The Times-Picayune is marking the tricentennial of New Orleans with its ongoing 300 for 300 project, running through 2018 and highlighting 300 people who have made New Orleans New Orleans, featuring original artwork commissioned by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune with Where Y’Art gallery. Today: boatbuilder Andrew Higgins.
The icon: Andrew Higgins.
The legacy: To Dwight Eisenhower, he was “the man who won the war for us.” To Adolf Hitler, he was “the new Noah.” But back home in New Orleans, Andrew Higgins was the man who put much of the city to work — men, women; black, white; able-bodied or physically challenged — as part of a wartime effort that blended innovation, aspiration, audacity and a keen sense of how to motivate his workforce. Although the local factories owned by the colorful and charismatic Higgins cranked out a number of products, from airplanes to ammunition to top-secret components for the Manhattan Project, it was Higgins’ namesake landing craft — which made it possible for Allied forces to flood the beaches of Normandy with servicemen — that serve as the backbone of his legacy.
The artist: Alexandra Kilburn.
The quote: “To put Higgins’s accomplishment in perspective, consider this: By September 1943, 12,964 of the American Navy’s 14,072 vessels had been designed by Higgins Industries. Put another way, 92 percent of the U.S. Navy was a Higgins navy.” — historian Douglas Brinkley, in a 2000 article for American Heritage magazine
Explore more of Alexandra Kilburn’s work online at WhereYart.net and in person at the Where Y’Art gallery, 1901 Royal St.
- Andrew Jackson Higgins was born Aug. 28, 1886, in Columbus, Nebraska. He was the youngest of 10 children of John Gonegal Higgins and Annie Long O’Connor Higgins.
- He exhibited an interested in boats early on, building his first vessel — christened the Annie O, after his mother — at the age of 12 in the basement of his family’s home.
- He realized too late that boat wouldn’t fit through the door of the basement, so to get it to water, he had to remove a brick wall, winch the boat out with the use of a homemade capstan, then replace the wall.
- Early jobs included stints as a trucker and as the employee of a dry-goods firm, where he rose to the level of superintendent in five months.
- Higgins once said he was kicked out of “all the schools in Omaha” for fighting and playing hooky. He eventually enrolled at Creighton University but left early before moving to Mobile, Alabama, where he began working in the lumber business.
- Around 1919, as a 24-year-old, he moved to New Orleans. In 1922, he decided he was ready to start his own lumber company, which he did with $5,000.
- His business, which imported lumber from the tropics and sold pine and cedar around the world, grew to the point that it boasted what was described as one of the largest sailing fleets under American registry at the time. To keep them running, he opened his own shipyard in New Orleans.
- He didn’t set out to be a boat builder. But after buying a tract of land on the cheap near Natchez, Mississippi, that its owners thought was too swampy for logging, he invented a boat with a recessed propeller to help do the job. The vessels were such a success that boat building soon became his main line of business.
- In 1931, one of the boats he built, the Dixie Greyhound, broke the speed record for traveling from New Orleans to St. Louis, completing the trip in 72 hours.
- In 1939, Higgins landed his first Navy contract, to build his Eureka boats, based on the design of his lumber boats. They were small, sleek and fast. Before selling them to the Navy, he sold them to the Coast Guard, which used them to catch bootleggers — some of whom also reportedly used Eureka boats.
- “Eureka” would later become the name of the Higgins company’s in-house newsletter.
- He was known for his dogged determination. At one point, the Navy expressed a need for “tank lighters,” vessels that could carry a tank or truck and deposit it directly on a beach. He promised to have them a sample in three days, prompting the Navy to declare it couldn’t be done. His response: “The hell it can’t.” Not only did he deliver the promised boat 72 hours later, but he got a new nickname in the process: Andrew “The-Hell-It-Can’t” Higgins.
- In another instance, to meet a deadline he had a shipment of small boats painted while there were being transported via train to a customer.
- In 1942, Higgins’ City Park plant was paid a visit by none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
- Higgins was fond of bourbon; Old Taylor was his favored pour. He was also known to be a master swearer. “His profanity, which when called into play flows as naturally as water from a spring, is famous for its opulence and volume,” Gilbert Burck wrote in an August 1943 profile of Higgins for Life magazine,
- At its height, Higgins Industries employed more than 25,000 people at eight plants throughout New Orleans, including at City Park, Michoud and the Industrial Canal.
- Higgins plants produced an estimated 28,000 vessels during the war, including a peak of 1,000 boats produced in a single month.
- His namesake landing craft weren’t just used on D-Day. They were used as part of every major amphibious operation of the war.
- After the war, he retooled his factories to make pleasure craft and commercial vessels. “The sad state of war has made it my duty to build,” he once said. “It is my obligation and particular pleasure to see that these vast plants … not become barracks for bats after the war.”
- He died Aug. 1, 1951, at Hotel Dieu Hospital at age 66 after undergoing treatment for what was reported to be a stomach ulcer. He was buried in Metairie Cemetery.
- A reproduction of one of the original Higgins landing craft is on display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the main entrance to which opens onto Andrew Higgins Drive.
Source: The Times-Picayune archives; Life magazine; American Heritage magazine; staff research
This story was originally published on June 5, 2017, by NOLA.com | The Times-Picyaune.