History Revisited: A Groton yacht fit for a king or millionaire

The Iolanda, Morton F. Plant’s luxury yacht, was more than 100 feet long. (Photo courtesy of Jim Streeter)
The Iolanda, Morton F. Plant’s luxury yacht, was more than 100 feet long. (Photo courtesy of Jim Streeter)

In the early 1960s and 1970s, I recall news reports of the various U.S. presidents holding meetings, having social gatherings and going on retreats aboard the Presidential Yacht. At the time I thought this yacht, the 104-foot USS Sequoia, was not only luxurious but enormous.

In recent years, researching a book on Morton F. Plant, the notable millionaire philanthropist from Groton, I learned that he had had a yacht built that was double the size of the presidential boat.

In 1908, with money being no object, Plant, who always seemed to enjoy his “one-upmanship” when it came to his racing yachts, contracted with a well-known boat builder in Scotland to build a 309-foot, five-deck, twin engine, 1,800-ton steam yacht.

It would be the second largest yacht in the world, and was bigger and more lavish than the steam yacht of Edward VII, king of Great Britain and Ireland. The cost to build and outfit the boat was close to $1 million (roughly $26 million by today’s standards).

The accommodations of the boat included drawing and dining rooms, a library, smoking room, fine saloons, and many guest staterooms and bathrooms. All of the rooms were superbly fitted and decorated, principally in Queen Anne and early Georgian styles.

The officers’ and servants’ and crew quarters were spacious, arranged to accommodate 80 people. The yacht was home ported in New London and could often be seen anchored off of Plant’s Avery Point estate and his Griswold Hotel in Groton.

The cost to operate the yacht, and to pay its crew of 67, was estimated to be $20,000 a month.

Based upon the lavishness of this new yacht, that the old cliché “fit for a king” could have been altered to be “fit for a millionaire.”

While the yacht was being built, Plant, for reason unknown, secured permission from the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, to name his new yacht after the King’s oldest daughter, 7-year-old Princess Iolanda. A special stateroom aboard the yacht was reserved exclusively for Princess Iolanda.

Although it cannot be verified, a news article appearing in the Aug. 5, 1908, edition of the Ocala Evening Star indicated that Plant was to entertain the King and Queen of England at dinner on board the Iolanda while at Cowes, England.

In the book “Cruise of the Iolanda,” written by Morton Plant as a daily record of the 33,000-mile cruise made by the Iolanda from October 1909 through July 1910, the entry on May 28 reflects that the King and Queen of Italy and several other royal personages, paid a short visit to the vessel while it was ported in Palermo, Italy.

On May 31, while anchored off Castelorziano, Italy, Her Royal Highness Princess Iolanda, accompanied by a chaperone, paid a visit to the immense and luxurious yacht named in her honor.

Thus, it can be said that, although the Steam Yacht Iolanda was “fit for a millionaire,” it was also fit for a king – and other royalty.

Interestingly, while the yacht was under construction, Plant was planning several cruises to China and other Southeast Asian countries. Learning of acts of piracy in those areas, he had the Iolanda equipped with two one-pounder Hotchkiss rapid-fire guns. He also had 12 Manlicher rifles, 12 Colt revolvers and an abundant amount of ammunition stored on board.

The smokestack for the Iolanda, also called a funnel, was shown in a photograph prior to installation with a 60 horsepower, six cylinder motor car, with two passengers, easily passing through the stack, and a novel luncheon was given by Plant inside the funnel. It was said that when lying on its side, 100 people standing could easily get inside.

In September 1910, while the Iolanda was moored off of Avery Point, crewmembers manned a launch from the yacht to help in rescuing a large deer that was drowning as it attempted to swim from the Poquonnock River to Pine Island, which was part of Plant’s estate. The crew successfully pulled the deer onto the launch and towed it to the Iolanda, where the yacht’s doctor administered “drowning first aid” to the animal – to no avail.

In September 1911, Plant sold the Iolanda to Russian Countess Elizabeth Terestohenko. Although the amount paid for the yacht was undisclosed, it was said that Plant undoubtedly realized a profit on the sale.

The Iolanda was sold and changed hands several times after being owned by Terestohenko. In 1940 it was converted into a British government/military surveyor ship and was renamed the HMS White Bear.

In 1948, after the war, it was sold to the SS Burwood Company which, in 1952, sold it to Jules Ceulemens & Files of London. It was scrapped in 1958.

Jim Streeter is the Groton town historian.

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