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What do New Orleans Streetcars, the Southern Yacht Club and Lipton Tea Have in Common?

Here’s one of those little facts that you probably don’t know. In fact it is one of those really obscure facts about New Orleans buried in the annals of history. There was a man who was born of humble parents in England whose name became quite famous and is still well known today because of a product that he created that is used everyday around the world.

What do New Orleans Streetcars, the Southern Yacht Club and Lipton Tea Have in Common?

new orleans sir thomas lipton

Who is this famous Englishman and what the heck does he have to do with New Orleans?

This man was actually knighted by the queen and owned a chain of small grocery stores across England. Not only that he was famous for racing sail boats and with his money sponsored a race that is still sailed today, and the cup which he created is given to the captain as a a reward for winning.

When we were evacuated to Baton Rouge for Katrina we stayed with my elderly uncle, who was 93 at the time, and we were glued to the TV watching what was happening in New Orleans, the rescues, the news reports, the trials and tribulations of those in the Superdome and the Convention Center.

In one memorable shot as a helicopter flew over the water there was a half submerged burning building at the lake front. I immediately recognized it as the Southern Yacht Club. Our family has been a member of the club for decades. As I watched it burn all I could do was laugh sardonically, the scene seemed so absurd, the whole thing that was happening in the city was absurd.

I knew that the club was planning on major renovations and the fire seemed to make the whole thing easier, just build a new one from the ground up. What I didn’t think about was all of the priceless and irreplaceable art work and trophies the club had collected over the 150 years since 1849. Seeing the club engulfed in flames seemed to me to be the icing on the cake. There it was surrounded by water, flames shooting out of the roof, seemed so incongruous like the fiery water fountains at Pat O’Briens.

Dredging for Trophies

Of the many awards and trophies lost amidst the water and flames was a famous cup awarded to the sailors who won this particular international sailng race. The SYC had won it several times. After the waters had subsided the club began the long job of picking up the pieces. They dredged the mouth of the New Basin Canal right by the club and managed to secure several of the trophies and silver cups gobbled up by the flames and flooding.

Some of these irreplaceable objects were intact, others were just melted pieces of silver with inscriptions just barely visible. All of the priceless artwork was gone. It was amazing that they were able to find anything at all the destruction of the club being almost total.

The most important cup of all that was salvaged, although warped and twisted, was the Lipton Cup. The Lipton Cup sailing competition was begun by none other than Sir Thomas Lipton the same Lipton who began the Lipton tea company in England.

Members from the club actually went over to England and went to the same foundry that made the original Lipton Cup. They found the original design and told the SYC crew that, yes, they could reproduce this cup but the cost would be in the $200,000 range a price the club could ill afford in the aftermath of Katrina in addition to having to scour funds from the insurance company and from members to rebuild.

A Priceless Gift

So, the project of restoring the Lipton Cup was put on the back burner until funds could be gathered. A few months later they were surprised by a package sent from England that contained an entirely new cup (this cup, mind you, is almost three feet tall, quite a trophy) an exact replica of the original cup! The company provided it completely gratis in honor of SYC, which is, by the way, the second oldest yacht club in the United States.

Now this is pretty interesting in itself but here is something about Sir Thomas Lipton very few people know. Today next to the trophy is a little plaque of sorts with an explanation about the cup and how it came to be with a photo of Sir Thomas Lipton with a caption underneath stating that the famous man actually lived in New Orleans in his younger days, where he was a door-to-door salesman and, yes, a streetcar conductor!

So it seems that this story of Sir Thomas and his cup comes full circle back to the city that he declared he was quite fond of. Perhaps as he rolled his streetcar down the neutral ground of New Orleans he was dreaming of his little stores he was going to open in England where he would eventually offer his teas that would make him world famous.

And perhaps in his off hours he got invited to the Southern Yacht Club where he began to develop his love of sailing which would grow to one day being the patron and creator of the world famous Lipton Cup race. Pretty amazing, I’d say.

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