Herreshoff Marine Museum and America's Cup Hall of Fame to Mark 50th Year with a Bright Future Ahead

Article by Andrea E. McHugh from the 2020 Newport Harbor Guide

Widely considered to be one of the first families of boat design, the Herreshoff name is synonymous with the coastal enclave of Bristol, Rhode Island itself. Native sons John Brown (J.B.) Herreshoff and Nathanael (Nat) Greene Herreshoff founded the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company (HMCo.) in 1878, and went on to experience nearly five decades of enviable success, building hundreds of boats ranging from racing and cruising yachts, innovative steamboats and the first U.S. Navy torpedo boats to luxury custom designs for America’s ultra-wealthy industrialists (think: Morgan, Whiney and Vanderbilt).


The duo’s ambitions, tireless work ethic, competitive spirit and obsession with emerging technologies ensured the company dominated every corner of the industry. Years after J.B.’s passing, HMCo. was sold to another family considered Bristolian aristocracy, the Haffenreffers, in 1924. (Other Haffenreffer interests included the Mount Hope Bridge, which they owned for two decades, and Narragansett Brewing Company, the largest lager beer brewery in New England.) HMCo. continued to design and build its own line alongside builds for other leading designers including W. Starling Burgess, John Alden and Sparkman & Stephens, before closing its doors in 1947. The indelible footprint the Herreshoffs left behind, a legacy of American manufacturing and so much more, is best told today at the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame in Bristol.


“People have a tendency to think about this place as a museum about antique boats, and it’s not that. It’s a museum about innovation; about a company on par with Ford Motor Company and the Wright Brothers – about real innovators … pioneers of design and manufacturing,” explains Bill Lynn, Executive Director of the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame. Founded in 1971 by Nat’s son, A. Sidney DeWolf Herreshoff, and his wife Rebecca Chase Herreshoff, the museum preserves the accomplishments of HMCo. on the very site it once thrived. The museum introduced the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 1992 to honor outstanding individuals of the America’s Cup yacht race under the direction of four-time America’s Cup defender, former museum president and Nat’s grandson, Halsey C. Herreshoff. “They won eight straight America’s Cups with boats that were built at HMCo. – that’s pretty damn impressive,” adds Lynn.

Herreshoff employees in front of the Bristol shops, circa 1880. Photo: HMM Archive

When he came aboard, Lynn inherited a museum that had, after some instability, regained its financial footing under the leadership of former Executive Director Larry Lavers. “Larry said they built the launching pad, ‘You need to build the rocket,’” explains Lynn. “I knew nothing about museums; my background is in marketing and advertising … [but] one of the reasons they decided to hire me is I spent my entire career telling stories and as far as I could tell at the time, running a museum is about being able to tell interesting stories.” 


Along with a revamped staff, Lynn crystalized the museum’s vision and mission around education, asking how they could integrate digital offerings and appeal to a broader audience. “Not just people who love old boats – or any boats, quite frankly,” he says. In fact, he sees the acreage of his organization as an educational campus more than a museum, and with good reason. From the start, Lynn explains, HMCo. was the embodiment of STEM competencies – science, technology, engineering and math. “When you think about it, everything you do to make a sailboat is physics and math … whether you realize it or not, you’re thinking as an engineer,” Lynn says. Nat’s desire to make his designs lighter, stronger and faster was insatiable, and his pioneering innovations are still relevant in boatbuilding today. The New Pathways Boat Shop on campus is an experiential program teaching traditional boatbuilding alongside composite technology, exposing young students to multiple career pathways within the marine trades industry. The museum also operates a sailing school for youth and adults, hosts classic yacht regattas regularly and sponsors symposia on classic yacht design and restoration. School groups frequently visit to learn about the history of design and innovation and key partnerships with organizations like US Sailing help broaden educational experiences for students of all ages and backgrounds. “We are working with schools to create alternative STEM programming for the kids getting left behind, and community programs for kids who are underserved,” says Lynn. “The stuff that’s been going on here the past couple of years is really, really, inspiring.”


Students in HMM’s boatbuilding and shop programs learn the fundamentals of problem solving through hands-on maritime-related projects. PHOTO: Evelyn Ansel/HMM

“I think about this museum being about problem solving,” says Lynn. “It’s the one common thread that runs through here … and there is an opportunity for us here to be able to create the next generation of problem solvers.”


The future of the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame, says Lynn, is bright. The organization is currently in the midst of preserving a nearby building built in 1860 by General Ambrose E. Burnside who served under President Lincoln in the Civil War. Burnside designed a rifle that would become the lynchpin of his Bristol Firearms Co., manufactured in the building that later served as home to the Herreshoff’s machine shop. “They built an annex off the back and it’s a huge space, so we are reclaiming that as exhibit and shop space,” says Lynn. Extending its reach across Narragansett Bay, Lynn says the museum will also partner with the new National Sailing Hall of Fame, opening in Newport in 2021.    



Bill Lynn, Executive Director, Herreshoff Marine Museum and America's Cup Hall of Fame, PHOTO: Joe Berkeley

“Our job here is to preserve and interpret the past and inspire the current generation,” says Lynn, “and I think we really have a unique opportunity to present it that way.”