Luther Blount — A man with vision and drive
At 82, Luther Blount is a man of dedication and engineering intelligence within the maritime industry — and he's not ready to quit anytime in the near future. Last year, his company, Blount Industries located in Warren, R.I., commemorated yet another milestone with the celebration of its 50th anniversary in April 1998. Most recently, Blount held the launching of his 300th vessel — Harold E. Bickings, this past March.
Whether we "live to work or "work to live," many of us just take our profession simply for what it is — work. Luther Blount, though is the exception — for he doesn't view what he does as "work." He merely goes about his day as he has for the last 82 years of his life — living each day to the fullest and working to expand his already established Blount Industries in Warren, R.I.
"I never saw shipbuilding as work, it was something that I enjoyed and found I could always make money by doing it." said Blount.
A well-known figure within the maritime industry, Blount isn't planning on living a retiree's life anytime soon. He admits that as a self-proclaimed workaholic, he would rather concentrate on inventing new patents and creating his vessels to further his business than play a round of golf or relax in the sun.
"I plan to keep going," Blount emphatically said. "I've got all kinds of new things, my people (engineers and builders) work hard and stay up-to-date with the industry." Upholding his reputation as a skilled craftsman and entrepreneur, Blount's motto is not foreign and fairly simple — customer satisfaction.
"Whether you win or lose, you must always be able to come through for the customer," he said.
Boasting about 90 employees, the Blount Shipyard houses the current newbuild combination dinner/casino boat that Blount's engineers and builders are working on for a November 1999 delivery. The 161 x 40 ft. (49 x 12 m) 600- passenger vessel will operate out of New York Harbor. Four decks, complete with elevator and promenade will add to the glitzy atmosphere of this entertainment boat — a significant difference from his first vessel — a kayak he constructed as a young boy of 17 living in Barrington, R.I.
Birth of an Inventor Willis and Ruth Blount became the parents of Luther Blount in 1916. A son Nelson was born two years later. At Willis' urging, Luther began working at his father's ice plant from the time he was 13. While other young boys his age were playing sports, Blount awoke at the crack of dawn every Saturday so that he could assist his father at 7 a.m. at the Launched in 1953, the Blount Industries constructed Miss Liberty had been dubbed as the largest excursion passenger ship of its kind since World War II, measuring 133 x 33 ft. (40.5 x 10 m). Ancon launched on August 17, 1957 Pictured! to R): unidentified, Luther Blount, Warren Sherburne, Mrs. Warren Sherburne, unidentified, Margaret (last name unavailable, she was the lab tech for Belding Hemingway Certicelli), Mary Ellen Blount, Marcia Blount, unidentified, Rev. Warren Roberts, unidentified. Children, front (L to R) Julie Blount, Joanne Blount and Nancy Blount. plant. It was here that Blount developed his solid and driven work ethic.
Upon his retirement in 1944, the elder Blount sold the ice plant and generously distributed each of his employees with their own truck and route. Interestingly, the grandsons of many of these men now work at Blount Industries.
Growing up in the seafaring town of Warren, R.I., Blount became accustomed to the bay and the vessels that supported the area. He reminisced of excursions on Narragansett Bay on his grandfather Eddie's boat. It was through him that Blount would get his first taste of the marine world. In 1903, after Eddie purchased his father-in-law's company, Buckingham Oysters, located in West Barrington, R.I., he moved the business to Warren, R.I. — renaming it E.B.
Blount Sons which would eventually become the capital of the New England's oyster industry. Unfortunately, the Hurricane of 1938 damaged E.B. Blount Sons as well as most of the area's oyster businesses. Even though recovery seemed a long process, Nelson Blount managed to salvage what was left of his grandfather's hard work and continued the Blount tradition with the start of Blount Seafood a few years later. By then the oyster business had been rejuvenated into clams and Blount Seafood landed its largest and still most prominent client — Campbell's Soups. The company is the largest supplier of clams for Campbell's famed clam chowder.
While his brother Nelson managed Blount Seafood, Luther, who had recently completed his degree in engineering from Boston's Wentworth Institute, utilized his skills within the operation.
Using his keen sense of design and engineering skills, Luther was able to construct most of the company's clam machinery. His first working vessel, a catamaran named the Rhodoyster, Jr. debuted on April 20, 1949 for the purpose of transporting the company's clam shells out of odor range. Stored on Blount Seafood's dock, the decaying shells were causing an offensive smell. Luther would take his new boat out to Narragansett Bay and dump the pungent- smelling shells from Rhodoyster, Jr.'s cargo bins.
Dubbed a "freak" by area residents, because of its unconventional appearance (the pontoons were constructed by the welding together of 55-gallon oil drums), the vessel took a little over a week to construct. Inhabitants of the area were quick in taking back their insults of Luther's inventive craft when they realized its purpose. Blount responded with the 73 ft. (22.2 m) Rhodoyster to be used for oyster planting, cultivating and harvesting.
Following the success of the Rhodoyster pair, Blount set his sites on higher endeavors — a tanker/cargo vessel. Interestingly enough, he ran an advertisement in Maritime Reporter in 1949.
Charles H. La Duca, then president of West Shore Fuel, in Buffalo, N.Y. contacted Blount with the notion that his tanker could be used to supply oil for his bunkering operation. "I remember when Charles (La Duca) came out to Rhode Island, it was a beautiful, clear day — January 10, 1949 to be exact," Blount reminisced. "I took he and his wife out on the Rhodoyster." After demonstrating his feel for tank construction and design (the Rhodoyster was built using 7-diameter tanks), La Duca expressed that he would need a much larger vessel to put his ideas the use — the fueling of oil burning Great Lakes steamers. Blount's response: "If you can pay me, I'll do it." Before the ink on his agreement with La Duca was dry, Blount began construction of his first contracted vessel the 95 ft. (28.9 m) William H. Bennett. Carrying 50,000 gallons of oil, the tanker was then followed by three additional newbuilds delivered to La Duca by Luther Blount. Thus began the inauguration of Blount Industries.
Teaming up with his brother, Nelson, Luther designed and engineered the vessels on grandfather Eddie's oyster property, while Nelson ran the Blount Seafood plant one block away. The original shipyard still sits in the same location where the Blount family planted its roots in 1951. There have been many changes and expansions to Blount's company since that fateful day in 1949 when he met Charles La Duca. Blount went on to construct a variety of vessels that included tugs, tankers and workboats. More notably the fast ferry Autocisco II; Queen of France, used by the University of Rhode Island Marine Laboratories for study of the fishing industry and Blount's own patented Hustad Controllable Pitch Propeller which activated its blades to any pitch by moving the handle forward allowing for electric, hydraulic or pneumatic operation. Blount received $50,000 for his invention money he would later use to start-up an eventual subsidiary, American Canadian Caribbean Cruise Line (ACCL), which he formed in 1966. While he enjoyed taking his ideas from paper to reality, Blount thought about dabbling on the other side of the table — the ship operating business. For years, he had been creating vessels for other people, so he thought why not run them as well. Blount responded with the purchase of Prudence Island Ferry Company in 1960. Building two to three passenger ferries a year, Blount's company provided transport to and from the Island. After 10 years, he sold off the company to concentrate his efforts on ACCL. In conjunction with the line's developments, the "father of adventure cruising" implemented his patented bow ramp to each vessel. The invention provided passengers to disembark directly onto the beach.
Known as the only ships of their kind to run excursions out of Chicago through the inland Great Lakes and along the Mighty Mississippi. The liners also offer overnight itineraries in the Bahaman Islands and along the South and Central American coasts via the locks of the Panama Canal And the Blount tradition continues on with three of Luther's five children, Julie, Nancy and Joanne working for their father. Julie assists him as office manager of Blount Industries; Nancy is vice president of ACCL and Joanne and her husband Bob Dahmer operate Blount's Bay Queen Ferry Route. His son, Willis, though not directly involved with Blount's companies, holds a place in the marine industry with a fishing trawler that he runs out of Nantucket Island. Another daughter, Marcia, is an elementary school teacher.
Though actively involved within all of his holdings, Blount cannot get out to as many functions as would like to — a task that his children now fulfill for him. And so enters the next generation of Blounts, with Luther's children carrying on their namesake while their cousins still run Nelson Blount's company, Blount Seafood. Still remaining where it has stood since 1951, (one block away from Blount Industries), Nelson's children took over the business after their father died in a plane crash in 1967. With obvious sadness in his voice, Blount remembered how his brother was an instrumental force in the establishment of Blount Industries. Nelson provided Blount with the financial backing that he needed to start off — a favor that he will always remember and contributed to his becoming a success in the marine industry.
"I started my business with next to nothing," he reflected. "That's something that can rarely be done today."