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History Matters: Shipbuilding industry along the Wilmington riverfront

During the industrial revolution and into the WWII era and beyond, shipbuilding played a key role in the evolution of industry and livelihood in Wilmington.


While the shipyards that dotted the waterfront are no longer in existence, the dockyard culture is still alive and well through the Kalmar Nyckel’s crew that maintains and sails a 1600s model ship for tourists and educational purposes.


In this month’s History Matters - produced in conjunction with the Delaware Historical Society and the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation - Delaware Public Media’s Megan Pauly tells us more about the history of shipbuilding in Wilmington.



“Pull, pull, pull!”


On a hot July afternoon earlier this month, I took a sail on the 1600s replica tall ship complete with Swedish carvings.


“Alrightly, 4G, set the 4 core!”


That’s Lauren Morgens, captain of the ship.


“M-O-R-G-E-N-S. So almost like Captain Morgan, but not quite.”


She shouted out various commands during the hour-and-a-half trip along the Wilmington riverfront.


She’s been working for the ship for 12 years, along with a handful of volunteers like Colin McGowan. McGowan helped build the ship in Wilmington in 1997.


“It’s modeled after the original ship that founded Delaware, founded the First State, founded Wilmington, right down on the 7thstreet peninsula; we’ll sail by that pretty soon,” McGowan said.


It looks like something straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean.


“This ship is built the same way they did then, it’s made out of wood, held together with iron pins and wooden pegs as you can see in the deck, all of the sails are handled from the deck just like they were 450 years ago, they had it all figured out,” McGowan said.


Above water, the model ship is over 80% accurate in its resemblance of its original that brought Swedish settlers to Delaware in 1638.


"It was the last of probably 10,000 ships built in Wilmington. So we’re accidentally - but fittingly - last," said Sam Heed, Director of Education and Senior Historian at the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation.


He took me back in time for a look at the history and evolution of the shipbuilding industry along the Wilmington riverfront.


There were four major shipbuilding plants that grew up along the Christiana river over the course of 100 years.


“It struck me one day looking at a map that they were all located on a strip of land between the railroad and the navigable Christina River – and that’s not a coincidence,” he said.


There was just enough land to build the factories, allowing convenient access to both the railroad and waterfront.


The first of the four plants to open in 1836 was Harlan & Hollingsworth. The first steam engine in Delaware was used in this plant, since the plant first began specializing in railway car manufacturing and eventually diversifying to include ship repair services.


“As ships begin to use steam engines, they need more repairs,” Heed said. “They actually need to be brought into a port facility, usually brought on land to do more repair work.”


Their repair work eventually leads them into the shipbuilding industry themselves.


“The Barclays Bank and the Firestone Grill – which we are fans of here on the riverfront - that building is the original Harlan Brick plant buildings that still exists,” he said. “So you can see teasing references, but very few.”


Next to pop up was Pusey & Jones, and then Jackson & Sharp soon afterwards.


Dravo came in the early 1900s: an extension of a Pittsburgh-based company assembling barges.


“They would ship these pre-fabricated sections by rail to Wilmington, put them together and then just launch them right out the Christina and into the Delaware,” Heed said.


In the 1900s there was also a major consolidation movement, with Harlan & Hollingsworth selling partially to the Bethlehem Steel Shipbuilding Corp – part of big steel conglomerate.


"It was the gilded age, the age of Rockefeller and Morgan and Carnegie," Heed said. "So most of the manufacturing sites along the Wilmington Riverfront get bought up and become part of larger consortiums. It was just an economy of scale, and access to resources. Bigger is better."

By 1926, they’d stopped making ships altogether, selling another piece to Dravo for its assembly line of ship production in WWII.


During the war, Dravo became the largest shipbuilding yard on the riverfront.


Wilmington became a magnet for women who also wanted to work, like the “Rosie the Riveter” character.


Housing was so tight that people had to subdivide their apartments or houses to make room for skilled workers and women who came to work in the area.


Dravo employed about 10,500 people in its Wilmington shipyard with another 12,000 in Pittsburgh.


"Think about it: Google has about 20,000 employees to run Google and this Dravo Wilmington shipyard employed about 10,500 to make all of these ships for WWII," Heed said.

Pusey & Jones employed over 3,500 during WWII to build tankers and freighters for the U.S. Maritime commission.


“These were enormous ships, the largest ships built in Wilmington,” Heed said. “Over 420 feet long with beams of over 60 feet. So large they couldn’t be launched headlong or bow long into the river, they had to be launched sideways because they were too big to fit.”


The ships got larger and larger, which iron allowed for.


Wilmington specialized in smaller wartime ships like Higgins boats, building over 400 for the Navy and Army.


“These were the Saving Private Ryan amphibious crafts that landed right on the beach and carried a squad of men or one tank,” Heed said.



Another famous ship built in Wilmington – a model by the famous Swedish designer John Ericsson – was the monitor.


“He’s one of the great industrial genius designers of the 19th century,” Heed said. “One of his project was the monitor, the built about 65 during the war. They kept improving them and doing different evolutions.”


The first iteration of the monitor was developed quickly.


“It was rushed into operation to save the fleet in Hampton Rhodes. It got there just in time to save the fleet,” Heed said.


The turret – what almost looks like a carousel atop the submarine like monitor – was its defining characteristic for its ability to hold large guns.


“These 15-inch guns would throw a 441 pound shot which gives you a sense of the revolution that was taking place with iron-hulled construction,” Heed said.


Another famous WWII boat built in Wilmington was the Saugus.


“And here it is in one of the iconic images of WWII, is it unloading supplies – the logistics at Iwo Jima beach – during the beach assault.”


But not all ships built along the river were built for battle.


Ferry boats known also as Wilson Liners were built in Wilmington’s shipyards to take passengers up to New Jersey and Philadelphia.

"And there weren't bridges across, we take that for granted,"he said. "The Delaware Memorial Bridge wasn't opened until 1951 after WWII. So before that, you had to go all the way up to Philadelphia to get across the river."

They specialized in day excursions to beach sites in Pennsville and New Jersey.


“Thousands a day were taking the Wilson Ferry Line. It was one of the busiest ferry lines in the country in the 1920s, mostly on these day excursions.”


And that’s the type of boat travel most common on the Christiana today thanks in part to the Kalmar Nyckel. They provide tourist and educational excursions to the public.


“This is currently a secret, ok? There’s a group on board today, it’s a guy and his wife and their kids and it’s their 20th anniversary. And they met at the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation I think when the ship was being built because 20 years ago it wasn’t even launched yet. So he has arranged for their priest to come along and they’re going to say a blessing. And she does not know at this point.”


That’s Captain Morgens again, back aboard the Kalmar Nyckel.


The Sekowski couple exchanged vows on the bow of the ship. The husband, Dan, helped build the boat as a ship carpenter. He and his now wife Jennifer of 20 years spent the early days of their dating life in the Wilmington shipyard.


“The crazy thing is, I haven’t been on the actual boat. 20 years, 4 kids and jobs later. So we just really wanted to do that today,” Dan said.


Dan’s ancestors were Swedish, and came to America by way of the original ship the Kalmar Nyckel is modeled after.


Jennifer was also happy to see the ship in its finished form.


“It’s really amazing to be on board after watching the ship going up from nothing, really. Boards, just a shipyard full of boards,” she said.


The Kalmar Nyckel is definitely more than just boards today – and even makes trips to Cape Cod.


But before they could head there, they had to dock and let us tourists off.


“The trick here is to bring the boat in close enough to the dock that one of my crew members can actually step to shore,” Morgens said. “We call it jumping but that’s actually a misnomer, there’s no jumping involved.”


We made it back safe and sound.

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