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BALDWIN WOOD’S NYDIA
On May 10, 1956, the 77-year-old engineer Baldwin Wood set sail from Biloxi to Horn Island, Miss., accompanied only by his dog.
What happened next was later described in a letter by charter boat operator Captain Louis Gorenflo:
There was a spanking southeaster blowing, and just after I had cleared the harbor I saw the Nydia … She was beautiful on that port tack, and as Mr. Wood sailed across my port bow, he gave me that customary wave. Moments later the boat rounded up into the wind, and I saw this graceful maneuver executed as only he could do it. As he stood up to change sides, I saw him move to a kneeling position, pause for a while with his chin resting on the tiller, then slump gracefully to the deck of the cockpit.
Gorenflo was able to close in and put his assistant on board the Nydia, “only a few yards away from a stoutly built wharf with heavy pilings.”
Baldwin Wood had made his final voyage.
“He was a naturalist long before it became fashionable,” says his great-nephew Ralph Pringle, who remembers him as being orderly, with a certain sense of responsibility toward nature. “He would pick up trash; he never threw anything in the water. He didn’t like trash anywhere around the water. He was just that type of person.”
Baldwin Wood was an engineer by profession, but he was a sailor by avocation.
A graduate of Tulane University’s engineering program, he spent his career at the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. His innovative design for pumps would make him famous, and his life’s work centered on the city’s complex water system. And, water provided him with a great outlet for enjoyment: sailing on his favorite craft, the Nydia.
Pringle remembers the Nydia well. “I sailed on it, I don’t know how many times. I actually put my hand on the tiller and steered – and he didn’t let many people get on his boat.”
The Nydia was a 30-foot gaff-rigged cabin sloop. “Nothing real fancy, it was a racing sailboat – and he had several trophies, huge silver trophies. Sometime in the 1930s he cut the sailing rig down to where he could handle it himself, and it was still pretty remarkable for a man his age to be able to do that.”
Baldwin Wood was always able to do remarkable things. According to Joe Becker, General Superintendent of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, the pumps he designed around 1900 are still in use today. Do they work well? “Absolutely – we rely on them every day.”
Becker says the Wood-designed pumps came through Katrina. “Working very closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we spent a great deal of time and money cleaning out those pumps and the motors and getting them back into operation. Those pumps are back in service and they are working today.”
Becker and the Sewerage and Water Board staff find the Wood pumps functional. “One of the things we like about the Wood screw pump is the ease of being able to get in and do required maintenance and any other repair activities.”
To get inside the pump you climb down a ladder into a narrow, enclosed space below the floor. It’s a tight fit – and if you climb down facing the ladder there is no room to raise your knee to put your foot on the lowest rung to ascend.
“Without using your feet you just kind of pull yourself up – keeps you in shape,” says Becker.
Wood screw pumps are not made anymore, but “when we put together a pump specification, we include the design for the Wood screw pump and ask for an approvable equal.
“It’s in our best interest to keep all the pumps as similar as we can; it enables us to do maintenance more easily and helps if we need to move an operator from one station to another.” Becker summarized the value of Baldwin Wood’s pump: “Keep it nice and simple: It gets the job done and it’s easy to work on.”
The invention of a simple, functioning machine was in character. Baldwin Wood, according to his nephew Ralph Pringle, was a tinkerer. “He worked on the heating system in their house, he worked on the engine of their Duisenberg automobile, and he had a Ford coupe that he kept running. I don’t think there was anything he couldn’t fix.”
Ever a careful planner, Baldwin Wood had even provided for his favorite boat in his will. Along with a bequest of “all my remaining property,” Tulane University was the beneficiary of “my boat the Nydia and her spars” with the requirement that those items “shall be carefully preserved under a shed on land owned by my wife or Tulane University for a period of at least 99 years.”
Wood died in 1956, and, when Tulane ceased to follow those directions as to the Nydia, Wood’s heirs went to court. In the ultimate outcome, the heirs – Ralph Pringle and his sister Jane Kemp Pringle “Susie” Seal – got the Nydia.
Meanwhile, the Nydia attracted its own supporters. The Friends of the Nydia group was formed in 2003. It was headed by U.S. District Judge Peter Beer and included Tom Denegre (longtime friend of Wood) and Tulane engineering professor Dr. Robert Bruce. Both the Friends, and the relatives, were pleased that the Nydia could be restored and find a new berth.
Baldwin Wood’s Biloxi home was less than a mile from the site where his favorite sailboat will be displayed: the Biloxi Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum.
Museum executive director Robin David has big plans. “Our museum was destroyed by Katrina and we are rebuilding next door to the George Ohr Museum of Art. It’s going to be one big cultural campus right here.” While Frank Gehry is architect of the Ohr Museum, the Maritime Museum architect will be Biloxi native Daria Pizzetta of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture of New York.
Luckily, more than half of the museum’s artifacts and all of its written material on the displays were salvaged after Katrina – and new acquisitions are coming in, including a set of Baldwin Wood’s oars, given to Captain Gorenflo, the man who observed the Nydia’s last sad cruise. In addition, “we’ve brought the beach there back to a maritime forest of the 1800’s. It’s all going to be one big learning experience.”
The Nydia was built in 1898 at the Johnson Shipyard in Biloxi, also near the museum’s new location, from plans by New Orleans architect Thomas Sully. The original owner was John A. Rawlins, an active yachtsman in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
The Johnson Shipyard closed in 1906. the Nydia is probably William N. Johnson’s last remaining craft. By the time the boat goes on display at the museum (a grand opening is tentatively set for December 2011) restoration will be complete.
“My sister and I will have the Nydia in pristine condition,” Pringle explained. Currently the Nydia is at the Seaway Marine Center in Gulfport, Miss., under the watchful eye of shipbuilder and sailor John Dane. The vessel will be on display in a long-term loan arrangement with the Maritime museum.
The Nydia has found her homeport at last.