Spending the Borden Fortune

Adventurer John Borden





By Megan McKinney


John Borden was on the water much of his life.  


The money William Borden accumulated from real estate development after the Leadville Silver Strike permitted his exceptional children to actualize their dreams. His son, John, became a sportsman and explorer by profession—living for action, sailing racing yachts, hunting wild game, going after bowhead whales in the Arctic—and playing polo in the Onwentsia Four.


The Onwentsia Four, 1920: John Towne, John Borden, B.M. Rader and Laurance Armour.


In 1907, John married James Breckenridge Waller Jr.’s daughter, Ellen, linking the two prominent real estate families and adding a patina of Kentucky gentility to the pioneer Bordens. Because Lake Geneva summers while growing up had given him a taste for the area, John began leasing Snug Harbor in 1910 and eventually purchased the Victorian pile in 1919.    


A 1884 photograph of Snug Harbor in the early days of its initial grandeur.


The veranda at Snug Harbor.


Snug Harbor in 1910, the year it became John and Ellen Borden’s summer address.


Borden made many expeditions to the Bering Sea and north of the Arctic Circle, but was best known in Chicago for the vessels he commanded, the schooners Northern Light and Adventuress, and the 175-foot schooner The Great Bear.


Adventuress, the most famous of John Borden’s ships, was known for exploring Arctic waters under Borden’s command more than a century ago. The ship would prevail to have a longer life than any of the humans it carried.


It was The Great Bear that Borden was sailing in August 1916 when he and his crew, including the experienced arctic navigator Capt. Louis Lane of Seattle, were lost during ferocious storms off the Aleutian Islands.

Although the incident caused concern in Chicago and was continuing “page one news,” the hometown sentiment, during a suspenseful two-week wait for news of Borden and his crew, was that Borden’s “usual spectacular good fortune” would see him through this latest adventure, as it did.


The Great Bear.


Fifteen days after first reported missing, The Great Bear and those aboard were rescued by the Coast Guard from St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea, where they had survived on scant provisions salvaged from the ship’s battered wreckage.   

According to a dispatch cabled to the Chicago Tribune by the editor of Alaska’s Nome Nugget, the schooner had been “pounded to pieces on Pinnacle Rock off St. Matthew Island.” 

There was also Borden’s steam yacht Kanawha, which was commissioned as a submarine chaser during World War I.


SY Kanawha, later the USS Piqua.


The patriotic Borden sold his beloved yacht to the U.S. government for a dollar in 1917; however, he, too, was commissioned—as a lieutenant commander—and she remained under his command. In early 1918, Kanawha was renamed USS Piqua, the first Navy ship of that name, probably to avoid confusion with an oiler also named Kanawha. When the war was over, Borden and the sleek ship returned to civilian life together.  


John Borden at the wheel of his 133-foot schooner Adventuress, during a 1913 Alaskan expedition.

Adventuress during a more recent segment of its long existence.


Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series on the Bordens will continue next week with more about John Borden in Interesting Marriages.


Author Photo

Robert F. Carl