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No. 20, Getting the Lead In: Pouring Ranger's Keel


In a ballet of shimmering water and glowing sails off Newport, Rhode Island in the summer of 1937, the leading vessel, Vanderbilt's sleek Bath-built Ranger, is defending with ease the America's Cup challenge of the British Endeavor II. Despite the Great Depression, and Fascist expansionism in Europe, or perhaps in spite of it, these two extraordinary yachts, the last of the J-boats, sailed their sporting duel in what seems now to be a dream time.
Although many stories can be told about Ranger, let's look at what is just below that creaming bow wave, keeping her upright, namely her keel of 100 tons of carefully formed lead ballast.

Disappearing (above) under the waters of the Kennebec in the rush of Ranger's May 11, 1937 launch was the largest lead casting in history. Although it was poured on one busy day in late December of 1936, the preparation for that day was considerable.

This is the 39 ft. long pattern for the keel being swung into position over a line of round-notched cushion blocks that angle down from the staging. The positions of the blocking and the alignment of the pattern were critical, as the vessel was to be built over the keel and ultimately launched from wherever the lead sat. It was too heavy to reposition.

(above) The pattern was an exact duplicate of the desired lead shape, and had foundry sand compacted all around it once it rested down on the blocks. Some sand has already been placed around the blocks. An air powered tamper can be seen leaning inside the formwork.

The enormous plug of the pattern has been carefully pulled up out of the form, leaving this smooth, sand-lined cavity into which the molten lead will be poured. The first few of many cross-tie girders have been placed over the opening to create a work staging and to tie together the top of the formwork.

Once the pouring began on December 22, there could be no stopping the flow of molten lead, if the integrity of the keel mass was to be maintained. Lots of manpower needed to be on hand, handling the continuous chain of lead ingots, relayed to the staging by the overhead beam crane, into the initial meltdown troughs and then down into the mold, all the while kept at molten temperature.

The hubbub of the event was considerable: the roar of the melting furnaces, the flare of various gas jets, the milling crowd bent over the silver stream of falling lead. This drama was not lost on the Maine artist Carroll Thayer Berry who was on hand to record the scene (above), in the role of artist-witness that seems to be virtually unknown today, except in certain courtrooms.

Another shot taken by a Bath Iron Works photographer (above) with Berry's study (below). Note the head gear in all these pictures. White collar types prefer fedoras. Today, this would be a sea of bobbing hard hats.

The scene upon the staging: the left hand fedora is on the head of the senior naval architect for the Ranger project, W. Starling Burgess. Together with his younger design associate Olin Stephens (not seen here), Burgess had created a Cup Defender design that had yet to be proven. This keel pouring was the first of many radical industrial commitments required by Ranger.

The head (and fedora) of Bath Iron Works, William S. Newell, was on hand as well. His verbal deal with Vanderbilt over the financing of Ranger was as creative as her design and construction; cost was kept down low enough for Vanderbilt to avoid forming an unwieldy Cup Defender syndicate in the Depression's financial drought. His earlier Defender models were sold, and their gear to be re-used, on the new design. BIW, in turn, could show-case its abilities with state-of-the-art construction techniques, and keep its payroll going in tight times.
A gas torch is in use beyond Newell, flaring across the rising lead pool to keep the top surface from cooling.

(above) Berry's study of the melting troughs.

Checking the level as the pool of molten metal nears the top; Burgess again, on the right, possibly looking a bit edgy for a man on the brink, literally, of his unknown, untried keel design.

(above) The pour was completed successfully; the tapering top edge of the new keel can just be picked out underneath the cross-girders.
Everybody took Christmas Day off, and came back to continue with Ranger, happy to have Mr. Vanderbilt's work.

Carroll Thayer Berry worked his studies into this hand-colored final version linoleum print:

He even included the photographer bent over his camera, seen on the right side of this detail:

The ultimate performance of Ranger only added to her mystique; even before she slid down the ways, the pride at Bath in the finely engineered craftsmanship lavished on her creation was enormous.

An envelope from the collection (above) contains this small piece of the great pour. (I placed the penny for scale.)

Ranger never raced again after the summer of 1937. The J-boat era and Ranger's graceful keel came to an end with the onset of World War II. In a wrenching reversal of the parable, the plowshare was beaten into swords as her 100-plus tons of lead was again melted down for the war effort in 1941, five short years after being formed in a silver stream of molten metal under a crowded excited scaffold.



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Chris Hall, Registrar

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Maine Maritime Museum

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Bath, Maine 04530