Remembering Lake George Racer, Boat Builder Bill Morgan
Bill Morgan, the individual most responsible for reviving wooden speedboat building in North America, died in Glens Falls on February 21. He was 84.
Best known for re-animating the Hacker-Craft brand, whose boats he manufactured in Silver Bay, Morgan also restored or built replicas of more than twenty Gold Cup racers of the 1930s, including “Happy Times,” a replica of George Reis’s El Lagarto.
“Those beautiful, slender race boats were in my background long enough to make an impression,” Morgan once told the Mirror.
Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Morgan spent his summers on Lake George, where he was able to view the Gold Cup races of the 1930s from his front yard.
“He was always interested in engines; that’s all he ever talked about,” recalled Jane Kiernan Gabriels, a friend of Morgan’s since their summers as children on Lake George.
(Apparently, Bill had no interest in joining the family business, Morgan Lithograph Co., which was founded in 1864. By the 1920s, the company was the nation’s foremost printer of movie posters.)
George Reis, whose El Lagarto had brought the races to Lake George in 1934, was a friend of Morgan’s family, and “his stories furthered my interest,” Morgan said in 2000.
After attending Williams College (where, according to Gabriels, he was a champion swimmer) and serving in the Navy, Morgan himself became a racer, competing in Gold Cup, President’s and National Sweepstakes races, as well as in the Silver Cup, Canadian National and in a World Championship, compiling an impressive record of victories.
After building his own inboard racing boats, Morgan said in 2000, “I got to the point where I wanted to build replicas of boats that were no longer around.”
El Lagarto was donated to the Adirondack Museum in 1969, and after several trips to the museum to take measurements, Morgan completed Happy Times in 1971.
“El Lagarto was the best Gold Cup boat in its time, and Happy Times is its duplicate,” Morgan told the Mirror in 1971. “Like El Lagarto, my boat with the five steps has the same distinctive leap which enabled the original to clear itself from the water and run a little faster than its competition.”
Asked by the Mirror if he intended to enter Happy Times in races, Morgan replied, “No, but I’ll let her out and just see who we pass.”
Morgan went on to build “ten or twelve replicas – one each of the nicest boats,” he said.
That number includes Delphine IV, a replica of the 1932 Gold Cup winner designed by George Crouch for Horace Dodge, and Hotsy Totsy, a replica of the Purdy-built two-time Gold Cup.
Morgan also bought and restored the Californian, which competed in the Gold Cup races of 1930, 31 and 32; Miss Detroit VII, a Gar Wood boat which won the 150 mile Sweepstakes in 1924 and 1925; Miss Los Angeles, which competed in the 1929 Gold Cup races; and Miss Canada III, which competed in the 1939 Gold Cup Race.
“It would have been a crime to let them go,” Morgan said. “They are a part of our history… the Californian was in rough shape. Canada III-we rescued her days before she was about to be bulldozed. She was stripped of her deck for use as a fishing boat. Detroit VII was a basket case.”
Morgan’s replicas and restorations took first place awards in nearly every antique and classic boat show in the Northeast.
He donated his personal collection of Gold Cup raceboats – as well as a rare 1923 Gold Cup Packard engine and volumes of archival material about the boats – to the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York.
In the 1980s, Morgan assisted the Wolgin family, which had recently acquired the Sagamore hotel, with the construction of an excursion boat.
“Bill was a friend, so we went to him for advice, and he became the project’s shepard,” said Ike Wolgin.
The 70-ft boat, which was built on Green Island, was launched in 1985. At the suggestion of Marian Wolgin, the boat was named “The Morgan,” in honor of Bill.
In 2004, Morgan made arrangements to sell Hacker-craft and his Silver Bay boat yard to another former speedboat racer, Lynn Wagemann.
The company was purchased in 2011 by investor George Badcock, who became the company’s president.
“We at the Hacker Boat Company would not have the honor today of building Hacker-Craft without Bill,” said Badcock. “Everyone at the Hacker Boat Company has a responsibility to keep the Hacker-Craft brand vibrant as a testament and memorial to Bill’s life’s work.”
Morgan was married to Jean Eckert of Albany, New York and later to the late Patricia Robinson of Marblehead, Massachusetts. There were no children from either marriage.
He is survived by his sister, Mary Burry of Cleveland, and two nieces, Marilyn Hitchcock of Chagrin Falls, Ohio and Susan Phillips of Williamsburg, Virginia.
Morgan was a member of the Lake George Club, the Fort Orange Club and a Director of the Antique and Classic Boat Society (International).
“With his passing, Bill Morgan leaves behind a multitude of friends and fans who honor and revere his many and diverse lasting contributions to boating, especially wooden boating and racing, on a level of excellence which may never again be equaled, much less surpassed,” attorney David Morris said in a statement announcing Morgan’s death.
Memorial services are scheduled for late May or early June.