Historically Speaking: Brooklyn, Boats & Hemingway
By John B. Manbeck
A Brooklyn Historian
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Naturally, Brooklyn has been known for its boat building skills. In 1800, John Jackson purchased land in the area we now call Vinegar Hill and opened a shipbuilding enterprise. The United States government thought this was such a good idea that they purchased land from Jackson and established the New York Naval Shipyard, colloquially known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Since we live on a peninsula, others thought this was a good idea, so shipping and shipbuilding grew along the East River coast in Greenpoint, in Red Hook and the Atlantic Basin, and in Coney Island. In Gravesend Bay, the most famous shipbuilding company was the Wheeler Shipbuilding Corporation, a collection of wooden sheds at the foot of Cropsey Avenue in Coney Island Creek founded by Howard Wheeler — a Bensonhurst resident — in 1910. A second Wheeler yard was opened on the East River at Whitestone, N.Y.
Focus on this business has re-surfaced because it is mentioned in the new book, Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson (Knopf). It seemed that in 1934 Ernest Hemingway commissioned Wheeler Yachts, the Cadillac of yacht builders, to build a 34-foot yacht, the Pilar, which he sailed to Cuba and used for fishing expeditions as well as for inspiration for his novels, To Have and Have Not and The Old Man and the Sea. Pictures of Hemingway on the boat with his catches appeared on the covers and inside the pages of Time and Life magazines.