Mobster’s pleasure craft restored to its former glory

by Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Jul 23, 2010 - 05:16 PM

A 1929 Chris-Craft once owned by New York mafia boss Joseph "Socks" Lanza has been restored to much of its former glory by Poplar Grove resident Capt. Dick Cullison.


The Socks, now one of only five of its kind remaining, was built during the era of opulence, wealth and exotic display that was known as the Roaring Twenties, said Cullison. Wall Street magnates, eager to display their wealth, had elegant boats built that they could use to travel quickly from their homes on Long Island to their offices in Manhattan.

The model 16 Wall Street Commuter, 38 feet long with a nine-foot beam, could move across the bay at 29 knots, said Cullison, with its owner safe and dry in the private, curtained salon while a chauffeur handled the steering in the forward open cockpit. It was the last wooden vessel of its class because of the stock market crash in ’29.

Socks Lanza, who made millions of dollars for the mafia by strong-arming watermen and fish dealers at the Fulton Street Fish Market, bought the boat "to legitimize the illicit dollars gained by his associates," said Cullison. He said the boat’s history also includes boardings by John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, but he doesn’t know if they were all aboard at the same time.

A pilot in New York’s Sandy Hook harbor for 45 years and a resident of Bergen County, New Jersey, before he retired in 2006, Cullison bought the dilapidated vessel Socks in 2001. Since 1950, she had gone through numerous owners and had been used to house pigeons, as a workboat and as an after-hours taxi. She even lay sunk in the Bronx River for a period of time.

Previous owner Bill Brogan of New York, purchased the run-down vessel from a boat taxi service and replaced the original V12 gas Lycoming engine with a 671 GM diesel, but didn’t have the wherewithal to complete the restoration work.

Cullison, however, was determined to bring out the original beauty of the boat, and he knew just where that could be done—in Mathews County. A native of Mathews, Cullison knew there were "excellent woodworking craftsmen" in Tidewater, and he found two of them in the same family—Lori Close and her father, Dean Close, both of Mathews. Over time, Tim Scheid, also of Mathews, became Cullison’s "go-to man" for restoration work.

Under the expertise of these local artisans, the 17-ton Socks has had her Honduran mahogany frames replaced or sistered with Philippine or African mahogany. Her hull has been replanked, and she now has a completely new third bottom and a new stern, all in mahogany. Rather than varnish the mahogany, which was all different colors because of the origins of the wood, the boat was painted. Finally, the flying bridge helm, which had been removed sometime in the past and replaced with a wooden storage box, was restored.

Although the cockpit had originally been just an open "dog house," Cullison had it closed in to create a more comfortable forward steering station. All the work was completed according to plans for the boat found at Mariners’ Museum in Newport News.

Cullison said he tried to come as close as he could to the original, but he made some concessions to modernization, such as electronics equipment and amenities for the head.

But none of this would have been possible if the boat hadn’t had good bones to begin with.

"The marine surveyor was amazed," said Cullison. "She wasn’t hogged or sagged or twisted. The frames were okay, and she could sister okay."

All the boat needed was the right craftsmen to restore it.

Scheid is "an artist and a perfectionist," said Cullison. "He’s wonderful; that’s what this boat needed."