Luther Blount, 93, Built Circle Line Ships

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The New York Sun

Luther Blount, who died Sunday at 93, was a crusty New England shipbuilder who created the Miss Liberty and five of the other six boats used by the Circle Line to ferry passengers to the Statue of Liberty.

Blount was a marine innovator with patents on hull structures and propellers, as well as shipboard conveniences like the Pint-A-Flush Toilet. He laid more than 300 hulls for working boats at his Warren, R.I., shipyard, producing everything from lighters and tugboats to fishing trawlers and a giant catamaran based at Bar Harbor, Maine, that carries more than 400 whale watchers.

Nearly as visible in New York City’s waters as the Statue of Liberty ferries are Blount’s dinner boats, stylish and sleek craft that carry revelers on the Hudson and East rivers. He introduced these boats in America in the early 1970s after observing their popularity on the Seine in Paris.

Blount was also founder of American Canadian Caribbean Line, which helped invent the concept of small-ship cruises in boats that carry fewer than 100 passengers.

Begun as an extension of family swordfishing trips, ACCL blossomed into a 5,000-passenger business that helped reestablish cruising on the Great Lakes, as well as destinations up and down the East Coast as far south as the Caribbean.

Blount’s shipyard built all of the line’s boats, which were outfitted with unique features such as a bow ramp so that passengers could walk directly from the shallow-draft vessels onto the shores of islands that lacked docks.

Another innovation was a retractable pilothouse, developed so boats could cruise beneath the low trestles that span the Erie Canal.

Blount embodied the Yankee tinker, and the range of problems he set his talents to was breathtaking. He developed a new method of steaming clams for the family business that supplied the meat for Campbell’s Clam Chowder. He patented the Pint-A-Flush to conserve water at sea, and he even patented a prosthesis to combat male erectile dysfunction. He grew melons in his shipyard and he cultivated blueberries, kept honeybees, and experimented with seed oysters at his second residence at Prudence Island, near Warren.

A dedicated fisherman, he tricked out a sword-fishing vessel with every known convenience, then created an airborne fish-spotting service so he wouldn’t have to guess where the fish were.

Blount grew up in Warren, where his father, a former professional trombonist, ran an icehouse. Blount had memories of chopping ice out of local ponds. His forebears had historically been sea captains and also worked in the oyster trade, and both pursuits became important to Blount. He got into shipbuilding almost accidentally in 1947, when he designed the Rhodoyster for his brother’s shellfish business.

In 1949, Blount founded his shipyard on a six-acre tract of land in Warren that his uncle had used as a shell dump. He built a unique 64-foot “Twin Tube” catamaran as a fuel oil service vessel that is still in use in New York Harbor.

He began construction on Miss Liberty, his yard’s 15th hull, in 1952. Delivered in 1954, the ferry carries 837 passengers in all sorts of weather and was designed to handle harbor ice.

The Circle Line is the largest privately run ferry service in the nation, according to the federal Department of Transportation. The line’s president, J.B. Meyer, said Blount’s boats have carried a combined 75 million tourists. “To this day, they are the model of passenger ferry vessels,” Mr. Meyer said.

In 1966, Blount turned what had been a family tourist business into one of the first small-ship cruising lines in the nation. Often captaining the ships himself, he concentrated on out-of-the-way destinations and places with historical resonance, like the old cities of the industrial tier along the Erie Canal. Blount served as tour guide (he fancied himself an expert on Lizzie Borden, among many other topics).

The atmosphere on his boats was informal. Meals were served family-style, and refreshments were BYOB. When he didn’t captain a cruise, Blount might give a boat a sendoff by serenading it on the trombone.

Eventually, the cruise line became a $10 million business that he once called “the goose that laid the golden egg” because it funded his shipyard through lean times.

Blount kept working to the end, with a temporary three-year retirement that ended when the shipyard ended up in receivership. Blount returned to purchase the yard from the receiver in 2003 and restored it to profitability. At the time of his death, two boats were being built at the yard. His children continue to manage the businesses he founded.

The New York Sun

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