John Cox Stevens was the first commodore of the NYYC and the prime mover in the America syndicate. The trophy America won in 1851 became the America's Cup. This portrait of Commodore Stevens and his family is excerpted from The Low Black Schooner by author and NYYC member John Rousmaniere.
John Cox Stevens was from one of the more remarkable families in U.S. history. His grandfather was a member of the Continental
Congress, and his father, John Stevens, was a Revolutionary War colonel turned entrepreneur and inventor of steam engines and boats.Working from his mansion on the bluffs of Hoboken, New Jersey, overlooking the Hudson River and Manhattan Island, the colonel and his sons developed the first steam ferry to cross the Hudson but, confronted by Robert Fulton's monopoly on Hudson River steamship navigation, moved on to other, highly profitable areas. When one of their boats, Phoenix, was sent into service at Philadelphia in 1809,
she was the first steamer to go offshore.
In 1804, at the age of nineteen, John Cox Stevens steered the first propeller-driven boat. Soon after, he built an early American sailing
yacht, Diver, in which he raced fishing and ferry boats up and down New York Harbor for bets. As an adult, he was a railroad and steamship line promoter and man about town -- "a mighty good fellow and a most hospitable host," Philip Hone, a Mayor of New York, once said of him.
An avid sportsman, Stevens was elected the first commodore of the New York Yacht Club when it was founded aboard his yacht Gimcrack in 1844. While not the first American yacht club (clubs in Boston and Detroit preceded it), the NYYC became the keystone in the arch of American yachting, and especially yacht racing, as the pastime developed into an organized sport in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Its first clubhouse was located on the Stevens family property at Hoboken. To John also goes the credit for designing, and pressuring the Congress to approve, the first U.S. yacht ensign, which allowed pleasure boats to enter ports without paying commercial duties.
His brothers were equally competitive. Edwin, a financier and railroad promoter, was elected the yacht club's third commodore. Robert was more technically gifted -- he designed the 97-foot sloop Maria for his two brothers, drew the lines of several Stevens steamships and invented the T-shaped railroad track and a bomb that could be shot from a cannon. The brothers collaborated on the designs of their yachts, usually trying them out in model-testing on nearby streams.
Their extravagances were legendary. Before a horse race in 1823, the three brothers bet all their cash, their diamond stick pins and their gold watches on their horse Eclipse in a match with the southern champion Sir Harry. Eclipse won by a nose, and John later became president of the prestigious Jockey Club. It was estimated that they spent a total of $100,000 on experiments and alterations involving Maria in the 22 years that she was in the family. Edwin spent approximately $1 million on an ironclad gun ship, called the Stevens Battery, that was never completed, and at his death he left $650,000 to found the Stevens Institute of Technology on the family property in Hoboken. For many years models of America's Cup defenders were tested in a towing tank at the institute.