Remembering Chris-Craft of Chattanooga

Tuesday, October 17, 2006 - by Harmon Jolley

For much of its history, the Tennessee River was the problem child of navigation. The strong currents of late winter and spring floods were frequently followed by long, hot summers of drought. The river was sometimes so shallow that one could easily walk across it in some places.

The advent of TVA’s reservoirs in the 1930’s provided the benefit of sufficient water in the river channel year-round. Post-WWII prosperity allowed pleasure boating to become popular on what were sometimes called “The Great Lakes of the South.” In 1947, boats made at a new Chris-Craft plant in Chattanooga began to be seen on area lakes.

According to the Chris-Craft corporate Web site (www.chriscraftboats.com), the company began in Algonac, Michigan where founder Christopher Columbus Smith lived. There, at the age of 13, Chris Smith used his woodworking skills to build his first boat for duck hunting in 1874. As contemporaries of Henry Ford, Chris and his brother Hank began mass-production of speed boats in the early 1900’s.

The Chris-Craft Corporation later opened plants in Holland and Cadillac, Michigan, Jamestown, New York, and Carothersville, Missouri. After World War II, factory representatives scouted a vacant factory of the Richmond Spinning Mills on Dodds Avenue at 33rd Street in Chattanooga. The building soon became the southern branch of Chris-Craft.

On June 4, 1947, the Chattanooga factory’s first effort, a 23-foot express cruiser, was delivered to Dr. T. C. Crowell of Chattanooga. The Chattanooga Times reported on June 5 that the boat was carried on a truck trailer to the TVA Public Use Terminal, where it was lowered into the water by an electric crane.

Dr. Crowell then navigated up river to his cabin and boat garage on Chickamauga Lake. The Chris-Craft express cruiser was powered by a 92-horsepower Chrysler marine engine, with a top speed of 26 miles per hour.

Chris-Craft joined a lengthy list of Chattanooga manufacturers, and became a fixture of the East Lake community. Many skilled craftsmen were employed in the making of boats, each of which used a variety of woods and thousands of fasteners. J.C. Lamb, who was plant manager from 1950 to 1975, recalled that the plant's workers came from as far away as Sand Mountain.

By 1960, the factory employed 425 persons who produced up to 28 boats per week. The Chattanooga Times of June 16, 1960 reported plans for a $350,000 addition to the Dodds Avenue plant. By this time, Chris-Craft had moved its headquarters to Pompano Beach, Florida. Bill Penney’s Tire and Marine was the exclusive local dealer for Chris-Craft.

In 1967, Chris-Craft expanded its fiber glass boat production here, and by 1971, was manufacturing the 31-foot Catalina. Seating up to eleven, the Catalina had twin engines and was offered with a variety of options including air conditioning and ship-to-shore phones.

Economic conditions of the early 1970’s forced Chris-Craft to make organizational changes. On October 24, 1975, the Chattanooga Times carried the announcement by Chris-Craft that the Chattanooga plant would be “mothballed,” with production transferred to the company’s Holland, Michigan plant. Employment had been steadily reduced in Chattanooga during its final production season, going from a peak of 375 to 80.

Chris-Craft of Chattanooga was never removed from mothballed status. The familiar sight of seeing boats leaving the plant on Dodds Avenue became a memory. Today, a local warehousing firm occupies the former boat factory.

The historic photographs of Chris-Craft Corporation are archived at the Mariners’ Museum (www.mariner.org) in Newport News, Virginia. I wish to thank the museum staff for researching the collection to find photographs of the Chattanooga factory. Those are the black-and-white photos shown in the photo gallery following this article.

If you have memories of Chris-Craft of Chattanooga, or you have photos of a boat that was made here, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.



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