The Two Faces of Higgins
by Dave Thomas
images provided by Dave Thomas and Mike Hutchinson
a crisp September Saturday morning in 1994, after an uneasy night’s rest in
the swamps of Louisiana on the Pass Manchac River, I awoke in a lake house to the
sounds of wild birds, frogs, and witnessed a beautiful sunrise coming across pier, next to where I had tied my boat the previous evening.
had just driven nine hours the day before from a garage where I had spent the previous
three years restoring my craft. I can truly tell you that being a young man
from Birmingham, Alabama and not knowing anything about the swamps of Louisiana
made me a little nervous.
launching my restored forty one year old vessel into those waters that Friday
evening, driving through the swamp at night to get to the house made me a bit
anxious, especially when the person sitting next to me told me to get the boat
upon a plane, steer to the right, steer to the left, stay in the channel and
navigate by the stars and you will be all right…….I could not see a thing! I
was truly going on blind faith in hopes that my passenger knew the way (as his
grandfather knew the way so many years ago) and that we would not slam into a
stump and be eaten by the reptiles.
of a chance meeting and a grateful introduction by a friend of mine some ten
years ago, I came to know a family that has become very dear to my heart.
on that Saturday morning as I pulled back on the gearshift lever, patted the
floor accelerator, pulled out the choke, turned the key on the dash
“contact” ignition, brummmm! My six-cylinder Chrysler Ace fired off coming
alive throwing the brackish waters of Lake Pontchartrain out the tail pipe for
the first time in many years after my vessel was built there in New Orleans,
dew was still fresh on the windshield and glistening over most of the mahogany
deck, making my 1959 Higgins Port Royal shine like the new coat of varnish that
it had. After my passenger stepped aboard, I untied her moorings and headed down
the Pass Manchac River out into Lake Pontchartrain.
designation was the Madisonville Wooden Boat Show on the Tchefuncte River on the
north side of Lake Pontchartrain. As
we entered the mouth of the lake at about half throttle, the wind started to
pick up and we were putting out quite a spray from the chop of the water. What a
was concerned that my craft would not hold together and that my workmanship
would fail, for this was the biggest body of water that I had ever had my boat
“America 1959” out on. Then I heard a voice from my passenger sitting beside
me, telling me to open her up, let’s see what she will do!…..”my
grandfather built these boats tough and it will handle it!” was the voice of
Skipper Higgins grandson of Andrew J. Higgins.
was not only the beginning of great friendship but an education from the person
sitting beside me about his family and the company that his grandfather and so
many dedicated Higgins employees built, Higgins Inc.of New Orleans, Louisiana.
will always cherish the people who have come my way that know of Higgins Boats
and Higgins Industries. People such as Jerry Strahan author of “Andrew Jackson
Higgins And The Boats That Won WWII”, Dr. Stephan Ambrose, lead historian for
the movie “Saving Pvt. Ryan” and founder of the National D-Day Museum in New
Orleans, along with many other people that have freely given me their time and
experiences concerning Higgins boats and Higgins Industries.
Before I go any further, I will suggest to anyone who wants to know the history of Higgins Industries and Higgins boats to read the book, “Andrew J. Higgins And The Boats That Won WWII”, by Jerry Strahan. Not only will you be proud to own a Higgins, but know that what you have in your garage is a great piece of history.
Inc. was bought out in 1963 and soon there afterwards faded into history. The
legacy, and the largeness of what Andrew Jackson Higgins and Higgins Inc did for
this county is more than I can tell you in these brief notes.
forgotten but now being brought back to life by dedicated individuals who not
only served on Higgins PT boats, and landing craft, but also by people that know
about the true story of what Higgins Industries did for the world.
J. Higgins had a vision, a drive, a passion that kept him going through good
times and bad. Born in Columbus, Nebraska in 1886, he had a love for boats that
would last him all of his life. A tough man that developed some of the first
work boats that could navigate commercially in shallow waters, named Eureka
“tunnel drive” vessels.
moving to New Orleans (the hub of the world) a port where it made naval shipping
possible, Higgins Industries was born. Higgins wooden boats developed quite a
reputation for their toughness in the Southern climate. They were very effective
in the swamp waters of Louisiana.
Industries grew from being a small Southern boat company to owning and operating
seven large plants, employing 30,000 employees at one point in their operation
and during the war and was the largest producer of landing craft and PT boats
for this country, even blocking off city streets in New Orleans to build those
boats that our country so desperately needed.
industries also played a role in building the carbon core for the Atom Bomb as
part of the Manhattan Project during the war Higgins boats were built from
mahogany plywood, some were planked and some where steel depending on the
vessel. Higgins was known for utilizing and developing mahogany into plywood in
other ways that other manufacturers at the time could not reproduce,
Higgins produced their own plywood at the plant there in New Orleans, at one
point during the war buying the entire years supply of Phillipine mahogany crop.
click for larger image
military craft were fast and with the design of the LCVP (landing craft vehicle
personnel) allowed our troops to be dropped onto the beaches of Normandy, Omaha,
Juno and other places that naval vessels had a difficult time in doing so.
Industries employed some of the greatest people, people dedicated to the cause
of winning the war, last year I had the honor of meeting Graham Haddock who
worked for Higgins Industries, his designs drawn on top of a cigar box that he
had sketched, along with others, helped to build some of the first landing craft
that Higgins Industries produced.
Jerry Strahan's book “Andrew J. Higgins And The Boats That Won WWII”,
President Eisenhower was said to have referred to Andrew J. Higgins as “the
man who won the war for us”.
boats were the perfect vessel for the war front, they where not only
transportable, but could be broken down and reassembled in just a number of
hours. There was not the need of pre-soaking the hulls and waiting for them to
swell up before use.
produced some of the fastest PT boats, measuring from 72 to 78 feet long and
could run in speeds over 60 mph with 3 inline Packard 12 cylinder engines or
Hall-Scott engines depending on the length of the vessel, with 3,000 gallons of
fuel, torpedoes and crew. The Higgins Hellcat is just one example of the many PT
boats that were produced at Higgins Industries.
over the 20,000 military craft and pleasure craft produced by Higgins Inc, so
few remain today, less than 5 of the PT boats and less than four of the landing
craft have known to have survived with one of them being a new reproduction
built from the original blue prints of an LCVP by the Higgins Project Volunteers
of New Orleans, now on display at the National D-Day Museum on Andrew J. Higgins
Drive and Magazine street in New Orleans.
of the thousands of Higgins pleasure craft that once roamed our lakes and rivers
less than two hundred have known to survive.
click for larger image
boats where different, and when I say that I mean that they where built with the
consumer in mind whether it was the military, or private citizen, Higgins
Industries spared no expense to make sure that the quality and workmanship that
went into their vessels would do what they where designed to do, whether
it was to win a war or enjoy pleasure boating after the war.
the war with seven plants operating, Higgins Industries was forced to turn to
producing other items such as furniture, hardwood floors, camp trailers,
pleasure craft and new experiential housing, helicopters, airplanes and
commercial ship work.
built one of the largest freestanding buildings in the world to produce liberty
ships after the war, that plant is now owned by NASA and today remains unequal
in its size.
pleasure craft are truly something of beauty, they were not to meant to be like
other wooden boats of their time, but something different, something affordable
to help get the American public into pleasure boating.
times I hear people comparing Higgins boats to other boat manufactures of the
day, a lot of people prefer a planked boat over a mahogany plywood, but after
owning both kinds, I can say that pound for pound these plywood boats are
stronger and tougher when kepted properly sealed. Tight as a drum is the sound
you will hear if you knock on one.
pleasure craft were designed after their big Brothers the PT Boats, if you have
the honor to see a Higgins at a boat show you will know it when you see it, they
are different, with their left hand steering, floor accelerator pedals, one of
Higgins trade marks and often time with their shift levers on the columns just
as you would find in an automobile.
click for larger image
most of the wooden pleasure craft of the 1940’s and fifties, Higgins used Gray
Marine and Chrysler engines in their boats from the four cylinders up to
the straight eights and in later years the V8 engines.
Higgins Sport Speedster, Deluxe Sport Speedster, Deluxe Runabout, Utility, Higgins Convertible Deluxe, Higgins Magnum, Mandalay, Port Royal are all just some of the names given to Higgins boats.
pleasure craft where designed to be trailered, light enough, but heavy enough to
endure as long as long as any other wooden boat of their time.
A lot of Higgins boats where used in Water Ski Schools, such as the Frank
Morse Water Ski School in Sunapee New Hampshire, Cypress Gardens, and as
mail boats on some of the Great Lakes.
pleasure craft ranged in size from twelve, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,
twenty-three, twenty-six and on up into the the cruiser size of forty six
pleasure craft mostly where all painted white with either red or blue decks,
some decks where varnished depending on what the customer wanted, most had
varnished transoms and a great looking interior. The famous Higgins design
racing stripe or two white bands inside of a solid color band was used for many
years as a trademark.
so few of the Higgins pleasure craft left, if you own one consider yourself
lucky, they drive different, they look different, they are beautifully designed
and well thought out, not just a cheap plywood boat put together, but one that
was built by the many hands that also built the landing craft and PT boats
during the war.
Dr. Stephen Ambrose (Eisenhower’s official biographer) was once told by President Eisenhower that without Higgins boats, “D-Day might have never been possible”.
my first experience of restoring an old Higgins wooden boat in a borrowed
friends garage, ten years ago, to now turning the key and looking back at the
American flag blowing in the wind over the stern, I cannot say enough of my
appreciation for Higgins industries, the men and women
that built these boats, but mainly for the men that went ashore at Normandy,
Omaha, Juno, in these boats to make America what it is today…..Free.
Boats, They Could, “They Wood” They Did!
Classic Boat Association
Higgins Classic Boat Association is a group of Higgins pleasure craft owners
dedicated to the preservation and restoration of Higgins boats from around the
We recently had our first meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana with over 35 members from across the United States and Canada attending, with honored special guest, Skip Higgins, (grandson of Andrew Higgins) Dawn Higgins Murphy (daughter of Andrew J. Higgins) Bob Murphy, Mary Miles Higgins Walker, in attendance.
encourage you to visit the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana to
view an actual Higgins Landing Craft along with several rooms dedicated to
more information concerning the military side of Higgins Industries you may
visit the Higgins Boat Project located at www.higginsboatproject.org
National D-Day Museum located at:
more information concerning Higgins Pleasure craft
may visit the Higgins Classic boat Association
at www.higginsclassicboats.com or email us at
David Thomas\Higgins Classic Boat Association