Many years ago my Uncle Don called me. He asked if we could put him up overnight on his way to Mystic Seaport Museum. We were living in Mahwah, NJ. about half way between where he was living in St. Michaels, MD and Mystic, CN. It seems he was bringing a boat he and his boat building friends were donating to the Seaport Museum.
While he was with us I learned little about the boat he was donating; only that it was called a Whitehall and that it had a history that went back to the early days of our country.
Here is Uncle Don in the Whitehall.
The White hall has stunning lines. Its planking is lapstrake and it sports a wineglass transom. Uncle Don is sailing it but it is more commonly rowed.
There is some uncertainty regarding the name “Whitehall”. Wikipedia claims it came from Whitehall street in Lower Manhattan. Lower Manhattan was long a hub for shipping, dating back to pre-revolutionary days. A small craft like the Whitehall would be indispensable for ferrying personnel and supplies between tall ships and the shore.
Somehow this origin story for the Whitehall did not ring true for me. Whitehall street was a hub of commerce but not a hub for building ships. I asked my son Stew where he thought the name Whitehall originated. Stew had built a Whitehall (more about that below} so I thought he might know. He said “Dad, I think the name came from a town called Whitehall near Lake Champaign in Vermont.” So I googled Whitehall, NY and hit pay dirt. Under what is Whitehall Famous for it ? says “Because of Revolutionary War actions the New York Legislature in 1960 declared the legacy that names Whitehall, N.Y. the Birthplace of the United States Navy. So a navy needs lots of support including ship wrights and carpenters as well as materials such as tall pine and spruce trees. This source of timber was readily available from the nearby Adirondack Mountains of New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont.
A small boat to move people and ship’s stores about would be essential to a shipping hub. So a small row boat 16 to 20 feet long evolved to fill the need. But why a sail? Well it seems the now famous Whitehall became a requirement of other large ports in the northeast U.S. Ship chandlers, who serviced the tall ships coming into Boston used them to intercept a Clipper to secure their business. As soon as a tall ship’s sails appeared on the horizon a Whitehall would hoist its sail and head for it. Most would leave Boston Harbor but some were stationed in Provincetown to ensure that they got to their potential customer first. I’ll bet they brought along some enticement to make a deal, like Mum’s pies, not seen for many months at sea by the ship’s crew. The Whitehall is a rugged craft that could take on rough seas often encountered off Cape Cod.
But the story doesn’t end here. My son Stew decided to build a Whitehall many years after Uncle Don donated his Whitehall. Here is Stew’s Whitehall.
Some time afterwards, Stew, his wife and two small kids visited Mystic Seaport Museum. After spending most of the day touring the large campus the kids were tired and nagging to go home. But Stew had been urged to go to the boat livery and take out a small boat. So on a whim he went to the livery. A very lively woman asked what sort of boat he would like to take out for a row. Stew said “By the way, My Uncle donated a boat to the Museum some years ago. Would know anything about it? ” What was his name” the woman replied. “Dr. Donald Fisher” said Stew. “Oh, the Elysea. It is right here. It is one of our favorites. It goes out almost everyday. It never gives us a problem.” she replied.
So fast forward to now. Last fall my wife Fran and I visited Mystic Seaport Museum. I was intent on finding Elysea. Was she still around? After all she had been a part of the Museum for over 40 years.
The guides at Mystic are most friendly and helpful. I corralled one of then, a woman named Margaret, and told her of my search for Elysea. She said we should go and search around the livery and the pier. So off we went but no luck. No Elysea. My heart sank! What could have happened to Elysea?
Then Margaret said we should check with Trevor. Trevor is a shipwright at Mystic and does restorations of their small craft. We found Trevor in the livery barn at work on a restoration.
We asked Trevor if he knew the where abouts of Elysea. “Oh, sure” he said, “She’s right outside on a trailer. She’s due for a thorough refurbishing after I finish this boat.”
Sure enough, there she was.
Here are other views of her.
We left Mystic feeling happy and satisfied that a Fisher family legacy was intact and will provide many happy times for Museum visitors in the years to come. We were invited back for the relaunch of Elysea next spring. We’ll be there!
An afterword: According to the internet the name Elysea is of Greek origin and means “blissful, noble, and honorable.”