BOYS WILL HAVE their toys, and the boys of the Gilded Age were no different. Only, their toys were behemoths, and cost a small fortune.
The captains of America’s Industrial Age poured as much money into their toys as they did into their “castles.” No one single toy exemplified the era’s “keeping up with the Jones'” spirit of ostentation than their yachts. In this, as in their homes, bigger was better.
Not much is known about these giant “floating mansions.” The family pictures of outings and excursions of the most notable Gilded Age capitalists are just now seeing their way into archival libraries, where they are being made available to experts and authors for research.
Ross MacTaggart, author of The Golden Century – Classic Motor Yachts, 1880-1930, and Millionaires, Mansions and Motor Yachts – An Era of Opulence, is one such expert. Both of these volumes, classic coffee table picture books with researched commentary, provide an insight into the world of lavish lifestyles of the late Victorian era.
Built for ocean going excursions to Europe and other continents, as well as coastal entertainment jaunts, these vessels contained all the luxuries of home—a very rich man’s home. Ice rooms, hot and cold running water, tiled baths and mahogany paneling, soft, sumptuous upholstered furniture, and electric lights were commonplace. After all, these families wouldn’t think of going abroad on a scheduled steamer of the day.
Jay Gould’s Atalanta (Library of Congress photo)
One of the most famous ships, and most opulent, was the Atalanta, owned by Jay Gould, rail and Western Union magnate. Built in 1883, the 235-foot, 3-masted steam yacht boasted a crew of 52, including three cooks and six servants. MacTaggart writes, “Blessed with a long life, Atalanta was eventually sold to the Venezuelan Navy until dropped from Jane’s (Fighting Ships reference book) in 1950, ancient at sixty-seven.”
Many of these super yachts of the era ended up as war vessels for the U.S. during the Spanish-American War and WWI, or sold as warships to other countries.
In 1886, the even longer 285-foot luxury steam yacht Alva was launched. Owned by Alva and William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of transportation tycoon Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the original Alva outstripped Gould’s Atalanta, J.P. Morgan’s Corsair II (233 feet), and William Astor’s Nourmahal (233 feet), according to Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, author of Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and a Daughter in the Gilded Age.
William K. Vanderbilt’s Alva (Library of Congress photo)
The yacht had “a piano, a library with a fireplace, seven guestrooms and a 10-room suite for the Vanderbilts,” and quarters for a crew of fifty three. In 1892, the yacht sank in a collision off the coast of Massachusetts on the way from Bar Harbor, Maine to Newport, Rhode Island.
I’ve often wondered what taking an ocean voyage on one of these ships might have been like. Oh, I’ve cruised before, but cruise ships are nothing like these private luxury yachts.
Unfortunately, my own boating experience is limited to small outboard motor boats of childhood fishing trips, a few fishing excursions on Lake Michigan, and an occasional Sunday afternoon trip off Chicago’s lake shore aboard the single-masted sailboat of a friend.
Despite the ups and downs of the economy over the years, the luxury yacht business is alive and well today among the nation’s wealthy. One summer, while ending a Sunday afternoon sail, we discovered the luxury yacht of Wayne Huizenga, founder of Waste Management and Blockbuster, taking up the entire main dock of the Chicago Yacht Club. And last winter, my husband and I had a bird’s eye view of many other luxury yachts making their way through the channel between Palm Beach Island and Singer Island.
Sailing in one of the Gilded Age’s “floating mansions” is a major part of my new book, The Captain’s Temptress set in 1895. My hero, Sean Nolan, is the wealthy heir to a shipping empire, which is about to collapse financially. He accepts a lucrative, but illegal, contract to bring guns and other war contraband to Cuba aboard the family’s yacht, the Raven, in exchange for cash.
James Gordon Bennett’s Namouna
I’ve based the Raven, loosely on the Namouna, a 227- foot steam yacht owned by James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, and son of the newspaper’s founder, James Gordon Bennett, Sr. Gordon Bennett, as James Gordon Bennett, Jr. called himself to avoid confusion, lived in France and used the posh Namouna for entertaining in European waters. The ship was sold in 1900 to the Columbian Navy and replaced by an even larger yacht.
Since there were few descriptions of the Namoura’s interior beyond line drawings, I drew inspiration from the photos of other ships in MacTaggart’s books, and the descriptions of the Raven in my book are the result.
For more information about The Captain’s Temptress a steamy historical romance novel available now on Amazon, click here.