Volunteer sways in the wind with a crew on board. The racing yacht was the pride of Delaware when the Pusey and Jones Co. of Wilmington built it in 1881. Its launch made headlines and brought thousands of spectators to the Christina River. When Volunteer won the America’s Cup in 1887, it was no longer a local story: The yacht was hailed throughout the world.
The first America’s Cup race was held in 1851. It didn’t take long for entrepreneurs to realize that serious money could be made in the racing vessel business. By 1879, yachtsmen turned their wheels toward Wilmington, then a major shipbuilding hub. Harlan and Hollingsworth, another producer just downstream of Pusey and Jones, built Mischief, the first iron-hulled America’s Cup yacht.
When the 106-foot Volunteer beat British challenger, Thistle, a local broadcaster reported that “two nations focused on the Christina River, and a thousand spectators watched the launch amid cheers and whistles,” according to an article by researcher Priscilla M. Thompson.
Wilmington shipbuilders built four yachts for the America’s Cup: Mischief, Volunteer, Pilgrim and Priscilla. By the late 19th century, the city’s days in the America’s Cup vessel business were over. The riverfront suffered great neglect as the industry faltered. It became industrial wasteland.
That changed in 1995, when a governor’s task force created the Riverfront Development Corporation. The riverfront was revitalized by new businesses and residential communities. Thanks to a few brave developers, more growth is expected.
And while it’s not quite the America’s Cup, the crews at the Wilmington Rowing Center compete every year. The events don’t draw thousands—yet—but they are a fine tribute to the river’s glory days.