Navy Seabee Foundation

Seabee Ingenuity Makes Waves in Boston

Seabee Ingenuity Makes Waves in Boston

by Alison Nolan

Principal and General Manager, Boston Harbor Cruises
Seabee Diamond Anniversary Ambassador

A little over 90 years ago, my Great Grandfather Matthew “Matty” Hughes founded Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC).  Just a short time earlier, at the age of 16, he had already made waves around town by becoming the youngest licensed boat captain ever in the port of Boston.  But in 1926, as a still very young man, he coupled his passion for the sea together with a single boat and a bright idea and launched a company that is still owned and operated by my family – including me – today.

The bright idea?  That Bostonians of that pre-air-conditioning era would love a way to beat the summertime heat and take a relaxing cruise on the water.  So, he hired a one-man crew for his one vessel fleet and launched BHC by offering 30-minute cruises on Boston’s Charles River.  With a ticket price of just 10 cents a passenger, the service took off and quickly became a favorite for area residents and visitors.   

In 1942, BHC’s service was interrupted for the only time in the company’s history when Matty enlisted and served as a USN Seabee in WWII in the Marshall Islands.  He was proud to be a Seabees’ Battalion Captain.  Matty served through the end of the war.

Through the years I’ve heard the family stories of Matty’s time in World War II – talking about the “fighting builders” bravely going into dangerous areas ahead of the troops to help build camps, roads, power supplies and more.  But, knowing that my Great Grandfather proudly served in the Seabees has made me want to know more about this storied organization and its history. One phrase that kept popping up throughout my research was “Seabee Ingenuity.”  For me, this phrase really captures the essence of the Seabees and the people – like Matty – who served their country and lived their lives with resourcefulness, gumption and a willingness to dive right into whatever needed to be done.  Through this enterprising approach, the Seabees played a major role in keeping the war moving and were a key factor in securing victory.

Matty in uniform during World War II

After the war when Matty returned to Boston, he resumed and expanded operations at BHC to also include cruises inside Boston Harbor.  Backed with the arsenal of experience and expertise he had built during his time in the Seabees, he grew his fleet by purchasing and refurbishing US military surplus vessels. 

The military surplus vessels added to the fleet were wooden vessels and included:  

  • 50’ Navy launches Islander and Elk, used for Charles River sightseeing cruises during the 1950s
  • 65’ Navy Air/Sea Rescue boat Rickimark, used for Boston Harbor sightseeing cruises during the 1960s
  • 83’ Coast Guard submarine chaser Stardust, used for deep sea fishing during the 1960s and 70s
  • 104’ Army Air/Sea Rescue boat Rocket II, used for deep sea fishing excursions and sightseeing cruises during the 1960s and 70’s
  • 85’ Navy Air/Sea Rescue boat Seaview used for sightseeing cruises and charters during the 1970s
  • 55’ Navy Launch Uncle Sam used for sightseeing cruises during the 1970s

Some of the original fleet and Matty at the helm

In the 70’s and 80’s, BHC shifted gears in acquisitions by focusing on buying older steel and aluminum vessels in various states of condition. Some were in “turn key” condition and ready to run. Most, however, were tired and in need of conversion or even complete retrofitting.  Almost all of the required work was carried out off season and in-house by Matty’s grandson’s Rick (my dad), Chris and Mark (my uncles), all inspired by their grand dad and the Seabee skills he passed down through the years.  With that ‘Can Do’ spirit, engineering skill and ingenuity, we have one vessel in our fleet that just celebrated its 56th birthday and one that will celebrate its 70th anniversary carrying passengers in 2019.

Although BHC currently owns and operates a large fleet of modern and sophisticated vessels, to this day we still count many older, continuously maintained and updated vessels in our inventory.  Today BHC is known nationally as a leader in refurbishment and maintenance of US Flagged Passenger Vessels thanks to the dedication and hard work of our in-house family of mechanics, welders, plumbers, painters, and electricians who perform almost all of the necessary mechanical fixes, retrofits and renovations for the entire fleet.

Matty’s Seabee Ingenuity has been passed down through the generations and has helped the company evolve and grow as the city around us has evolved and grown.  It’s at the very core of who we are.  From the decision to concentrate on deep sea fishing expeditions in the 60’s, to a refocusing on tourism in the 70’s, to the addition of commuter services with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in the 80’s, BHC has thrived on going into uncharted business territory and paving the way for the future of water transportation in Boston.

From left: Patrick Nolan, Chris Nolan, Alison Nolan and Rick Nolan

BHC is what it is because Matty followed his passion and fearlessly built a physical and philosophical infrastructure for a company that has kept its eyes on the future and stood the test of time.  Today, the company’s fleet is made up of 59 vessels that carry over 2.5 million passengers per year on services including sightseeing tours, whale watches in partnership with the New England Aquarium, the Codzilla thrill ride, the Provincetown and Salem Fast Ferries, water taxis, commuter ferries with the MBTA, private charters and more.

Boston is a city rich in history in general and in maritime history in particular.  Through our historic sightseeing cruises, events and partnerships, BHC is dedicated to keeping that history alive and making sure that it is passed on and remembered by the youth of today.  We congratulate the Seabees as they celebrate their 75th Anniversary and we pledge to pass on the vital accounts of the Seabees’ contributions and their unique ingenuity and ‘Can Do’ spirit to the next generation as well.  I’m sure Matty would be proud.

1 Comment
  1. Fantastic Blog. Very much enjoyed reading.