The Saga Of Jack Beebe
The history of Unlimited hydroplane racing is filled with the championship exploits of many famous participants.
These include the likes of Gar Wood, George Reis, Guy Lombardo, Ted Jones, Danny Foster, Bill Muncey, and Chip Hanauer.
But there is one important name largely overlooked in the official histories of the sport: Jack Beebe, a major player in hydroplane racing around the time of World War I.
Mr. Beebe was associated with such prominent boats as Baby Speed Demon II, the original Gold Cup-winning Miss Detroit, Baby Marold, and Whip-Po’ Will, Jr., the first 70-mile-an-hour racing craft.
Jack is best remembered for his relief driving stint aboard Miss Detroit in the 1915 APBA Gold Cup. That’s when Beebe took over the wheel midway through Heat One when the driver (Johnny Milot) was too seasick to continue.
But there is much more to the story than that.
John B. “Jack” Beebe was born in 1875 in Sacketts Harbor, New York. Members of his family had made their living building ships since the War of 1812. Jack worked in the marine industry all his life. He passed away in 1953 at age 78, his accomplishments largely unknown outside of his immediate family.
As a boy, Jack moved to Marine City, Michigan, where he worked in the shipyards. By his fifteenth birthday, young Jack was in charge of the Holland Shipyard.
He later moved to St. Clair, Michigan, where he built engines for boats.
Beebe’s racing career began when he was hired by Christopher Columbus Smith of Chris-Craft fame in Algonac, Michigan. Smith put Jack to work designing and building high-speed hydroplanes.
Despite the handicap of only having a third-grade education, Jack was a recognized genius when it came to power boats. And so was his brother, Martin Beebe, who was Jack’s frequent collaborator.
As Chris Smith’s employee, Jack was responsible for extensively modifying the Sterling engines used in the Smith racing boats. Beebe would disassemble each one, lighten its connecting rods and pistons, and substitute lighter brass parts for cast iron whenever possible.
Jack’s skill with engines landed him the riding mechanic’s role in Baby Speed Demon II, which Beebe had designed, at the 1914 APBA Gold Cup at Lake George, New York.
Beebe and driver Bob Edgren finished second in Heat One and then went on to win the next two heats by a wide margin. Baby Speed Demon II also set a Gold Cup record of 48.458 miles per hour for the 90-mile/three-heat distance.
That same year, Beebe and Edgren were competing in a race at Buffalo, New York. They were in the lead when the hand pump that pressurized the Baby Speed Demon II’s fuel system failed. Bob kept driving at full throttle, hoping to cover as much distance as possible before the engine conked out from fuel starvation.
Glancing to his left, Edgren observed Jack whittling something with a knife as the Demon II leaped over the waves at 50 miles per hour. Beebe whittled a washer for the air pump, disassembled the failed unit, and re-assembled it. Baby Speed Demon II had fuel pressure once again. Jack and Bob went on to win the race at 50.240 miles per hour for 35 miles.
Edgren, a prominent New York newspaper writer of that era had the highest respect for his co-pilot’s competitive prowess. “There isn’t another man in the country who can rival Jack Beebe at either designing or running racing boats,” Edgren editorialized in The New York Evening World.
Baby Speed Demon II benefited from a number of unique design features. Gone were the traditional round bilges typical of that era. In their place were hard chines. The step was shallower and placed further aft while the after-section of the bottom was absolutely flat. The Demon II utilized a bow rudder of the type pioneered by John Hacker’s Gretchen hydroplane.
Beebe came up with another winner in 1915. This was the Miss Detroit, a single-step hydroplane, powered by a 250-horsepower Sterling engine. Miss Detroit was an early example of a community-owned racing boat, much like the Miss Madison of the modern era.
It was Chris Smith’s idea of building a racing boat for Detroit and raising money for it by public subscription. Smith persuaded 260 of the Motor City’s leading citizens to help finance the project.
Prior to 1915, Detroit had never hosted a boat race of any importance. The sport was largely unknown in that part of the country. During the early years of the 20th Century, the Eastern Seaboard--and specifically Upstate New York--had been the hotbed of power boat racing activity.
Then as now, the APBA Gold Cup was the top boat racing prize in the United States. When Miss Detroit showed up for the 1915 renewal at Port Washington, Manhasset Bay, New Yorkers were caught by surprise by this unheralded entry from “Out West.”
For days prior to the August 14 race, the news media paid scant attention to Miss Detroit. The talk centered on J. Stuart Blackton’s defending champion Baby Speed Demon II and Baby Reliance V, Charles Chesebrough’s Tiddledy Wink, Carl Fisher’s Presto, Coleman DuPont’s Tech, Jr., Casimir Mankowski’s Ankle Deep Too, and Graham Miles’s PDQ VI.
And yet Miss Detroit was the only boat that managed to complete all three Gold Cup heats free of mechanical difficulty. Everyone else fell by the wayside.
In the words of Motorboat Magazine, “The Gold Cup was a cup of woe for twelve-thirteenths of the entrants. Never was a golden chance more badly fumbled. Never did a boat deserve to win as did Miss Detroit, which ran like clockwork. She triumphed where others succumbed. Miss Detroit’s speed was not amazing, but good Lord, she was consistent!”
But all of this almost didn’t happen, inasmuch as Miss Detroit’s debut was nearly an unmitigated disaster.
Scheduled to pilot the Motor City entry in the big race on the bay was a distinguished Detroit yachtsman who shall remain forever nameless. Five minutes before the starting gun, Miss Detroit’s driver couldn’t be found!
Some have speculated that it may have been a case of “The Night Before The Battle” or a last-minute indisposition. Whatever the explanation, Miss Detroit’s Gold Cup chances for 1915 appeared to have evaporated.
The assembled Detroit delegation was panic-stricken. “Can anybody here drive a boat?” A freckle-faced kid from Algonac, named Johnny Milot, stepped forward and affirmed that he could.
For Milot, it was a classic case of the right man being in the right place at the right time. Milot was a Detroit real estate salesman who had handled Miss Detroit a few times in testing and was there at Manhasset Bay as a mechanic’s helper.
Seeing no other alternative, the crew gave Milot the go-ahead. Johnny did not have time to put on any protective gear. He just jumped into the cockpit beside throttleman Jack Beebe and headed for the race course.
Being unfamiliar with the course layout and having never before driven in competition, Milot followed the other boats around the buoys for the first few laps. Then Beebe pulled out the throttle, and they started gaining on the field.
Miss Detroit caught up with the leader, Baby Reliance V, at the beginning of lap three and went on to win the heat. Milot and Beebe averaged 42.174 miles per hour to 41.832 for Baby Speed Demon II and 39.914 for Baby Reliance V.
The water was awfully rough and Milot endured a terrific pounding. He also became dazed from inhaling the engine exhaust. By the end of the heat, Beebe was driving, while at the same time operating the engine and holding Milot in the boat.
So confused was the situation that Miss Detroit, Baby Speed Demon II, and Presto kept racing and completed two additional laps of the 5-mile triangular course. When Miss Detroit finally pulled back into the pits, someone yelled, “Why didn’t you stop? You won the race long ago.”
Beebe yelled back, “We forgot to count the laps.”
Heats Two and Three were almost anti-climactic. Milot and Beebe won them with ease.
Someone asked Milot, “How did you dare to cut the corners so close?”
Milot answered, “Jack did that. He slowed her down and I just sent her around. That’s all there was to it.”
By virtue of having won the race, the Miss Detroit Power Boat Association had earned the right to defend the 1916 Gold Cup on home waters. Up until this time, the Gold Cup had been strictly a New York state phenomenon.
As a result of winning the APBA’s Crown Jewel, a Detroit racing dynasty had begun. And no one had made more of an impact on the establishment of that dynasty from a mechanical standpoint than Jack Beebe.
In the years that followed, Detroit would displace New York as the Boat Racing Capital of North America. The 1915 Gold Cup was the start of a competitive tradition that continues to this day.
The impact of Miss Detroit’s victory on Gold Cup history can be compared to Slo-Mo-Shun IV’s triumph 35 years later in 1950. Slo-Mo, which represented Seattle, Washington, was another denizen of the hydroplane hinterlands that challenged--and defeated--the eastern establishment. Slo-Mo-Shun IV, just like Miss Detroit, opened up new territory for Unlimited Class racing.
The major Beebe project for 1916 was the design and construction of Baby Marold for owner C. Harold Wills. Martin and Jack Beebe left Chris Smith’s company and built Baby Marold in the second-floor shop of the McLouth Shipyards in Marine City.
Martin and Jack co-designed the boat. And Jack installed a huge modified Van Blerck engine, rated at 500 horsepower. (The Van Blerck was an “in-line” 12-cylinder power plant--a marine engine intended for racing but extremely heavy for its day. The Van Blerck faded quickly from competition venues and was promptly replaced by the Sterling, a modified “aero” engine.)
Baby Marold measured 28 feet in length with a 7-foot beam. Johnny Milot was selected as the driver. The boat proved to be very fast. But Baby Marold’s racing career was doomed to be both brief and tragic.
A field of six challengers answered the starting gun for Heat One of the 1916 Gold Cup on the Detroit River. Baby Marold briefly challenged the front-running Miss Minneapolis, but then trouble developed.
Due to the excessive heat, some of the spark plugs had melted, causing backfire, which blew out the air valves in the carburetors. Milot and Beebe faded from second-place to fifth but still managed to finish.
In Heat Two, Baby Marold was late in starting. But she caught up with the field in short order and was once again challenging Miss Minneapolis. Then disaster struck.
A fuel line broke, pouring gas into the bilge. Then the tank exploded, blowing Johnny Milot out of the boat and into the water. In an instant, Baby Marold was a raging inferno from bow to stern.
The unflappable Jack Beebe threw out the clutch and steered the still-burning craft toward shore to get her out of the way of the other boats. Jack then closed the fuel supply, shutting off the engine, and jumped overboard.
Firemen were unable to put out the blaze. So, by using pike poles, they drove holes in the boat, causing Baby Marold to sink. That finally extinguished the flames. But the boat was a total loss.
Unfortunately, the tragedy of Baby Marold wasn’t over yet. The next day, a crew member, Edward Lindow, was salvaging the remains from the gutted hulk at the owner’s boathouse. He disconnected the battery and a spark ignited the remaining gasoline. Lindow was knocked into the water by the resulting explosion.
Firefighters called to the scene did not notice Ed’s absence. Unable to swim, Lindow drowned a few feet from the burning wreck that he had helped to build.
Baby Marold was definitely a bad luck boat for a number of people associated with it. Three years later, driver Milot died unexpectedly in a Detroit hospital when he went into shock following a minor operation.
Despite the destruction of Baby Marold and the fatality of Ed Lindow, Jack Beebe continued in boat racing. His next project, Whip-Po’ Will, Jr., was arguably his best.
The WHIP was patterned after Baby Marold and likewise used a 12-cylinder Van Blerck. Her owner was Albert Judson, who was the current President of the APBA at the time. The driver was George Reis, who achieved fame in the 1930s with his own El Lagarto.
After missing the 1917 Gold Cup race due to mechanical difficulties, Whip-Po’ Will, Jr. became the first official 70-mile-an-hour boat in November of that year on Lake George, New York.
The WHIP was timed for one pass through the one-mile speed trap at 70.150 miles per hour with an overall average for two runs in opposite directions of 69.390.
The 1918 Gold Cup at Detroit saw Whip-Po’ Will, Jr. take an overall second-place to arch-rival Gar Wood’s Miss Detroit III. In winning the Final Heat, the Whip posted the fastest heat of the race with an average of 53.576 to Miss Detroit III’s 50.624.
Wood was really on a roll in 1918. Between 1917 and 1921, “King Gar” was undefeated in Gold Cup competition. He won five races and finished first in 12 out of 15 heats entered. Only three times did rival teams ever finish ahead of Gar Wood in a heat of the Gold Cup during those five pinnacle years. Whip-Po’ Will, Jr. was one of these three.
Other triumphs for Whip-Po’ Will, Jr. included victories in the Canadian International Gold Challenge Trophy and the Great Lakes International Cup, both in 1918.
For Jack Beebe, the success of Whip-Po’ Will, Jr. signaled his last hurrah as a boat racer. He retired from the sport shortly thereafter.
In the 1920s, Jack worked at Willis St. Clair, Inc., as chief engineer, designing automobile engines until the plant closed in 1925. He then went back to work for Chris Smith and designed the first V-8 marine engine for him.
Beebe lent his considerable mechanical skills to the war effort during both World War I and World War II.
During World War I, Jack worked for Charles Kettering on the first guided missile and was successful in getting such planes into the air, carried by “mother” ships.
And during WWII, Beebe designed boats for the Canadian government, making his headquarters in Sarnia, Ontario.
Jack retained his keen interest in watercraft until his death. Prior to suffering a stroke in 1951, Beebe occupied his time building sail and fishing boats as a hobby.
Very few of the boat racers from the early 20th Century are remembered today. Gar Wood and George Reis aside, they are all largely forgotten. But it was that first generation of aquatic pioneers--Jack Beebe prominent among them--that charted the course followed by hydroplane competitors to this very day.
John B. “Jack” Beebe deserves to be remembered.