During World War I, a Navy vessel ‘sailed’ the concrete of New York City for three years. The only water it ever encountered was from the sky and the city’s municipal water supply. The battleship, nicknamed “USS Neversail” and the “Street Dreadnaught,” was officially christened USS Recruit.
This recruiting poster depicts Recruit proudly steaming through the waves, leading other vessels in its wake. In reality, Recruit was constructed, commissioned, manned, decommissioned, and dismantled without ever touching an ocean. Yet despite being landlocked, the ship played an important role during World War I.Read more
What do a Battleship, 1950, mud, high tides, a Hudson River Ferry, a T-shirt, and a UFO all have in common?
To find out how they interconnect, let’s start with the Battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63). In 1950, the ship was already famous for her participation in WWII, and because the surrender that ended the war was signed on her deck. MISSOURI was nicknamed the “Mighty Mo” by her crew, but she was also known as the “Big Mo” to the public and in news reports. She would soon live up to them both names when she managed to get into a mighty big mess.
It all began on January 17, 1950. MISSOURI left Norfolk Naval Base and headed towards the Atlantic Ocean to begin a routine training cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Her Captain, William D. Brown, was new to the battleship, having just joined the crew in December. While he was an experienced naval officer, his previous commands had been submarines and destroyers and he had been on shore duty since the end of World War II. Although Captain Brown had taken MISSOURI on a few short trips off the coast of Virginia after he took command, he was essentially unfamiliar with the battleship and this would be his first time taking her out for a cruise.
The Navy had set up an acoustic range to capture the signature sounds made by ships and it was close to MISSOURI’s departure point. Captain Brown had been asked to take a previously unplanned trip through the range on his way out, and he was told that buoys had been set up to mark the area. This was important since the range was very close to shallow water.
Things started to go wrong pretty quickly. It turned out that some of the buoys had been removed and the navigational charts hadn’t been updated with that information. Not all the ship’s officers knew about the plan to take MISSOURI through the range, and some of them only heard about it just before the battleship headed in that direction. Another complication was that the range area was close to a fishing channel that was also marked with buoys.
Brown spotted what he thought was the marker for the right edge of the acoustic range and ordered the battleship to the left of the buoy. He ignored warnings by the navigator and the executive officer’s attempts to alert him, not realizing until much too late that he had made a mistake. Even though the tide was unusually high that day, MISSOURI was heading into the fishing channel and shallow water.
At 8:17 am, the “Mighty Mo” hit a sandbank in the Chesapeake Bay, about a mile and a half from Thimble Shoal Light and a mile off Old Point Comfort. The battleship, traveling at 12.5 knots, plowed 2,500 feet into the sandbar, bottoming out the ship and lifting her out of the water about seven feet above the waterline. Now the ship was stuck just off the Army base at Fort Monroe, close to Thimble Shoals Lighthouse, the shipping channel, and within sight of the Naval Base.
Within a couple days, articles would start appearing in newspapers all across the country that “Mighty Mo” or “Big Mo” had grounded. These articles were quickly followed by reports of multiple failed attempts to free the battleship over the next two weeks. Bringing not only amusement to the onlookers and readers, but also quite a bit of humiliation to the Navy. Army personnel, finding the entire situation hilarious, discovered a new hobby. Partaking in the amenities of the Fort Monroe Officer’s Club while writing letters and composing telegrams containing suggestions on how to free the battleship. The public also got involved and sent suggestions too. The Navy was inundated with ideas, including one from a five-year-old boy in Indiana who told them they just needed to fix the bottom of the ship so she could float again.
After numerous failed attempts using a large number of tugboats, military vessels, small explosive charges, dredging, large cables, and other methods, MISSOURI was finally refloated on February 1, 1950, during another unusually high tide. Even after the ship was freed, the jokes continued. For most of 1950, anytime an accident involved a large amount of mud, the nickname “Mo” surfaced again. A situation was a “Big Mo,” like a plane that slid off an icy runway into the mud. A car that imitated the “Big Mo” or two boats that went aground in mud off New Jersey on the same day and the efforts to free them was named “Operation Big Mo”.
So now on to April 1950, the ferryboat and a point on the Hudson River in New York. There, two cities are located across from each other on the river. Newburgh, located in Orange County, and just one and a half miles away, Beacon in Dutchess County. Both cities are about 55 miles from the New York metropolitan area. The Newburgh-Beacon Ferry system provided transport between the two cities with three commuter ferries named ORANGE, DUTCHESS, and BEACON. Usually, two of the three boats were in service at the same time, each moored at the opposite side of the river and they passed each other in the middle during their runs. The first run of the day began around 7am and it took about 15 minutes to reach the other side of the river.Read more
It began a few years ago with a handful of old, unlabeled photos. Images of workers who placed the bricks and the cinder blocks for the Museum’s walls and also installed the statues on Lions Bridge and in the Park. They were literally part of the very foundation of our Museum. Then the questions began. What were their names and their stories? Why were they so important to our Museum, but we didn’t know who they were? What we found, and are still finding, has evolved into one of the most interesting, impactful, heartbreaking, joyous, and eye opening projects we have ever worked on. A project we named “Hidden Histories.”
The earliest beginnings of the project actually started from several other initiatives. A quest to gather as much information about our Park and grounds as possible, and a look forward to our 100th Anniversary coming up in 2030. The emphasis on our Park is part of a long term project focused on issues like conservation, sustainability, ecology, preservation and the history of the area. This work has helped with the formation of our new Park Department which was announced earlier this month. The 100th Anniversary project is taking a look back at our history and also a look forward to see where we are headed in the future.
Both projects led to the discovery of photos showing the men who did the construction on our Museum and Park. As well as a number of images showing members of our Museum team dating from the 1930s and beyond. The photos are part of our Institutional Collection that documents what happens here. They include famous visitors, parties, exhibitions, large artifacts arriving, personnel photos, and just about anything else related to our day to day activities. While we knew what types of photos we would find in the collection, we didn’t anticipate finding out what we didn’t have. The men’s identities and a realization that despite our Museum’s focus on inclusion and connections within our community, we hadn’t made a connection with ourselves. In the 91 years since the first of those photos were taken, we hadn’t made a connection with the men who were the very foundation of our success. And the hard truth is that because of who they were, no one in the 1930s thought it important enough to label these images and ensure they would be known by their names and faces. The time was way overdue to correct this.Read more
Thomas Catlett Skinner’s office was a loft overlooking the dry dock at the Newport News shipyard. Frequently he would gather his tools and wander through the yard, stopping to observe and document the many scenes unfolding before him. A vat of molten steel. Red hot metal beams being bent into shape. Yards of canvas transformed into sails. The welcome respite of a lunch break. The intensity of a foreman’s face. A ship being refitted for the next voyage. Scenes that were rarely seen by anyone outside the shipyard and activities that many people never knew existed.
Skinner’s tools were paint, pencils, canvas and paper. His loft workspace shook with the unending pounding from riveting hammers and vibrations from heavy machinery. And when he set up his easel beside the piers, dry docks and workers, he was surrounded by noise and dirt and exposed to the fickleness of the weather. Yet despite the adversity, he created amazing drawings and paintings that transport the viewer back in time. His body of work contains striking, colorful images that make it easy to imagine all the noises in the shipyard, the sound and feeling of waves acting on a ship and the harsh sounds of battle. Today, as part of our 90th Anniversary celebration, we take a look at the Mariners’ Museum staff artist, Thomas Skinner, some of his work, and its importance.
The Early Years
Thomas Skinner probably never imagined that one day he would end up in a shipyard. Born in Kittawa, Kentucky in 1888, he spent most of his childhood in Waynesville, North Carolina. From an early age, he was almost always seen with a pencil and sketch pad in hand, drawing whatever caught his fancy, and his parents were very supportive. So when the time came for the family to move back to Kentucky, they probably weren’t surprised that Thomas decided he wanted to head to New York City to study art.
He arrived in New York at the right time. An informal group of artists who called themselves the Ashcan Painters or the “Ash Can School” was in its heyday. Their tongue-in-cheek name was a dig at the numerous ‘schools of art’ in New York and a description of the group’s subject matter, gritty, realistic portrayals of street life and the city’s inhabitants. Paintings that didn’t romanticize, but showed it all, the ash cans on the sidewalks, prostitutes, street urchins, mud, and even the horse dung in the streets. The work by these artists dubbed “New York Realists” and his travels in Europe to study realistic paintings by Dutch and French artists with Ash Can painter Robert Henri would highly influence Skinner’s own work.
At 26 years of age, and while in Paris in 1914, Skinner married French artist Therese Louise Desiree Tribolati. He brought her back to his home in New York City that August. He continued to work on his art during the war years, exhibiting and selling some pieces for the commercial market and magazine covers. One of his paintings, an impressionistic depiction of flags flying from the porches of a row of houses, was shown in the prestigious Allied War Exhibition in 1918. This non-juried show, which was organized by well-known art collector Duncan Phillips, didn’t offer any prize money, but being included as one of the featured artists did serve as recognition of Skinner’s talent and exposed more of his work to the public. That same year, Skinner would be called up for military duty at the end of the war. He spent his entire military career (September 1918 to March 1919) at Camp Hancock in Georgia. The camp served as an airfield and a training facility for National Guard troops before they were sent overseas. Skinner achieved the rank of private First Class but what his job entailed appears to have been lost to time, and if he spoke of his military service to friends and fellow veterans, that information apparently never made it into articles or his biographical information. After his return from service, Skinner decided to study at one of the “schools of art” in New York and attended the well-known Arts Students League from 1920-1921 and at some point he also attended the National Academy of Design.
The Shipyard Years
In 1930, Skinner was asked by his brother-in-law, Homer L. Ferguson, to move to Newport News and serve as the staff artist for the newly opened Mariners’ Museum. Ferguson, married to Skinner’s sister Eliza, was President of the Newport News Shipyard and the museum’s first Director. He tasked Skinner with creating art for the museum, while at the same time documenting the scenes at the yard. Was the job offer made because of any financial issues the Skinner’s might have been having? Was it influenced by Archer Huntington who was an avid art collector and step-son of the shipyard’s founder? That is unknown, but what did happen, whether or not it was Ferguson’s intent, was that the drawings and paintings Skinner created served to promote not only America’s industrial might, but also the prosperity of the shipyard. Both noble causes for a country in the midst of the Great Depression, citizens who were desperately looking for hope for the future and their own lives, and the local community who relied heavily on the shipyard as an employer. It is difficult to determine whether Skinner’s salary was paid by the shipyard, the museum, or both institutions, but years later his 1942 World War II draft card lists both institutions as his employers.
When he began work at the shipyard, Skinner was still finding his way artistically. His style was still evolving but it was becoming more and more influenced by what he saw around him. The grit, sounds, smells, and industrial scenes, that didn’t lend themselves to an impressionistic or romantic interpretation, began to take over, harkening back to his Ash Can School influences. The longer he would work there, the more the style took over his artistic vision.
He was not only documenting what he saw at the yard, he was also producing paintings of each type of aircraft carriers the yard built. His first and second of these paintings were of the first carrier completed, showing the USS Ranger shortly before her christening in June of 1934. Skinner created two different paintings so the Captain and Executive Officer could choose which one they wanted displayed on the ship. It took him only six weeks to do the preliminary sketches and complete both paintings, and they were stylistically very different. The one rejected by the officers had bold colors, a more industrial look and more focus on the shipyard workers and equipment in the foreground. The other was a more romantic depiction of the ship with a delicate, but still accurate view as fog partially obscuring the pier and the workers. Shipyard workers created a gold painted wooden frame for the painting that had corners carved to look like rope and the wood stamped with the Naval Aviation and Naval Observation insignia. Skinner’s ‘rejected’ painting of the Ranger was put in the museum’s collection in 1934.
It is easy to imagine Skinner developing a fondness for each of the ships as he watched them being built, launched, christened, and then sent out to sea. Possibly even feeling like he shared a small part in their creation. But during World War II, he saw some of those ships leave and never return. Skinner’s 1937 painting of the USS Yorktown shows the aircraft carrier in her full glory, plowing through the waves. The ship was lost during the Battle of Midway in 1942.
The same thing would happen to some of the workers he stood beside, spoke to, and painted. Men like him, who sometimes carried a bottle of beer to work in their lunch bag to help beat the oppressive heat in the yard. In 1947 Skinner created his Memorial Mural, a three panel, 23 foot long and 6 foot high painting dedicated to the 28 shipyard apprentices who lost their life during WWII. Battle scenes take up a large portion of the mural, but the right side depicts a soldier mourning a flag-covered coffin and the left side features a young apprentice amid his tools, holding his draft notice and looking out into the yard. The names of the 28 apprentices are included on the mural.
Although he would still do other types of work like portraits and some nursery rhyme wall murals for a children’s nursery on a passenger liner, Skinner had become known both locally and beyond as a prominent and very talented maritime artist. Locally, his works were featured in the museum, in shipyard ceremony programs and on the cover of shipyard and apprentice school publications. Nationally, they appeared in newspapers, magazine articles and books. When the museum decided to create prints of some of his paintings and drawings to sell in the gift shop, these versions of his artwork found their way around the globe and some still turn up in auctions today.
For the museum, Skinner also created a series of large, colorful murals that give an unprecedented look at the shipyard in the 1930s and its workers. The 14 paintings range between 10 and 12 feet long and slightly over 6-1/2 feet tall. The bright color and layers of paint Skinner used for texture and depth give these works a gritty and honest look, showing the sweat, straining, and the power of the shipyard and the builders. Skinner’s depiction of the shipyard’s 50,000 square foot Machine Shop shows the space full of immense tools like lathes and drill presses and boring machines. A perfect example of why the shop was considered the largest, most expensive, and best equipped shop of its kind in the country. His depiction of the shipyard foundry looks so realistic, the viewer expects to feel the heat of the molten metal being poured in the molds.
Also in the museum’s collection are 51 tiny pencil sketches on simple brown paper that Skinner may have used to experiment with potential subjects, line placements, shading and highlighting before he created the larger works. The smallest of these sketches measures about 2 inches wide and 2 inches high and the largest is about 5-1/2 inches long and 2 inches high. Despite their tiny sizes, each is meticulously executed and incredibly detailed.
Outside the Shipyard
Skinner appears to have been a modest or very private individual, or perhaps both. All accounts of him speak highly of his artistic talent and his individual works, but little else. Newspaper articles about his brother who was a local lawyer and his sister Mrs. Homer Ferguson sometimes included a few tidbits of information about him or his childhood. And occasionally there were society column briefs that stated Skinner and his wife were traveling or hosting various relatives at their home. His obituary, where one would expect to read all his accolades, was also very succinct. And no information could be found that stated how long he worked at the yard. But it does appear that Skinner was actively painting right up until his death in 1955 at the age of 66.
Perhaps it is more fitting that Skinner’s works are his accolades and speak for him. That they describe him best. The individual brushstrokes and the pencil lines that offer a view through his eyes of a shipyard, men, and wartime loss. The areas on his paintings where he put thick layers of paint to suggest a weathered beam or worn wood. The grit, the sounds and the smells in our imaginations, and the ships. The museum’s first, and only, staff artist during our 90 year history left an incredible legacy that has been enjoyed since we opened and will continue be enjoyed and appreciated by researchers and visitors far into the future. A legacy that allows us to celebrate our shipbuilding past and the shipbuilders that made it possible.
Thank you for being part of our 90 years and thanks for reading.
A lot of the research that is done to create an exhibit never makes it into the final product that visitors see in the museum. The research eventually gets whittled down and fine-tuned until final decisions are made on the subject matter, story lines, artifacts, text and labels. Many times the finished exhibit has very little in common with the original idea. So what happens to all that beautiful research that didn’t end up being used? It is saved in digital and paper files that are used to answer inquiries, create educational events and presentations, and as a starting point for other possible exhibits. And in the case of our Toys Ahoy: A Maritime Childhood exhibit, the research files provides some great content for a blog post.
Initially some of the exhibit research looked for toys that were, or might have been, used on ships. As it turns out, Slinkys have ended up on military ships, private yachts and possibly even in the children’s nurseries on cruise ships. And the Slinky has another surprising maritime connection.
The idea for the Slinky toy began in 1943 when a mechanical engineer named Richard James was experimenting with springs. His goal was to find a way to stabilize and protect the delicate equipment on Navy ships from the rocking of the waves. One day he accidentally knocked one of his samples off a table and was surprised to see that the springs “walked” to the floor instead of falling. He may not have been too impressed, but when he told his wife Betty about the incident, they decided that the springs would make a great novelty toy. Which was a good idea because Richard’s experiments using springs to stabilize ship instruments failed to produce the results he wanted.
Richard experimented with different types of steel wire for about a year before he determined the perfect size, number of coils and how tightly they should be wound. He invented a device that could make one of the toys in just a few minutes and Betty consulted her dictionary to find the perfect name for their invention. She decided to call the toy a “Slinky” because it was graceful and sleek.
In 1945, they got a $500 loan and co-founded James Industries to mass produce the toys, but initial sales were slow. Their breakthrough came at Christmas that year after the couple got permission to demonstrate their Slinks on the end of a sales counter at Gimbal’s Department Store in Philadelphia. The Slinkys sold for $1 each and their entire stock of 400 toys sold out within 90 minutes.
Their business flourished, but by the 1950s Richard was somewhat uncomfortable with the material success they had achieved. As time went on, Richard gradually lost interest in the business, and in 1960 he turned his attention to a religious cult in Bolivia and then left to join them. Years later, Betty would report that at the time Richard left, their business was a mess and they were on the verge of bankruptcy because Richard had given so much of his time and their money to the religion. In order to support her family, Betty had to become the driving force behind James Industries.
After several tough years, Betty decided to take a big risk in 1963, mortgaging their home and taking the Slinky to a toy show in New York to help revitalize her business. Her gamble paid off, renewing interest in the Slinky, and leading to the first TV commercials with the catch jingle “It’s Slinky, It’s Slinky. For fun, it’s a wonderful toy. It’s Slinky, It’s Slinky. It’s fun for a girl and a boy.” Under Betty’s leadership, James Industries also created other Slinky toys including the Slinky Train and the now famous Toy Story movie character Slinky Dog.
Since 1945, over 400 million Slinkys have been sold. Not only have they been to sea, they have been used as classroom teaching tools, in Physics experiments by NASA, and on radios during the Vietnam War because they were easily carried and could be tossed over tree branches, creating a longer antenna capable of producing a clear signal. And in 1985, a Slinky even took a trip into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery where astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon demonstrated the effects of zero gravity on the Slinky. As Dr. Seddon reported, Slinkys don’t “slink” in zero gravity.
And in case you wondered, the plastic version of the slinky was also originally a failed experiment for another product. It was invented by Donald Reum while trying to develop a spiral hose for watering plants. His kids pointed out the result looked more like a plastic Slinky than a hose. Reum agreed, so he perfected his prototype design, took it to Betty James and ended up manufacturing the plastic Slinkys for James Industries for a few years.
While we don’t have a Slinky in our museum collection, we all have a shared connection with the toy. Because the Slinky has a connection to the water, and we are all connected to each other because we are all connected to the water, those of us who have played with Slinkys over the years are all connected, too. #iamaMariner