Baby on Fire

“Baby Marold” created a sensation in the 1916 Gold Cup hydroplane race, held Labor Day weekend on the Detroit River. “Miss Detroit” had won the 1915 Cup, and because the title defense was customarily made on the winner’s home course, this was the first time the races were run on what the Detroit press called “western waters.” A crowd estimated at 200,000 turned out, lining the shores of Belle Isle and the Detroit riverfront, as well as anchoring observation boats of every type at either end of the island. The Detroit Yacht Club’s veranda was pretty crowded, too.

“There never was a more eventful day in the history of speedboat racing than…the second heat of the Gold Challenge cup race, furnishing all the thrills that the game boasts and then some,” wrote K.W. Hall of the Free Press.

“Baby Marold” was the sibling of C. Harold Wills’s great yacht “Marold.” While the larger craft ran on four Van Blerck Twin Six engines, the 28-foot “Baby Marold” made do with one of these overhead-cam units that produced as much as 500 horsepower. Wills, an early engineer for the Ford Motor Company, had sunk $30,000 into his hydroplane racer. It was piloted by freckle-faced Johnny Milot, of Algonac, the mechanic’s helper in 1915 who stepped in at the last moment to guide “Miss Detroit” to victory at Port Washington, New York, and bring the Cup west.

Mills’s money and Milot’s daring—the 50-miles-per-hour speeds astonished observers—made “Baby Marold” look like a potential winner. The crafty throttleman Jack Beebe lent his skill to the pursuit as well. But “Miss Minneapolis” held the lead when the first 30-mile heat race ended Saturday, September 2. After first getting a propeller tangled in weeds and then nearly turning over backwards on the start, the Columbia Yacht Club’s 16-cylinder, twin-screw “Peter Pan VII” finished a close second. “Miss Detroit” hit driftwood and bent a prop. “Hawkeye” was merely slow, if steady, while “Baby Marold” sat fifth among the five finishers after melting several of her spark plugs and blowing out air valves in the carburetors. “Miss Hamtramck” had experienced her own troubles and dropped out.

Sunday was reserved for sightseeing around the city and the viewing of club sailing contests. Powerboat racing resumed Labor Day at 4.00 p.m. The mighty hydroplanes would make six more laps around the five-mile course. “Miss Minneapolis” got away to the lead, while “Baby Marold” crossed the start a minute and two seconds behind but averaged a world-record 55.35 mph, passing “Hawkeye” and catching “Peter Pan VII” by first lap’s end. “Miss Detroit” and “Miss Minneapolis” were within sight. Soon, second place was for “Baby Marold”—but trouble soon struck. As she came down the American shore on the heels (or at least the keel) of “Minnie,” a sheet of flame shot up: a fuel line had torn loose, spewing gas into the bilge. Milot “was tossed out of the boat by the force of the explosion,” the News reported. His mechanic, Jack Beebe, “stuck to the craft long enough to [power down] to prevent it exploding on the shore, where thousands stood.”

After “Baby Marold” had turned around and around for 20 minutes, a police boat managed to tow the flaming hydro to a slip. With the Coast Guard’s aid, she was scuttled with pike poles in five feet of water, and only the engine’s intake stacks reached above waterline. Milot and Beebe had swum to safety, the driver’s slightly burned hands the only injury.

Gold Cup historian Fred Farley reports that “Baby Marold” was being salvaged the next day by one of her original builders, Edward Lindow. When he disconnected the battery, a spark ignited gasoline remaining in the hull. The blast that followed sent Lindow into the water. Unlike Milot and Beebe, he couldn’t swim. Firefighters who came to the scene didn’t notice him drowning just a few feet away.

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