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The Trojan Wars
The Story of a Gutsy Boat Builder


The Story of a Gutsy Boat Builder
By Brian Nolan


They were the Stradivariuses of the postwar plywood fleets and, when the last wooden Trojan cruiser rolled off the company's production line in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1974, the sadness was palpable. The event marked a milestone in the turbulent life of this upstart boat builder.


By daring to duke it out with the colossus which was Chris-Craft, and going toe-to-toe with the great pretender to the boating throne, the Owens Yacht Company, Trojan demonstrated from the very beginning that inspired American characteristic-the compulsion to achieve.


And achieve it did. At the peak of production in the late 1960s, the Trojan Boat Company boasted a payroll of 700 employees in plants at Lancaster, Pa., Elkton Maryland, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Smithville in Ontario, Canada. The company was turning out an average of 4,000 boats a year, handsome cruisers ranging in lengths from 24-footers to the 52-foot Trojan-Shepherd.


Its salad days were short. In just 25 years from the first to the last wood boat, Trojan had captured a world-wide market-a fraternity of owners from all walks of life, united by two factors: Trojan's clean lines and quality workmanship.


The firm's meteoric rise from a rented dairy barn in rural Pennsylvania was nothing less than startling. No one had ever heard of Trojan when it first appeared in 1949, but anonymity was no obstacle for the two founding partners.


James R. McQueen liked nothing better than a scrap. A fighter pilot in World War II, colleagues remembered him being feisty as the P-51 Mustangs that he had once flown.


Harper Hull was opposite in personality. A graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in naval architecture, Hull was studious and meticulous. He spent the War drawing plans in various shipyards in the South. Hull and McQueen met when they were working for Owens in Baltimore, where McQueen couldn't get along with Norm, one of the four Owens brothers. In fact, he couldn't stand the sight of him. It was said of McQueen that his one-man crusade in life was to put Norm Owens out of business.


McQueen was confident there was enough room for another boat producer to take advantage of the rapid postwar economic boom. He convinced his partner that with their combined skills, success was assured. Hull would design the boats, he would sell them. To this day, everyone talks of McQueen's optimism and enthusiasm. It could have easily been Jim McQueen rather than Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman who said; "start big, and you'll end up big."


Yet, Trojan's beginnings were modest. On December 31, 1948, McQueen and Hull drove to Troy, N.Y., with a truck pulling a trailer, where they plunked down $4,000 to buy the assets of a small boat works that had foundered on financial rocks. For their money they got an assortment of woodworking tools and machinery: a planer, a band saw, and more. After man-handling the heavy equipment on to the trailer, they checked into a motel to spend a gloomy New Year's Eve, entertaining each other with gallows humor of their impetuous decision to take on Chris-Craft and Owens.


Calling their newly acquired business, Trojan Boats, they set about building their first model, a 10-foot plywood car-topper that became an instant hit with the public.


They knew that producing larger boats required a proper production line and someone to manage it, so they turned to another Owens alumnus, Ernie Warner, a farm boy who had become a skilled woodworker. Warner was an example of what the Navy had discovered a long time ago: that because they are resourceful, farmers make good sailors - they learn how to fix things.


The Warner family tells the story of how a young Ernie blew off the tips of two fingers when he accidentally detonated a dynamite blasting cap. Rushing to the boy's side, his mother grabbed a handful of cobwebs, thrust the boy's fingers into the silky mesh which instantly stemmed the flow of blood. This was resourceful! Warner joined Trojan in November 1949, buying into the partnership with money he raised by mortgaging his house and cashing in a life insurance policy.


Years later, Harper Hull said much of the success of Trojan in the pioneering years can be credited to Ernie Warner as head of production. Warner was not only resourceful in the early shoestring operation, he was also innovative and analytical. On an assembly line time is money. To reduce the amount of labor required to build a boat, Warner devised a number of labor saving techniques. The most significant one was to sheath the hull with a single length of Duraply scarfed together from several pieces of plywood. This was fastened on to the frames from the sheer strake to the chine, from the stem to the transom, "white knuckled" on to frames of white oak, in the words of John Leed, a former Trojan employee. To prevent rot, the frames and stringers were dipped into a wood preservative that was so corrosive that a drop on the skin was like a hornet's sting.


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Brian Nolan is a Canadian author who usually writes on politics and military affairs.
He divides his time between a home in Ottawa and a pied-a terre in the south of France.
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