Classics: Whitehall

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Mighty square-riggers, rugged coasting schooners, speedy packets and lumbering barges — ships of all types filled the harbors of 19th century America, doing commerce, building a nation. And buzzing around many of them was the Whitehall, carrying goods and doing business between ship and shore.

Illustration by Jim Ewing.

These clinker-built workhorse boats were used by “ship’s chandlers, newspaper reporters, insurance adjusters, agents, pilots, ruthless boarding house crimps and all others having business on the waterfront,” as one historian put it. In this highly competitive environment, speed and cargo capacity were paramount; whoever got to the ships first got the best prices and sold the most goods. The Whitehall rowed easily and moved quickly in smooth and choppy waters as it ferried goods and passengers to and from vessels.

This “most famous of American workboats” was developed along the New York City waterfront — principally Whitehall Street on the East River. Whitehalls generally ran from 14 to 22 feet and were rowed by one or two people, depending on the size. (A 25-foot version required four rowers and a coxswain.) The hull form was based on the London waterman’s Thames River wherry, with a nearly straight stem, rounded bilges and a long keel for tracking. The wineglass transom is distinctive and functional, shedding a following sea.

With typical American ingenuity, the Whitehall was built upside-down on a jig — an unusual technique at the time — and could be finished quickly on a production scale to meet the demands of maritime trade.

As the age of sail faded, so did the Whitehall — later to be rediscovered as a recreational craft. Today, builders around the country produce the elegant, practical design in wood and fiberglass for rowing and sailing. A devoted following prizes the Whitehall for its good looks and rowing qualities.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue.