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History Matters: The origins of shipbuilding in Sussex County


Lewes is a city with a rich history for many reasons: it was founded in June of 1631 the first city in the First State, a key port for ships making their way to Philadelphia and even home to what historians claim is the home of the first shipyard owned by free African Americans.


And shipbuilding – which played a key role in the evolution of industry and livelihood in the town – is still alive today, but more as an art than an industry.


Since 2010, the Lewes Historical Society has hosted a unique wooden shipbuilding event open to families during Father’s Day Weekend.


During the 2016 Father’s Day weekend, six families gathered to build small 12-foot flat bottoms – essentially rowboats.


The event, one of a few wooden boat-building events scattered across the country, is popular: with over 100 families typically on the waiting list in a given year.


Credit Megan Pauly / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Bob Kotowski, a volunteer "yard boss," helps families build boats on Father's Day weekend 2016.

Families work together over the weekend to physically build a ship, with the help of seasoned volunteers.


The Franklin family this year came all the way from Huron, Ohio to participate. They’ve been coming to Delaware for 16 years, and even have a Delaware-themed nautical room in their house.


Rene Franklin says they’ve been on the waiting list for the boating event before.


“We’ve done the kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding so now we’ll get a rowboat.”


Some parts are pre-cut, but many pieces are cut on-site and fitted to the boats as they’re being built.


The boats are reminiscent of a lost era, when the shipbuilding and fishing industries were booming in Lewes. The shipbuilding industry in Lewes was born of necessity. Transportation on land was very difficult – with no main roadways in the 1600s.


“The canal has been the lifeblood of Lewes. We are the first town in the First State ironically without a first street. This is really because the first street – the first thoroughfare – is the waterway.”


That was Marcos Salaverria, Director of Education for the Lewes Historical Society.


And he says the famed gentlemen of Lewes were its pilots, or ship commanders, tasked with helping ships navigate towards Philadelphia and other ports.


“They were like any other trade of that era. You started out as an apprentice, you went through a testing period and you became a master. Their skills were sought because still to this day a lot of the waterways around our area are very shallow – shifting shoals and shores.”


The pilots relied on ships coming up and down the canal to earn a living, and the primary ships they were commanding – called schooners, had two masts.


They would have cruised off the coast, speed was an advantage. They were competing against each other, pilots would be competing. You’d buy into a pilot boat: you might have an 8th or a 16th or a 32nd – even a 64th.


That’s Mike DiPaolo, Executive Director of the Lewes Historical Society. He says during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 the pilot boats played a key role in defending Delaware.


"Shallops, Sloops, schooners, barges – whatever was on hand – was used to sort of harass the British out in the bay," DiPaolo said.


Sloops were slightly smaller than schooners – typically with one mast – and shaloops were even smaller, built to navigate narrow waterways.


However, as natural resources dwindled and the demand for larger ships grew, those larger boats were built in towns like Milford and Bethel further inland.


"When you move to Milford, when you move to Milton you had forests nearby, you also had elevation changes for the mills to help in the process, and Lewes didn’t have that," he said.


A 1929 Milford Chronicle article indicates that white oak was abundant in Sussex County at the time and was among the finest in the United States, with thousands of dollars worth being shipped to other parts of the country.

The schooner evolved into a larger ship known as the ram, over 100 feet long.

"And how it got its name the ram - the first one that went through the C&D canal - the lock operator said look at that boat ramming its way through the locks," Phillips said.

That’s Kevin Phillips, president of the Bethel Historical Society. He says the launching of the ships - which took months to build - was quite the affair. The ships were built on an incline, and a ship railcar - remnants of which can still be seen at low tide - helped guide the ship into the water.

"The school was closed, everybody came," Phillips said.


Only one ram is still in use today in Maine.

The Vinyard Shipyard – also know to the Milford Shipyard, is the last of Milford’s shipyards still in existence. It dates back to 1896.


The shipyard earned fame through government contracts to build submarine chasers - wooden ships that German submarines couldn’t detect with their sonar -  in both World War I and World War II.


Credit Lewes Historical Society
Lewes Historical Society
The menhaden fishing industry was one of the main industries supported by ships built in Lewes.

  Meanwhile: the fishing industry was still alive in Lewes.


Lewes was the breeding ground for the menhaden fish, an oily fish that can’t be eaten by humans but provided all of the oil for colonial lamps before whale became popular.

The menhaden fish oil is still popular today, as it’s an ingredient in many fish oil supplements.


Salaverria describes the early fishing process.


"Catching the schools of 100,000, 300,000 fish – this is the net reel before the invention of nylon that is dried. Not hand dried, literally foot dried," Salaverria said. "It looks like a giant hamster wheel? Four men – there are steps inside of the wheel and four men would stand inside and walk and turn the wheel.


The industry swelled during and after the Civil War and by 1880 over sixty factories dotted the coast, up as far north as Maine. It continued into the 1960s, when plane spotters helped locate schools of fish from the air.


"And what they’d do is literally message in a bottle," Sallaveria said. "Inside of a coke bottle, they’d have a message that they’d drop it from the plane, drop into the water, the boat would go over, pick it up, unroll the note and it’s the coordinates of the fish."


The invention of nylon and overfishing eventually ended the menhaden industry in Lewes.


Credit Megan Pauly / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Disabled veteran James Taulbee takes a ride with his sons after finishing building their boat Sunday.

  Bob Kotowski volunteers for the Lewes weekend shipbuilding event as a “yard boss,” helping direct the families through the shipbuilding process step by step.


Kotowski says the boats being built by the families over Father’s Day weekend were similar in size, though a bit smaller, than what was considered a gunning boat in the late 1800s to 1900s.


"They would take these boats, they would row them up the creek, they would go to the great marsh, north and slightly west of the town," Kotowski said. "Once in there, whoever was rowing would get up, take a 16-foot pole and pole it through the marsh. Once in there, the gunner would stand up and they would go gunning for waterfowl."


He says they were hunting for rail birds, as there was a market for them, and people still hunt them today. He says they are easy targets: flying low, slow and straight.


"You’ve probably heard the phrase skinny as a rail," Kotowski said. "That’s really where it came from. These birds in the marsh – if they heard anything – would stick their necks and beaks straight up in the air and try to blend in with the grasses and hide that way."


Back at Sunday’s shipbuiding event, disabled army veteran James Taulbee is working on his boat.  His opportunity to build a boat with his family came through a partnership between the Lewes Historical Society and, an organization that helps assimilate veterans back into the community.


“For me, I’ve wanted to build a boat since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” Taulbee said.


Upon returning from a deployment to Iraq, he was diagnosed with PTSD. He says being by the water – and out in nature - is therapeutic.


“Seeing the animals, the birds, the bees, the trees, you know it’s a very relaxing atmosphere and has been a critical part in my therapies,” Taulbee said.


He plans to use the boat to go fishing with his sons.


After completing the 16-hour process of building the boat, they got test it out before taking it home.


The Franklin family took their boat back to Ohio in a U-Haul, and say they’re still deciding on a color to paint theirs.

Learn More about this subject:

The Menhaden Fish – A Staple of Lewes’ Colonial Economy

The U.S. Lifesaving Service—90,000 Lives Saved off the Coast from 1872 to 1914

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