Rebecca Chase Herreshoff was born on December 2, 1894, on Prudence Island, Rhode Island, the daughter of Captain Halsey Chase and Lizzie Kelly Studley. Also called Becky, she was the twin sister of Rachel Chase Boynton (see the article prior to this one for a Prudence Island story written by Rachel).
Becky’s family was Quaker. She attended a Quaker school, Moses Brown School in Providence, and later attended Colt Memorial High School in Bristol.
Rebecca’s father established a ferry service that ran from Prudence Island to Bristol from 1902 until 1929. She would often accompany him aboard his ferry, the Harvest. Her father taught her about boating and sailing. After U.S. entry into World War I, her father was unable to obtain a pilot to operate the ferry. Rebecca, by then twenty-seven years old and an experienced automobile driver, passed the necessary examinations and began every morning to operate the ferryboat. She became the first woman in New England (possibly in the country and world) to hold a pilot’s license to operate a commercial passenger vessel. In 1922, a number of newspapers ran the story about her, some titled, “Rebecca at the Throttle.” She loved the water and spent most of her life (well into her nineties) out on the water, enjoying sailing, racing, and other activities.
Becky was an accomplished swimmer. Often she swam with her friend, Johnny Weissmuller, the famous swimmer who played the role of Tarzan in the earlier Tarzan movies. She appeared as a stand-in diver for actress Agnes Ayres in a 1920s silent film. One ability she was particularly proud of was standing on her future husband’s shoulders while they aquaplaned in Bristol harbor. This sport was more difficult than water-skiing, requiring great balance without the use of support ropes. Becky also became life-long friends with the famous Hollywood movie actor, Sterling Hayden.
Becky married A. Sidney DeWolf Herreshoff in June 1930. They were married at St. Michael’s Church in Bristol at the same ceremony as the wedding of her twin sister, Rachel Chase Boynton. Becky and Sidney had two children, Nathanael (Nat) G. Herreshoff III and Halsey Chase Herreshoff.
In 1935, Becky, along with her sister-in-law Agnes Mueller Herreshoff, established a Mariner Girl Scout troop in Bristol, the first in this area, the second in Rhode Island. They started out with fifteen girls who met weekly to learn sailing terms, knots, and rowing. Girls who mastered those skills were taught sailing one-on-one with Mrs. Herreshoff, aboard the troop’s ship Vigilant. Becky worked with the Girl Scout Mariner manuals for eight to ten years. Some say Becky was very influential in helping to write them. She is said to be largely responsible for bringing Girl Scout Mariners to Rhode Island by encouraging girls in the East Bay to experience the satisfaction of seagoing life, emulating the Providence troop Providence on the Alert.
Becky regularly led and encouraged groups on board Captain Irving Johnson’s famous schooner Yankee. Irving Johnson and his family, well known for their sailing trips around the world, offered Girl Scout Mariners to cruise around New England and New York. For two weeks during the summer the “mates” worked as members of the crew washing topsides and pulling lines while sailing to such places as New Haven or Bar Harbor. Three Bristol girls, Ruth Hazeldine (Watson), Mary Mason (Stevenson) and Jessie Sanford (Huey), crewed the schooner Yankee on a few occasions as Girl Scout Mariners. Captain Johnson offered to take Becky and her family with them on one of their around-the-world trips, but Becky declined. She was concerned about her children’s lack of education while at sea.
Becky was an avid sailor and yacht racer. She enjoyed frostbite dinghy racing along with her husband Sidney. She taught her sons and some of the Girl Scout Mariners to sail her 12-1/2 footer, the Minx. She won many races on Minx sailing in the Narragansett Bay with her husband Sidney and Ruth Hazeldine Watson. Becky’s sailing accomplishments and contributions were recognized by an award of honorary life membership in the Bristol Yacht Club.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, Sidney and Becky regularly cruised from Maine to Florida in their powerboats, Lang Syne, Consuelo, and Thania. They also owned a motorboat called Bubble, which is still used by the family and can be seen docked off the then newly built Herreshoff South Pier. They wintered in Florida. Becky traveled to St. Petersburg and later Miami every winter from 1917 until the mid-1980s, except during the years when Nat and Halsey were growing up and had to attend school. In the early years they traveled by boat, then by car, and later by plane. They also spent many summer Sundays taking family and friends on excursions around Narragansett Bay.
One of Becky’s greatest accomplishments was her involvement with the war effort. In the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain created much hardship and misery in England. Becky wanted to do something to help this troubled country. In January 1941, after the fall of France, during the German Blitz, she headed a relief drive. She held a giant rummage sale to raise money for Bristol, England, which was badly bombed. People also donated clothing and items of necessity. The people from Bristol, Rhode Island, as well as from all over the U.S., were very supportive and helpful to the residents of Bristol, England. In May 1941, Becky was asked to go to New York and make a radio broadcast overseas to the people of Bristol, England. In the age before television, radio broadcasts at that time were a big deal. Becky gave words of encouragement and support from Bristol, Rhode Island, to Bristol, England. This helped to uplift British spirits and morale, and helped them to cope a little better with the war in Europe. In 1985, the Lord Mayor of Bristol, England, wrote to Becky, “I can assure you that the older people in Bristol still remember with gratitude the support which the American people gave to generously in those dark days and we remember particularly the help which came from Bristol, Rhode Island.” Becky was posthumously awarded a plaque from the Mayor of Bristol, England, that was given to her son, Halsey, then the Town Administrator (Mayor) of Bristol, Rhode Island.
Rebecca Herreshoff was a woman of action, and she often directed her energies toward helping others. After the U.S. became involved in World War II, she organized a women’s auxiliary motor corps (part of the Red Cross) to transport patients to area hospitals, often spending many hours, day and night, helping the aged, the sick and the needy. The transportation, usually in station wagons, was needed due to gas rationing. The women in the corps wore blue uniforms and caps. In August 1942 she christened at Walker’s Cove a coastal transport, known as an APc, one of the one hundred wooden-hulled small navy boats built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol during World War II. As did many Bristol area women during wartime, Becky worked in the Rubber Works factory in Bristol until the men returned from war to resume their jobs.
Her repertoire covered a wide range. After the war, she worked at Tilden Thurber Jewelry Store in Providence and was very successful at retail sales. In 1970, she played a Russian countess in the PBS segment of Masterpiece Theater’s The Adams Chronicles. A favorite hobby of hers every September was to make her own grape jelly from grapes grown on Prudence Island.
Becky was a pioneer in her involvement in environmental issues. In 1949, she put a stop to the building of a laboratory on Prudence Island that was to be set up to study hoof and mouth disease. A group of researchers wanted to bring diseased cattle to Prudence Island to study the disease. Becky was greatly concerned about the health of the animals, and the effect of such a laboratory on the environment of the island. She felt this laboratory would have devastated the island. Before this happened, Becky stormed into Governor John O. Pastore’s office in Providence, demanding to speak to him. When his secretary blocked her path and told her she could not see the senator, Becky pushed the secretary aside and walked into his office, where she stated her case. He was so taken with her concern and her care for the Island, and admired how she took a stand on the issue, that he immediately used his influence to put a stop to the laboratory study on Prudence Island. Becky and Governor Pastore became good friends. Becky supported his views and campaigned for him for the U.S. Senate even though he was a Democrat and she was a registered Republican. She voted for the person, not the party affiliation.
In the 1950s, Becky was one of the first people to take the pollution problem seriously. She started the anti-litter movement in Bristol, campaigning and recruiting people to pick up litter before it was recognized as a worldwide problem.
In 1971, Becky and Sidney founded the Herreshoff Marine Museum to preserve and perpetuate the unique accomplishments of the Herreshoff family and the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, builders of some of the finest racing yachts ever sailed. The couple started the museum’s collection by donating the Thania. The museum leased the Thania to the movie crew from The Great Gatsby. Becky and Sidney, and their granddaughter Kirsten, had the opportunity to be on board during filming around Newport Harbor (they made the cut, including in the opening credits). The Herreshoff Marine Museum started out as a floating museum, and has now grown to include many boats and facilities. It is located off Bristol Harbor at One Burnside Street. Becky was involved in running the museum. She remained a trustee until her death on June 3, 1991, at age 96-1/2. Her son, Halsey, a four-time America’s Cup defender, founded the America’s Cup Hall of Fame as an arm of the museum in 1992.
Rebecca Herreshoff’s life was filled with unique accomplishments. She was a strong woman who stood up for people’s rights and fought for causes that were important to her. She was a powerful force in successfully establishing many good things for Bristol, for Rhode Island, for our country, and for the world. She was a direct, aggressive, energetic, go-getter. She was persistent. She knew what she wanted and went for it. She was usually successful in everything she did. She was well liked by many because of her directness. If she liked you, she would tell you so; if she didn’t like what you did, you would know it. If you knew her you stood with her. She had a way of encouraging others to get involved. She had foresight and conviction in everything she did. She was a great lady and an inspiration to many—a truly amazing woman.
[Banner image: Rebecca Chase Herreshoff on August 8,1942, at the christening of a coastal transport, known as an APc, built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol (Herreshoff Marine Museum)
Nathaniel G. Herreshoff III, “In Memoriam—Rebecca C. Herreshoff,” Herreshoff Marine Chronicle (1991), p. 3
“Rebecca at the Throttle,” Morning Register (Eugene, Oregon), Nov. 26, 1922
Newport Mercury, March 18, 1949
Bristol Phoenix, Sept. 5, 1985
Herreshoff Marine Museum and its website at www.herreshoff.org