Now on land, flagpole once raced at sea

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The flagpole on the Main Green doesn’t typically inspire romantic flights of fancy in the students studying on the grass next to it.

Yet the flagpole, a campus mainstay since 1939, is as much an historical artifact as it is an overlooked lawn fixture. A closer inspection of the pole reveals an index-card-sized bronze plaque near its base that reads, “This flagpole was formerly the mast of an American racing yacht and was presented to Brown University by its owner, C. Oliver Iselin.”

The 50-foot-tall landmark comes from not just any dinghy, but – according to letters in University archives – from the Columbia, the first vessel to win the prestigious America’s Cup twice in a row, and only one of three yachts in the history of the 157-year-old race to do so. Charles Oliver Iselin was a banker who crewed the Columbia to its first victory in 1899 with his wife, Hope Goddard Iselin, daughter of former Chancellor William Goddard 1846.

After the Columbia crushed Britain’s Shamrock that year, the schooner – owned by Iselin’s friend and colleague J.P. Morgan – took home the trophy again in 1901, defeating Britain’s Shamrock II. Though the Iselins did not participate in the 1901 race, Hope Iselin had already made her mark in sailing history as one of the first women to participate in the male-dominated sport.

The Columbia’s life of fame and glory came to a halt when she lost to the Reliance in 1903, and she suffered further humiliation in 1904 when businessmen considered converting her into a restaurant. Those plans never came to pass, and in 1913, she was cut up for scrap at Hawkins Yard in City Island, N.Y., according to the Web site for the 32nd America’s Cup.

But letters from the University archives say the Columbia’s life did not end completely in the junkyard.

“We have a record that (the flagpole) was a gift from you to the Naval Unit at Brown in 1918 and that it was originally a mast from one of the cup defenders,” President Henry Wriston wrote to Hope Iselin on Nov. 9, 1939, inquiring about the origins of the flagstaff after it had been erected on campus. The inquiry was a reaction to a letter Wriston received a few weeks earlier from Paul Francis Gleeson ’32, who suggested that a “small brass plate” with the “names (sic) of the yacht, where built, donor of the staff, etc.” be attached to the flagpole.

There are currently no records in the archives of any gifts given to the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, according to Jay Gaidmore, University archivist.

In a reply dated Nov. 30, 1939, Iselin, whose husband had died in 1932, wrote that it had been a gift from her late husband, and that “it was a mast from Columbia, I am quite sure.”

Both she and Wriston sent letters of inquiry to Tom Brightman, the service manager of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, the Bristol-based firm that produced the Columbia and other sailing thoroughbreds. But when Brightman replied on Nov. 22, 1939, he wrote that company records did not confirm “which of the American Cup Defenders masts it was which Mr. Iselin gave to Brown University.”

Though he concluded in that letter that “all the evidence here points to the strong probability that it was one of the masts from the ‘Columbia,'” in a letter one week later to Stanley Power of the New York Yacht Club, Brightman wrote that the University’s flagpole was too small to be a mast from a Cup Defender.

“For all we know, that could be an old telephone pole,” said Joe Ellis ’12, turning around from his prone position on the grass for one more look. “That does look very beefy for a flagpole.”

After two more letters from Hope Iselin asserting with authority – both hers and that of her stepson – that the flagpole originated from the Columbia, Wriston and then University Vice President James Adams were unsure how to identify the pole.

In a memorandum to Wriston on Jan. 4, 1940, Adams wrote that they were faced with two options. The first was to disregard Brightman’s statement, rely upon Iselin’s testimony, and inscribe the plaque on the flagpole with, “This flagpole was formerly the mast of the Cup Defender Columbia and was presented to Brown University by C. Oliver Iselin.” The second was to “dodge the issue” and inscribe, “This flagpole was formerly the mast of an American racing yacht and was presented to Brown University by C. Oliver Iselin.”

Adams and Wriston followed the latter course, and the mast of steel and Oregon pine remains unattributed.

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