She has led the kind of life that novels are based on. She traveled with millionaires on the Hudson River and Long Island Sound in the 1920s. She toured with a floating theatre group that brought a hint of culture and revelry to desolate river towns far removed from highways and railroad lines.
She is rumored to be witness to a murder and she mysteriously fell off the radar for decades, only to be discovered in the 1980s living a hobo’s existence.
That’s where, thanks to a kind benefactor, she went from homeless to regaining her past luster and glory. And to be clear, we’re talking about an antique motor boat yacht, not a movie star or a heroine in a bestselling book, although she’d do well as both.
“When Crescent built Palmetto Bluff in 2003, they were looking for a period piece, a flagship that would truly tie together the property and the town, Wilson Village,” said Chris Story, manager of the Bluff’s Wilson Landing Marina. “The boat was at another resort, but we knew we had to have her.”
Soon after Crescent Communities purchased the yacht, named the Zapala, she was rechristened as the M/V Grace, named after the sister of one the property’s early 20th century owners. Story and his crew of captains have been her stewards for the last decade and the Grace became a beloved member of the Bluff family. She took tour groups along the May River and hosted countless parties and weddings.
But by 2013, in the midst of her rebirth, she could no longer outrun Father Time.
“It’s an amazingly sturdy vessel, but even the strongest wooden boats are hit hard by the saltwater,” Story said. “The U.S. Coast Guard came in and said the Grace needed a lot of work to get back on the water. The keel, the keelson, the ribs, the planking – it was all deteriorating.”
Story and his team discovered that the Grace was just one of five known operational pre-World War I vessels left in the United States, and because the Bluff was not going to be the party that ended her run, they undertook what seemed to be an intricate yet fairly simple restoration. In early December 2014, the Grace travelled up the Intracoastal Waterway to Beaufort, N.C., for a three-month-long facelift.
But alas, nothing about the Grace has ever been simple. Once you know her history, it makes perfect sense that her renovation would itself become yet another suspenseful and complicated chapter of her story.
Late 19th century New York was filled with innovation, largess and decadence. Thriving businessmen formed a cultural elite in what was becoming one of the economic hubs of the country.
And among the high society, Grace Wilson became legendary. The daughter of the prominent and wealthy banker Richard Thornton Wilson, Sr. was a popular socialite. “All of our research shows she definitely enjoyed the lifestyle her father had provided,” Story said.
That all changed when she met Cornelius “Neily” Vanderbilt, son of Cornelius II and became a part of one of the most celebrated and notable families in U.S. history. Despite Neily’s affection for Grace, his high-society parents did not approve of Grace, seeing her as nothing more than a social climber. The courtship led to a disagreement between father and son that lasted decades.
Neily and Grace eloped in 1896 and became a formidable duo despite their black sheep status in the Vanderbilt family. They traveled the world, becoming close friends with members of European royalty and especially the British monarchy. The pair eventually returned to New York, where Neily eventually achieved a lukewarm reconciliation with his family and Grace was finally accepted as a Vanderbilt.
Historians of early 20th century New York say Grace’s parties were extravagant as well as popular When the Vanderbilt family patriarch died, Neily discovered his inheritance had been cut to a paltry $1.5 million. His brother Alfred, heir to the estate, later upped that total to $6 million.
With their deep pockets Neily and Grace became leaders of society both in New York and in the yachting circles of Newport, Rhode Island, but Neily eventually died of a brain hemorrhage aboard his yacht in Miami in 1942. Grace outlasted him by 11 years, dying of pneumonia in 1953.
Joseph B. Cousins, Esq. ran in the same circles as Grace and Neily. The millionaire lawyer was a member of the Manhasset Bay Yacht Club and needed a commuter boat to go back and forth from Long Island to the city. He commissioned the New York Yacht, Launch and Engine Company of Morris Heights, N.Y. to build a 60-foot-long vessel in 1913.
The boat was outfitted in rich mahogany and offered unusually roomy accommodations for her size to meet Cousins’ needs. The engine room and crew’s quarters were built well forward. The galley was built aft of the engine room and extends the full length of the boat. The main saloon was the spacious centerpiece of the yacht, built with a large folding table for sizeable gatherings.
In the peacetime years before and after World War I, Cousins used the vessel both to travel to business in New York and to host family parties in Long Island Sound.
But as Cousins’ fortunes grew, he wanted a larger boat and he sold the boat to an entrepreneurial trapeze artist named James Adams and the sailing beauty was sprung from the New York waters for her next adventure.
Adams and his wife and fellow circus trapeze star, Gertie, had a dream to take their performing skills from land to sea. They scraped together $8,941 to have a Washington boat builder cobble together a 128-foot-long, two-story barge he would transform into a 700-seat floating theater.
For nearly three decades, the James Adams Floating Theatre traversed the waterways of Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia. Adams hired family to run the business side of the circus, and along with his sister, Beulah, and her husband, Charlie Hunter, they assembled a troupe filled with Midwestern and Western stage performers. Adams stayed away from Broadway veterans, fearing they would look down upon their Mid-Atlantic and Southern audience and boast of how everything was classier and better in the big city.
The actors lived aboard the barge while Adams and his brood took up residence on the Sispud II. For 28 seasons, the floating theatre made its way into nooks of civilization along the riverbanks that industrial progress had overlooked. The actors became beloved for bringing culture to towns that revolved around fisheries.
Among the most famous performers of the James Adams Floating Theatre was Edna Ferber, a celebrated author herself who became enamored with the floating theatre in the mid-1920s. She spent many nights aboard the Sispud II hosted by Adams, and her time with the company became the basis for her award-winning novel “Showboat.” The book engendered the Broadway musical of the same name, one of the most beloved Broadway shows of all time.
Adams and his crew carried the shows along the coast, staying a week at a time in a coastal docking. After nearly sinking in November 1929, the theatre barge and the Sispud II were sold to Nina Howard. She continued to run the company into the 1930s, as the shows became a welcome respite during the Great Depression before an accident crippled the barge in 1938 and a fire sank it for good in Savannah, Ga., in 1941.
That’s where the history of the Bluff’s beloved river queen gets a bit murky. It is assumed that after running alongside the floating theater, the Sispud II survived the Savannah fire and moved from owner to owner for decades. The boat’s whereabouts for the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s are largely a mystery.
Story said he and his crew have uncovered a few sordid tales that piece together some of the years, including one rumor of an epic crime onboard.
“We saw newspaper reports and police reports that a husband had murdered his wife aboard a vessel that fit the description of the Sispud II,” Story said. “The husband apparently committed the crime onboard, wiped the planks clean of blood and dragged his wife off the boat into a house where the body was discovered. This long before ‘CSI’-type forensics, so the ship’s interior must have been tossed upside down looking for evidence.”
In 1990, yachting enthusiast and shipbuilder Earl McMillen discovered her in disrepair and out of the water, lying on the grounds of a boatyard in Thunderbolt, Ga. The boat reported served as a non-floating residence for staff at the boatyard for years.
McMillen and a group of antique yacht lovers relocated the vessel to Fairhaven, Mass., where an eight-month resuscitation began. The boat was taken apart plank by plank and outfitted with air conditioning, new plumbing, electrical and planking that matched its original design. Hatches and handrails were refabricated while the interior was largely still pristine and left intact.
McMillen named the reborn vessel the Zapala and for years sailed the waterways of Maryland, where he made his home base.
When Story and the staff at Palmetto Bluff got hold of the vessel in 2003, the boat once again received a number of additional cosmetic improvements before being rechristened a third time, taking the name of R.T. Wilson’s beloved sister Grace.
Captains Herb Rennard, Trey Snow and Ed Johnson began taking the Grace out for tours of the May River. The vessel holds 24 passengers along with a captain, bartender and server.
“What an honor it has been to take Grace out on the waters, share her history with our passengers, and, at the same time, weave in stories of Bluffton when Grace was first built and the Wilsons first took ownership of the Bluff,” Johnson said. “As a captain, you rarely get to helm this rare of a boat.”
Grace has done her duty as the floating matriarch of the Bluff for nearly a decade and enjoyed a renaissance while finally back on the water, but the years of inactivity once again caught up with her.
In 2013, U.S. Coast Guard officials conferred with Story and his team of captains, outlining a number of issues with the Grace.
“If you looked at her, you’d think she was in as good a shape as ever. But below the water line, there was a lot of problems,” Story said.
The keel, keelson, ribs and planking were once again in an advanced state of decay.
Giving up on Grace was not an option. The owners at Palmetto Bluff took great pride in being part of this floating museum, so a larger restoration plan was conceived with the help of Moores Yacht Marine in Beaufort, N.C.
In December 2014, Johnson and Rennard began a five-day journey up the Intracoastal Waterway to the Moores boatyard.
USCG Team Lead Roman “Zak” Hryniszak was part of the initial inspection of Grace and was astounded at the seaworthiness of the yacht despite 103 years of service.
“I’ve been at this 30 years, doing inspections and seeing early-era boats, but this one is truly special,” he said. “She is a real head turner. The original wood in the keel and up forward in the peak, it’s just amazing how solid of shape the material was in. Unheard of really, but it speaks to the Ohio Valley white oak that is at its roots.”
Hryniszak led a team of inspectors, including students who picked through every inch of the boat. After all, this was a teaching and learning moment the leader knew he and his pupils would likely never have again.
“We wanted to be part of keeping this history alive, and to see the attention and the dollars that Palmetto Bluff has put into keeping her afloat, it’s truly heartwarming to an old deckhand like me,” Hryniszak said. “I know we probably poked around more than the Moores crew or the Bluff folks would have liked, but we all knew we had to do right by Grace.”
And just like you see on any restoration show like “Love It or List It,” when you start to peel back the layers of a century-old structure, the to-do list expands rapidly along with the renovation budget.
Story confirmed the thoroughness of Hryniszak’s inspection with a grin. As a boat lover and Grace groupie, he knew the work must be done. As a project manager that needed to turn revised budgets into three different sets of management, he had many a sleepless night.
“Zak and his crew, they have been amazing, every step done out of nothing but love. But with every new item, the renovation just continued to go long past the original timeline,” he said.
Through it all, Story and Johnson both made continuous trips to Moores Yacht Marine to check in on the progress and witness the craftsmanship of the Moores crew.
“It was just stunning. Nate Smith and his crew, they are true magicians. To know every bit of material, to source woods and grains that haven’t been used for decades, they are craftsmen unlike I’ve ever seen,” Story said.
Almost a year to the day of leaving Grace in North Carolina, the Grace finally began her voyage home, and the final tally of work was daunting. In all, 31 bottom planks and 40 ribs were replaced. More than 65 percent of the keel’s deadwood was replaced. The engine was rebuilt and installed. Fourteen floor timbers were replaced between the galley going forward. A new shaft log and packing, a new stern post and horn timber. A new keel check, a rebuilt rudder system. A new bow thruster and new exhaust system. The engine room floor was replaced, a new watertight bulkhead and keelson were built; shafting was rebuilt, 28 keel bolts and six drifts replaced and approximately 35 percent of the wiring was removed and replaced.
All the while, Johnson made sure to take endless pictures of the progress. “So much of the work was done below the water line, so it would be next to impossible to explain to owners and visitors the true scope of this rebirth with words alone,” he said. Johnson said he and Bluff officials plan to make an exhibit with the photos to detail the work.
Finally, on December 10, 2015, the Grace headed home to Palmetto Bluff. Johnson and Rennard again led the journey, with a stop in Lady’s Island for a bit of finishing touches work before a hero’s welcome at Wilson Landing.
“It was quite a trip home. Passing boats, they knew they were looking at history. It was just horn blowing after another. A lot of smiles to be able to make that trip,” Johnson said.
His crew made sure they salvaged any mementos of the restoration. They hauled a truckload of planks and more than 80 pounds of metal including the old keel bolt back to Bluffton.
“With all this brass and brawn, I think we can make a real special commemorative piece,” Johnson said.
The journey back to the water was as epic as the ship’s century worth of stories of service to socialites, troubadours and boat enthusiasts. That will make the boat’s next chapter all the more special.
“It’s a little intimidating being responsible for something that is irreplaceable, but we’re ready,” Johnson said. “Captain Herb has been my mentor and we learned so much about the plumbing and electrical and the guts of this boat, so we’ll be ready to help her when needed. We want as many people to get on this boat as possible. And we’re going to do all we can to keep her afloat for another 100 years.”