: "Your Majesty, there is no second." The cup became known as "America's Cup" after that. The America's owners eventually turned the cup over to the New York Yacht Club for future competitions.  

No challenges were made for the cup until 1870, nineteen years after America's victory.  At the time, The New York Yacht Club was not headquartered in its now famous digs at 37 W 44th Street in Manhattan. As of 1868 the clubhouse was located at 30 Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island, a neighbor of, the then four-year-old, and future pioneering photographer, Alice Austen. The clubhouse,  a grand house with a broad front porch in a "Swiss-Italian style" was bought by James Gordon Bennett Jr. , the New York Herald editor and vice commodore of the NYYC. The club moved there from smaller quarters in Hoboken. 

James Gordon Bennett, Commodore NYYC.

James Gordon Bennett, Commodore, New York Yacht Club.

" In the spring of 1868 the club purchased from Mrs. N. H. Wolfe, for a Club House, a property on Staten Island, near the lower landing, for the sum ot $24,000, paying $9,000 cash and the balance remaining on mortgage. It contained two acres of land, sloping down to a road which separated it from the shore, about one mile this side of the narrows. Sitting on the wide piazza of the Club House a large roomy cottage in the English style one sees every vessel coming into the port of New York. With a good glass we can distinguish the features of those on deck."

According to the Richmond County Gazette the sale was "of great importance to the Island as attracting so many people of wealth and high social position to our shores."  At the time the Club had 278 members and a fleet of 42 vessels of all types.

The area waters were already a popular rallying point for major races, including the first Trans-Atlantic race between Vesta, Henrietta and Fleetwing .  The boats were competing for a $90,000 purse. "The yachts anchored off Stapleton the night before the start and in the forenoon of [December] 11th [1866]they were surrounded by the largest fleet of excursion steamers and other craft that up to that time had been ever brought together in this country by a yacht race." Two, of the many Staten Islanders who formed the race crews of the big yachts, perished: Quartermasters C. H. Hazelton and David J. Wood were washed overboard while at the wheel. Henrietta took the prize.

The New York Yacht Club's "House Committee" was headed by the Rosebank clubhouse's next door neighbor, John H. Austen, an auctioneer and father of Alice Austen.  The committee was responsible for upkeep of the clubhouse grounds.  At least two regattas were held there prior to the first Cup defense. The first regatta was held there in 1869.  Austen was in Paris at the time.  Pre-regatta reports were that the grounds remained in good condition.  He wrote "had the season been dry & the grass failed, there would no doubt been a great howl among the old fogies, who know nothing about such things."   Though afterwards one of his visitors complained that in Austen's absence the other members had fallen behind in the upkeep.  Austen wrote "They felt the want of me very much at the clubhouse on the day of the regatta, as the house committee had left everything to me it seemed to be nobody's business to take charge of things." At the second regatta in 1870 things went more smoothly and the attendance was such that the large crowd kept wandering on to the adjoining Austen property, forcing John Austen to assign a guard to turn back the trespassers. 

The  competing defenders and challenger gathered off the Narrows the night before the Cup race on August 7, 1870.  The next morning they proceeded to the shore of the clubhouse for the start of the first defense.   More than a dozen NYYC schooners, along with the original cup winner, America, were pitted against the lone Royal Thames Yacht Club's schooner Cambria.  

In his book, America's Victory, author David Shaw quotesThe New York Daily Times on the exodus from Manhattan ahead of the race:

"Large crowds of people were seen hurrying to the docks for the purpose of embarking on vessels which were to convey them to the scene of the race.  Women and children were especially numerous, and appeared to be as eager to see the yachts as their male relatives and friends.  The majority of them presented a very respectable and genteel appearance, and it seemed as if the greater part of the middle and wealthy classes had, moved by a simultaneous impulse, turned out on the occasion, and had suddenly become warm patrons of the noble pastime, yachting...The excitement even invaded the most aristocratic portions of the City, and private carriages, filled with fair and gaily dressed inmates, were seen in large numbers on Fifth and Madison avenues, carrying their owners toward the river side."

One reporter described the event as though "New York emptied itself out through the Narrows until the offing was like a crowded port with pillars of steam and glimmer of sails, and the shores of Staten Island were like swarming cities." An estimated 50,000 people lined Staten Island's shores to watch.  According to the papers "the banks of Staten Island were fairly alive with human beings who extended in a solid row from Vanderbilt's Landing [Stapleton}, just above the Club-house, all the way to Fort Richmond [Ft. Wadsworth].  The parapet of the later structure offered a good opportunity for viewing the start and the return of the racers, and were well crowded with spectators." 

Another writer estimated the waterborne crowd at over 100,000:

"The writer was an eye witness and has no hesitation in describing it as a marine spectacle far ahead of the many succeeding races for the America's Cup. ... it was possible for even the smallest boat to be close to the racers at the start and finish. Almost everything that could float was there, large steamers, ferry boats, and sailing craft of all sorts, all black wdth people, estimated to be at least 100,000... There was practically no business in New York that day. The weather was beautiful, very hot on shore, but a refreshing breeze from the south made it comfortable afloat."

NYYC Staten Island and Alice Austen House, 1846.  From Staten Island Historian April-June 1967.Second clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club, Staten Island, 1865.


The first New York Yacht Club building on Staten Island.  Scribners Monthly, August 1872.

The McFarlane-Bredt house at 30 Hylan Boulevard, served for three years (1868-1871) as the second clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club.  The club opened a second Island clubhouse by 1875. Financial difficulties forced the club's officers to vote 7-2 in favor of selling the Hylan Boulevard property on February 16, 1877. The house, designated as a landmark in 1969 and acquired by NYC Parks in 1975, is now part of the NYC Parks system but has fallen into disrepair.  Funds for restoration have been sought for decades. Photo: Outing magazine, 1901. Drawing: Scribners Magazine, August, 1872.

Map of the New York Yacht Club and Austen house properties, 1846.  The Staten Island Historian April-June 1967.

Note: The images below follow the racers draw from several representativeraces of the era.  The early defenses were not visually well documented.

The new clubhouse and grounds of the New York Yacht Club on Staten Island, 1868.

"The New Grounds and Club House of the New York Yacht Club on Staten Island, New York Harbor."Harper's Weekly July 4, 1868.

"The New York Yacht Club Regatta...Off the new club house  and grounds Staten Island."

"The New York Yacht Club Regatta...Off the new club house and grounds Staten Island.

The Notorious "Inside Course"

With the bang of the gun, the fleet started out on its roughly 35-mile course from the clubhouse to Sandy Hook and back: 

"The start was from off Stapleton, Staten Island, and with the strong ebb-tide under her lee, the Magic fetched in about half-way 'twixt Owl's Head [Brooklyn] and Fort Lafayette, and standing close in shore was able on the port reach to fetch well down along the West Bank, reaching almost to Dix's Island  [now Swinburne Island], and getting a lead which could not be taken from her. The others worked down with the ebb, as best they might, splitting tacks in all directions, making as pretty a picture as can be imagined. "

 This was the notorious "inside course" where boats hugged the Staten Island shore for much of the, down to buoys 8 1/2 and 10, the "Gob" to the local sailors, before turning east to round the Sandy Hook light ship.  Local knowledge of shore winds, narrow channels and shifting currents counted as much as boat design and crew skill.  This gave a distinct advantage to the defender (as well as front-row seats for Islanders.)  

Cup historian Captain Roland Coffin wrote of the rounding:  "The scene around the lightship when the yachts turned was one never to be forgotten. It would be difficult to estimate the number of people who witnessed the turning, but I know I shall be within bounds if I put it at 20,000."

An  NYYC regatta "off the new club house and grounds, Staten Island."  C. 1869.  Currier and Ives. Collection of the Library of Congress.  

      The Inside Course, America's Cup, New-York Tribune Sept. 7,1886.  Romer Shoal Beacon, 1886.

The "Inside Course" in 1886.  New-York Tribune, September 7, 1886.   Though the course is shown consisting of straight lines, the maneuvering of the boats would bring them much closer to shore than indicated here.  New York Tribune September 7, 1886. Romer Beacon in 1886, now Romer Shoal's lighthouse. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

New Scotland lightship. America's Cup mark.  New-York Daily Tribune, July 28, 1907.America's Cup race rounding the Sandy Hook Lightship, 1887.

Lightships on the America's Cup courses:   The Wreck of Scotland and the Sandy Hook.  

Caption in the New-York Daily Tribune of July 28, 1907 reads "The New Scotland Lightship.  Stationed at the entrance to New York Harbor, where the America's Cup races start." reflecting the location's shift from mid-point of the race on the Inside Course to Starting area on the Outside Course.  The picture of the lightship appears to be from the earlier era when the name was "Wreck of Scotland."   The Wreck of Scotland marked the 1866 wreck site of the ship Scotland and served as a mark in several races

The 1887 race, Volunteer rounding the lightship Sandy Hook Image: Wikipedia.

Vision and Dauntless off Sandy Hook Lightship 1876, by Antonio Jacobsen.

  This painting by Antonio Jacobsen shows Vision and Dauntless off the Sandy Hook lightship in 1876.  WikiArt.

The bluffs of the Island at the Narrows were particularly troublesome.  Coffin noted " it happened frequently that a boat which had out-sailed her competitors for the whole day and had obtained a commanding lead of the whole fleet, would run under the Staten Island bluff, lose the wind and stop until all had run up to her."  Thus the start of the inside course was moved down below the Narrows. The NYYC continued to use the inside course through the seventh defense in 1887 when the races were fully switched over to the more open "outside course"  off Sandy Hook.  

Spectators at Ft. Wadsworth, Staten Island observe a NYYC regatta.

Spectators at Ft. Wadsworth observe a New York Yacht Club Regatta (race/date unknown.) Library of Congress. 

Franklin Osgood's Magic finished first in four hours, 37 minutes—39 minutes ahead of 10th-place Cambria.

.Magic Wins the Queens Cup, NY Herald August 9, 1870.The finish off Staten Island, America's Cup 1870.

Announcement of Magic's victory in what was then called the "Queens Cup" in the NY Herald, August 9, 1970.   The paper declared it was "The Most Exciting Yachting Event on Record." 

"THE FINISH OFF STATEN ISLAND - 1870."  Drawn by Staten Island marine artist Frederick Schiller Cozzens.  American Yachts: Their Clubs and Races. c. 1884.

The Second Clubhouse seems to have been out of operation by the time of the second cup defense in the fall of 1871 but the racing continued from that location.  Scribner's reported that following the closing "The starting point in all New York regattas, however,  is at the Staten Island Club-House,  or rather the Stake -boat which is always anchored in the Narrows opposite the old Club-House.  It is from this boat that all yachts in regatta in New York Bay start and to it return.  The course lies from this point across Sandy Hook bar out to ocean around the Light-ship and return to the Stake-boat.  On regatta days both Light-ship and Stake-boat are gayly decorated with flags of all nations and all sorts and no more picturesque and enlivening scene can be imagined than the myriad small craft and excursion steamers when gathered to see the "start" or the "rounding".

Captain Coffin describes the arrival of the British challenger in 1871:

"The famous English yacht, the Livonia which arrived off the club-house of the New York Yacht Club at Staten Island at a late hour Saturday night, created a decided sensation among the passengers on the Staten Island ferry-boats yesterday, who not only freely commented on her model but on the prospect of her success in this country."

The Livonia, sponsored by Lord Ashbury and the Royal Harwich Yacht Club, was defeated by the NYYC defenders Columbia and Sappho.  Lord Ashbury accused the NYYC of "unfair and unsportsmanlike proceedings" and departed under protest.  The NYYC returned several trophies Lord Ashbury had donated to them.

 The club did not officially decide to sell the Clifton property until 1877, due to financial difficulties.  

Island Crews

While there hasn't been an analysis of where the racing yacht crews hailed from it seems very likely that a large percentage were from Staten Island.  Even before yacht clubs became commonplace Islanders were out racing on their own. The Sailcraftblog quotes the William P.  Stephens book “Traditions and Memories of American Yachting” (1942) on the Staten Island roots of NYC sailboat racing in the 1850s:

 “along the Staten Island shore and in sheltered nooks on the East and North rivers, were boat shops, waterside saloons frequented by boat sailors, and fleets of cat-boats, jib-and-mainsail boats, and small cabin yachts, all of the centre-board type. It was not until well along in the [eighteen] sixties that yacht clubs became general, but from the first a strong community of interest and friendly rivalry united all these localities”.

Staten Island oysterman were professional sailors who knew New York Bay like nobody else.  Many harbor races were open to anyone and oystermen would race their commercial sailing vessels against the racing yachts.  In 1886 Selden Judson wrote of the Staten Island oyster fleet:

"The fleet of oyster vessels comprise numerous styles of marine architecture. There is the trim cat-boat, the serviceable sloop, the handy schooner and the jaunty yacht. These vessels, of various tonnage, cost from $500 to $7,000 each, and many of them were built on Staten Island; some were built purposely for the trade, and others were acquired by purchase. In the main, they are fast sailers; there are in the fleet, yachts as fast as the racers of the New York Yacht Club."

(On a personal note: my own great grandfather, a harbor pilot and oysterman, was employed on club yachts at Stapleton.) 

Area waters were already a popular rallying point for major races, including the first Trans-Atlantic race between Vesta, Henrietta and Fleetwing in 1866 .  The boats were competing for a $90,000 purse. "The yachts anchored off Stapleton the night before the start and in the forenoon of [December] 11th [1866]they were surrounded by the largest fleet of excursion steamers and other craft that up to that time had been ever brought together in this country by a yacht race." Eight days in a storm killed six on the Fleetwing. Two of them, were Staten Islanders: Quartermasters C. H. Hazelton and David J. Wood were washed overboard while steering the ship through the storm. Henrietta took the prize.

Henrietta, Fleetwing and Vesta at the start.  Scribners Monthly, August, 1872.

Second Staten Island Clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club

The third station of the New York Yacht Club, and second on Staten Island, was built on a dock at Stapleton replaced the Rosebank Clubhouse and operated into 1876.   In 1876 Madeline defeated the Canadian yacht Countess of Dufferin of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto.   After the races The Countess of Dufferin would end up being seized by the authorities at Staten Island for non-payment of debts, stripped of much of her gear, and hauled off to Queens.

Unlike the Rosebank clubhouse the Stapleton clubhouse was also a club anchorage and an active spot for on-water activities.

 New York Yacht Club at Stapleton, Staten Island. Staten Island Historical Society. New York Yacht Club at Stapleton, Staten Island. Staten Island Historical Society.


New York Yacht Club interior, Stapleton, Staten Island, c1885.  Collection of Historic Richmond Town. 

New York Yacht Club station at Stapleton, Staten Island 
 Exterior: The Staten Island Historian, Jan-July 1979. Interior stereogram: Collection of Historic Richmond Town .  

A description of the interior, after it had ceased being used by the New York Yacht Cub and became Starin's Glen Island resort off New Rochelle, survives and may give some idea of how the Stapleton house looked inside:

"This pavilion is three stories high,..The lower portion is divided into three separate compartments. ... On the side overlooking the Sound is the ladies' and gents' toilet rooms and parlor.  Opposite is the reading room, barber shop and bar.  On the second floor, over the dining room, are private supper rooms and parlors for special guests.  Above this floor are tables for refreshments."

Tragedy at the Stapleton Anchorage

Sinking of the Mohawk at Stapleton.  Chicago Sunday Tribune, May 14, 1899.

"The Yacht Mohawk Just Before the Disaster" and "Scene at the Wreck-The Diver Preparing to Search for Bodies." Chicago Sunday Tribune May 14, 1899.

The Stapleton anchorage is most remembered for the sinking of Vice Commodore Garner's yacht Mohawk, "the greatest catastrophe in American Yachting".  Garner was one of the nation's leading fabric printers and cotton mill owners employing about 7,000 to 8,000 workers in New York State.   The 140 foot Mohawk was then the largest racing yacht in the world. She could carry 32,000 square feet of sail and had a 7 ton centerboard. Garner had hopes of competing for the Cup but she fell twice to the 1876 defender Madeleine - once in the 1875 Cap May Cup and again in a match race at the end of the club's 1875 season.

On the afternoon of July 20, 1876 Mohawk was just lifting her anchor, with sails raised, when a sudden squall hit the Stapleton anchorage . Over two decades later, on May 14, 1899 the Chicago Sunday Tribune retold the story which had been revived in the public mind following the death of the prominent society lady Edith May (Randolph) Whitney on May 6, 1899.

The Mohawk was the largest and costliest of pleasure vessels belonging to the New York Yacht Club.  It was the property of William T. Garner,...residing near New Brighton, Staten Island, and was sumptuously furnished and appointed...

The Mohawk was the pride of the bay, and was manned by Captain Rowland and a crew of about 20 men.  It lay a short distance off Stapleton, Staten Island, abeam of its clubhouse, when the Commodore and his guests went on board shortly after 4 o'clock.

The day had been bright, as the anchor went up and all sails were set a black cloud swept up from the eastern horizon and the seamen and old salts lounging along the shore saw a ripple creeping over the smooth waters of the bay followed by serried ranks of tiny white caps.

Then all eyes on shore were focused on the Mohawk. The anchor was tripped and every Inch of canvas was spread with the exception of the Jib topsail. The watchers saw with alarm that the centerboard had not been lowered and no move was made to shorten sail.

There was a spit of rain and the guests went below, while Sailing Master Rowland stood at the wheel. By this time hundreds of anxious eyes were watching the yacht and a murmur that swelled to a roar swept along the beach when there was still no sign on board of shortening canvas or dropping the centerboard..."The man is mad" said Captain Stillwell to his friend, Captain Silvey, as they watched the yacht from the wharf at Clifton.

"The yacht will never weather that squall unless they shorten canvas."  said the captain of  the Countess of Dufferin, a Canadian yacht that was lying In shore and had been stripped of even Its awnings to meet the blow.

The Countess of Dufferin was credited with the rescue of Edith May, the only female survivor, as the women went below decks on the Mohawk as soon as the rain hit:

When Miss May was passed up the companionway to Mr. Rowland [he] sprang into the water with the girl and kept her afloat until they were picked up by a boat sent out from the yacht Countess of Dufferin. This boat, however, had become damaged while on its way to the wreck and the rescued were transferred to one of the [yacht] Dreadnaught boats and safely landed on Staten Island...

The blame for the disaster was unanimously laid at the door of Captain Rowland, and his behavior indicated that he concurred In the popular verdict.  When he was landed on Staten Island he took to the woods, but was subsequently arrested and locked up at Stapleton to await the action of the Coroner's jury. Crowds of men had searched for him with the avowed intention of lynching him, but he was found by the police and kept under guard until the Coroner had finished his Inquiry. One of his sailors declared that he had begged the Captain to allow him to cut away the main sheet, but the latter had ordered him forward and told him to mind his own business. All of his crew, in addition to all of the yachtsmen and old sailors who had witnessed the disaster from the shore, declared that the Captain had been criminally negligent....

Five died in the sinking. The body of William  Garner was found in the sunken hull with his wife in his arms.  Two female guests and the cabin boy also perished.

The coroner had a different view than the eyewitnesses.  He "blamed the schooner's design for the tragedy. Her broad beam, shallow draft and dependence on unsecured internal ballast for stability was deemed the cause of the yacht's capsizing." At his trial, held in the Village Hall of New Brighton, Captain Oliver Rowland was acquitted of the criminal negligence charge brought against him.   The jury stated only that he had not been "prudent".  Rowland never found steady work again and lived his final years at Sailors Snug Harbor in Livingston where the old salts spent their leisure time making nautical crafts and racing pond yachts.   One of the Snugs recalled the aged Rowland lamenting  "I was forty-three years old at time time of the accident and for all these twenty-seven years I have told every one who would listen that the blame should not be placed on my shoulders."

1876 was the last year schooners were raced in the America's Cup and the sinking caused the general demise of the large centerboard schooner as a yacht design.  The submerged Mohawk was towed to the shallow flats off Bayonne, raised at low tide, and renamed Eagre serving as a Coast Survey ship. Commodore Garner's mansion at Castleton and Bard Avenues is now part of Richmond University Medical Center and has long been under consideration for historic landmarking. After the death of Commodore Garner the Stapleton station was abandoned  and sold to a resort on Glen Island near New Rochelle. The New York Yacht Club had no waterside facilities for several years, though they did maintain landings on the Island and other locations.

Mansion of Commodore William T. Garner, Staten Island
William T. Garner mansion at Castleton and Bard Avenues, New Brighton.  It became St. Austin's school  in 1883 before being purchased  as part of the St. Vincent's hospital property in 1903, now RUMC.


Continued in Part 2: A Tompkinsville NYYC Station, Lipton in America's Cup, An Island Catamaran, and the Rosebank Clubhouse Today


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