The Two Faces of Higgins

by Dave Thomas

images provided by Dave Thomas and Mike Hutchinson

 

On 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.

I 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.

After 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.

Because 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.

And 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, Louisiana.

The 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.

Our 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 beautiful day!  

I 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.

That 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.

I 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.

Higgins 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.

Almost 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.

Andrew 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.

After 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.

Higgins 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.

So many ideas, so many inventions came from Higgins Industries that we take for granted today. Higgins Industries not only built PT boats and Landing craft, but also trained naval officers and personnel how to use their boats, “Navigation Wrinkles For Combat Motor Boats”, by Geo.W. Rappleyea is just one of the books produced for their boat operator schools.

During the war, Higgins Industries was awarded the largest government contract to produce assault craft at that time to ensure our country’s efforts in winning the fight. 

Higgins 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.

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Higgins 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.  

Higgins 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.  

In 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”.    

Higgins 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.  

Higgins 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.

In 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.

 

Out of the thousands of Higgins pleasure craft that once roamed our lakes and rivers less than two hundred have known to survive.  

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Higgins 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.  

After 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.  

Higgins 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.  

Higgins 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.   

Often 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.

 

Higgins 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.

 

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As 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.

 

Higgins 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.

 

Higgins 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 feet.  

Higgins 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.  

With 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”.  

 

From 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.

 

Higgins Boats, They Could, “They Wood” They Did!  

David Thomas

Higgins Classic Boat Association

 

The Higgins Classic Boat Association is a group of Higgins pleasure craft owners dedicated to the preservation and restoration of Higgins boats from around the world.  

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.

 

I 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 Higgins Industries.  

For more information concerning the military side of Higgins Industries you may visit the Higgins Boat Project located at www.higginsboatproject.org  

The National D-Day Museum located at:

 

For more information concerning Higgins Pleasure craft

you may visit the Higgins Classic boat Association

located at www.higginsclassicboats.com or email us at

higginsclassicboats@yahoo.com

 

Contact: David Thomas\Higgins Classic Boat Association

(404) 296-4472