New Castle, Delaware
Community History and Archaeology Program 

From the collection of the late Mary King Chase. Courtesy Fran Pollard and Dennis Beaumont
Click on image to enlarge

The Laird Yacht Basin
Personal recollections of Irenee du Pont, Jr.
 January 15, 1986

Mr. Richard M. Appleby, Jr.
President of the Trustees of New Castle Common
9 The Strand
New Castle, Delaware 19720

Dear Mr. Appleby:

When we talked together last September during the Philadelphia Corinthian
Yacht Club Cruise, I agreed to put on paper some of my recollections of the
New Castle Yacht Club. I checked my memory by examining my father's file at
the Hagley Library and gleaned some additional information. Those statements
in my text which came from the file at Hagley Library are identified with
footnote "f". This reference is identified:

Acc. 228 Irenee du Pont Series J
General Office Files Nos. 115 New Castle
Yacht Club 1926 - 1938 Box 131

My father was an avid golfer. This, and being president of the Du Pont
Company, left little time for him to develop enthusiasm for yachting. Daddy
was, however, dragged into boat ownership by mother's brothers who operated
the Marine Construction Company at foot of Commerce Street in Wilmington,
Delaware. One day in 1925, to his surprise, he found that he had ordered a 
32 foot cruising motorboat from his brothers-in-law's firm. This boat he named
Miss Take as a reflection both on how he got it and the female nature of
water craft.

The Miss Take proved to be more fun than Daddy expected. Her 150 h.p. 
English built Stirling Seagull would make her plane at speeds in excess of 20 knots.
My older sisters and their young swains were quick to exploit the Miss Take
for her ability to pull an aqua plane; thus engaging in a sport that 
preceded water skiing by decades.

In 1925 the nearest thing to a marina in Wilmington was a rickety wharf at
the end of D Street. A number of boats were moored bow-to-stern in the
Christiana River's mid channel. Using a rowboat to get parties aboard was an awkward
process. Once underway, there was a long trip at low speed between crowded river
banks and through drawbridges before reaching the freedom of the
Delaware River. Clearly, boat owners in Wilmington needed a better
waterside facility. The man who held the key was Daddy's good friend
Philip D. Laird.

Phil, a founder of Laird, Bissell & Meeds, brokerage firm, had a
brother married to Daddy's sister. His wife, Lydia, had an aunt married
to mother's brother. The Lairds had no children. They loved antiques
and parties. They lived in the George Reed House on The Strand in New
Castle, Delaware. They were a fun couple. Because they were so
attractive, a wide circle of friends and relatives enjoyed the
hospitality at Reed House.

Phil and Lydia shared another common interest with their friends and
relatives. This was a healthy disrespect for the recently ratified 18th
amendment to the U. S. Constitution. New Castle, being strategically
located on a coastal estuary, became a natural distribution point for
Canadian imports.

Living so close to the Delaware River, Philip Laird simply had to have
a boat, but there was no creek or other safe anchorage anywhere near
New Castle. It is easy to conjecture a conversation in the Reed House
taproom in which Daddy and Philip Laird conceived of a yacht basin. But
when civil engineer, Albert E. S. Hall, started drawing up plans, the
Reed House riparian simply was too small; More riverfront was needed.

Land acquisition started in the spring of 1927. Miss Dennison sold 55
The Strand for $11,000. (f) Thus enough river frontage was secured so
construction of the yacht basin could go forward.

While the yacht basin was being built, another event held this seven
year old boy's attention. Daddy took delivery of a sixty-two foot Elco
motor yacht, which he named Icacos, reflecting a faulted spelling of
the Hicacos Peninsula in Cuba where he would build a winter home. The
Icacos opened entirely new perspectives in boating. The family could
and did take extended cruises from Norfolk, Virginia, to Newport, Rhode

With the arrival of the Icacos, Walsh came into his own. Walsh had been
the chauffeur since before I was born. Now, he was Cap Walsh and I was
to call him Cap. Actually, he was Captain James S. Walsh, licensed
Delaware River Pilot, native of Lewes, Delaware, 32nd degree mason and
formerly captain of
a Du Pont Company tug boat which carried workers between Wilmington and
Carney's Point. Beside being master of the Icacos, he was in control of
everything that happened at the New Castle Yacht Basin.

Early that summer, the Chesapeake and Delaware canal was re-opened after
being closed for removal of locks and excavation to sea level. I remember
that Sunday when the Icacos joined a marine parade through the canal.
There was a string of power yachts as far as a small boy's eye could see.
Many were decorated with flags and bunting. Uncle Ernest's Alberta, a
sister ship to the Icacos, ran aground at Reedy Point. Amid a lot of
grown-up talk through megaphones, another yacht refloated her. Uncle
Lammot, in his fifty foot Elco, signalled that he had run out of lemons.
During prohibition, lemon was an essential ingredient of a concoction to
which grown-ups attached a great deal of importance. Mother had supplied
the Icacos with several of those grapefruit size ponderosa lemons that
she lovingly had grown herself. I can still see my father handing an
enormous lemon to his brother amid cheers and hee-haws. Mother explained
to me that passing someone a lemon was considered a playful insult.

In 1928 the opening of the New Castle Yacht Club, as Daddy called it,
started a convenient new format for family boating. Mr. James Camell, who
had been the boat watchman at D Street, was now ensconced in a small one-
room "club house" at the corner of what looked to me like a big wooden
pen full of water. The Icacos and the Alberta were tied to floating
wharfs on opposite sides of the basin. The Miss Take was tied to the
bulkhead at the end of the big green lawn. A sleek varnished mahogany
speedboat lay just outboard of the Miss Take.

I remember Daddy stopping the Cadillac touring car at the "club house".
Mr. Camell, in blue bib overalls, rested his large abdomen against the
door on my side where my fingers were lapping over. It was warm and soft
on my knuckles. There was some grown-up talk, followed by laughter and
Daddy stopped the engine. We went aboard the Icacos for a Sunday
afternoon ride. Sunday afternoon cruises were necessarily short. Daddy
played golf on Sunday mornings: Mother took the rest of the family to
church. By the time we had lunch and got to New Castle, there was only
time for about three hours on the river. This would allow a brief visit
to the lighthouse keeper on Reedy Island where we could throw bread to
the ducks. Perhaps, instead, we could have a swim in the deliciously oozy
mud at Augustine beach. The water there was considered cleaner than at
New Castle.

Sometime this year Cap Walsh explained to me that the speedboat tied
alongside the Miss Take was owned jointly by himself and Philip Laird.
My first ride in this Cris-Craft runabout was pure excitement. Water
sprayed out on each side and wind came over the windshield with
hurricane force.

My father's files (f) show an exchange of letters with Lt. Gen. G. B.
Pillsbury of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The subject was how to
stop the discharge of oil from ships in the Delaware River. "This black
sticky oil covers everything on the beach, is hard to clean off of boats
and is a serious fire hazard". Copies of similar letters from Ernest du
Pont and Philip Laird are also preserved. This was the year that my
parents gave up going to Ventnor, New Jersey, so mother's seventeen foot
cat boat, White Puss, was brought up from the Jersey shore and joined
the fleet at New Castle. While the Miss Take and the White Puss saw some
use by my sisters and their friends, the Icacos completely overshadowed
them in the eyes of a small boy. In a year or so the White Puss was sent
to Rehoboth, Delaware, where the family had built a new cottage. The
Miss Take was put onboard a freighter and delivered to Daddy's winter
home at Varadero on the Hicacos Peninsula in Cuba.

By 1931 Henry B. du Pont's fifty four foot Tequilla had joined the fleet
in New Castle. There she came to an abrupt end miraculously without
serious ln]ury to any person. It seems the Tequilla's galley stove
burned propane gas. There was a leak one evening when the steward was on
board alone. He was in the galley at the time the Tequilla was ripped by
an explosion. As the story goes, the steward soared majestically through
the galley skylight and landed virtually unhurt on the famous Reed House
lawn. I saw the badly burned out Tequilla after she had been brought to
the Marine Construction Company where she was salvaged. Her port side
was completely torn from her transom and her deckhouse was gutted by

In 1934 the yacht basin was doubled in size to accomodate additional
vessels and make it possible to manoeuvre the Icacos more safely. There
seems to be no record of when the interlocking steel piling was
installed to replace the old wooden bulkhead structure. My best
recollection is that the iron went in with the expansion. Its cost
appears to be buried in the total billings for the project. Felix du
Pont's Buckeroo, a ketch rigged motor sailer, became resident at the
basin about this time.

My automobile driver's license in 1936 opened another new vista in yachting 
for me. I sold a proposition to my parents that, since I was now capable of 
driving a car, it was obvious that I could handle mother's seventeen foot cat boat 
all by myself. Acceptance of the theorem was so swift as to be almost 
That my parents might view the hazards of the high seas as lesser than 
those of the highway did not occur to me. However, Cap Walsh had reservations. 
In retrospect, I see now that he had his spy on me. "Uncle Charlie" (Charles
Metcalm) resident deck hand, carpenter, and painter on the Icacos, knew 
what I was doing at my daily chores aboard White Puss. This cat boat, now twenty 
six years old, was showing her age. Most of my time was spent burning off old 
paint, sanding and painting. "Uncle Charlie" replaced some rotted planking. When
conditions improved to the point that the young master might take her out 
for a sail, Cap Walsh just happened to be on hand. I'll never forget that first
unsupervised venture out of the yacht basin. Although the weather was 
clear, the wind must have been at least fifteen knots out of the northeast. The tide 
was ebbing at a good three knots. White Puss under power would do only a little 
over four. My buddy, Hank Davis, who had never sailed before in his life, was my 
crew. Cap Walsh and "Uncle Charlie" were watching from the pilot house on the 
Icacos as I proudly pulled the flywheel through compression. The impulse magneto said
clickum and the single cylinder engine chugged to life. We waved goodbye 
and soon were pitching somewhat awesomely in seas that fetched all the way across the
river from Carney's Point. Undaunted I told Hank to pull up the throat 
halyard while I raised the peak, keeping one knee against the steering wheel. So 
far so good, but when I told Hank to push the button that killed the engine, things
changed in a hurry. As we fell off on the port tack, the sail filled with a
suddenness I had never imagined. The sheet was fouled around the reverse 
gear handle and we heeled way over nearly throwing Hank into the water. By the 
time I freed the sheet, White Puss had brought herself into the wind with much 
flapping of canvas and rattling of rigging. Hank looked at me with tea-cup size eyes 
and I lied to him that everything was perfectly alright. In a few seconds White 
Puss decided to run the experiment on the starboard tack. I responded by getting 
the sheet all fouled up in the steering wheel. Hank held on this time, but his 
facial expressions showed he did not like sailing, based on experlence to date. We
continued in this mode for quite a number of cycles. Although I learned to 
manage the sheet and steering wheel, White Puss continued heel-over and head-up in 
total disregard for my strenuous efforts. I simply could not keep her off the 
wind long enough to get headway. I knew I was a good sailor, but
this day things were sure different. Finally, to Hanks enormous relief, I 
declared that there was too much wind. We started the engine and furled the sail.
With the engine at full throttle, we made a nice wake pushing against the current, 
but White Puss kept trying to veer sharply to one side or the other. Objects on the 
shore seemed to stay in the same position they had held when we were wrestling with
the sail. We weren't going anywhere against that tide. Hank, looking out over the
bow, remarked that he thought there had been an anchor up there on the deck. 
I looked, and behold, - no anchor - oh, there's a line overboard! Aha, it all came 
clear: That first puff in the sail neatly set our anchor. Everything we did afterwards
was just exercise. When we got the anchor up, we returned to the yacht basin and 
heard Cap Walsh's verdict that the weather was too windy for sailing anyway.

During 1937 I must have become somewhat more proficient as a small boat captain. 
At least my parents didn't interfere with a number of two week cruises around the 
upper Chesapeake Bay. But with old wooden boats one spends more time fixing than cruising. 
In all honesty I spent most of the summer at the wharf in New Castle. There I got to know 
some of the local kids who used the property as a swimming hole despite the best efforts of 
Mr. Camell. They mercilessly referred to him as Jelly Belly.

That winter, schoolmates Angus Echols and Tom Ellis joined me in a syndicate. 
We bought a thirty eight foot Friendship Sloop, named Albatross, which was in 
winter storage at the Marine Construction Company. She was older and far more 
rotten than the White Puss. We had to work hard all spring for a June launching. 
We got her to the New Castle Yacht Basin, but there was much still to be done. It 
was sickening when Tom pulled off some  sealing in the forepeak and demonstrated 
how he could remove the rotten frames with a corn broom.

Despite the rigorous schedule required in getting the Albatross in shape, 
Tom and I found time to sail the White Puss to Norfolk, Virginia, where my 
sister gave her a new home. By August we thought the Albatross was ready 
for a cruise and we got as far down the Chesapeake as the mouth of the Chester 
River. We were sailing nicely on a pleasant
southwind with a little sea running when I went to the galley to make some 
mid-morning coffee. I swung down the forward hatch into knee-deep water. We get the 
sails off and plied buckets and pump to discover an uncharted region of rot
around the mast step. It took round-the-clock pumping for two days to motor 
back to New Castle. There, "Uncle Charlie's" electric pump was put aboard so
we could sleep and figure out what to do next. The decisionwas made for us when
someone "borrowed" the Albatross, put her ashore on Pea Patch Island
and the wakes of the passing ships broke her into little pieces.
After salvaging the hulk, I went away to College, the war came, the
Icacos was given to the Navy, and I had no occasion to spend time at
the yacht basin again.

I fear these reminiscences are of little historic value, but I had
fun putting them on paper. It was good to talk with you on the


IduPJ/rw	Irenee du Pont, Jr.