For more than 300 years shipbuilders, shipwrights, shipcarpenters, skilled artisans have built ships along the banks of the Delaware River. This work focuses on a short excerpt of that long history. Philadelphia shipbuilding preceded the arrival of William Penn and his Quaker brethren, but it began to flourish as European settlers turned the Philadelphia hinterland to the axe and plow. Bulky agricultural products, wheat and timber necessitated capacious cargo ships to waiting European markets and other destinations in England’s growing mercantile empire. Increasingly large numbers of Pennsylvania demanded return cargoes of European goods: tools, cloth, and luxury goods: china, books, and the latest fabrics. From the last two decades of the seventeenth century, throughout the eighteenth century and into the opening decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of shipbuilders constructed more and larger ships to meet this cyclic but steadily growing demand.
First, imperial, then American wars promoted the command for ships, floating engines of war. Philadelphia shipbuilding mirrored the boom and bust European economic cycles, but through the rise and decline of economic and military impetus, Philadelphia shipyards grew in size and number. By the 1760s, before the imperial crisis devolved onto conflict, a dozen or more shipyards, interspersed with wharfs and warehouses of great merchants, sprawled along the Delaware River. Holding economic leverage, middle class artisans of unusual skill and business acumen, a handful of shipbuilders: Nathaniel Poole, James Parrock, Thomas, William Rice, Warwick Coats, and Richard Dennis, rose to a position which allowed them to negotiate on a level with their social and political “betters.”
The relatively brief British occupation of Philadelphia from December of 1777 to May of 1778 resulted only in a short hiatus in this ship construction.
With end of the Revolutionary War, the newly-born American Republic struggled to secure footing among the great imperial naval nations. Philadelphia merchants explored new markets to the far reaches of the globe. Two year voyages around Arica and South America bound for China and the East Indies required more capacious and sturdier sailing ships. Philadelphia shipbuilders responded with alacrity.
In addition to commercial impetus, military necessity contributed to the renewed activity of Philadelphia shipyards. The other naval powers held the puny American republic in low regard. Algerine corsairs encouraged by British hostility and French privateers preyed on helpless and defenseless American shipping. Supported by popular outrage, the Federalist administrations of George Washington and the under-appreciated John Adams took the initial, tentative steps to create the United States Navy. From this strident impetus, one Philadelphia shipbuilder, Joshua Humphreys emerged as pre-eminent.
To the ancient craft of shipbuilding Humphreys added political awareness, ingenuity, and innovation. From his imagination, from his drafting room and mold loft, and from his own shipyard emerged the three great frigates that initiated the United States Navy’s climb to supremacy.
At the end of the eighteenth century, outside the shipyard gates of Joshua Humphreys, Thomas Penrose, and Warwick Gates & Richard Dennis stood the shipbuilding enclave of Southwark. Facing the river, the source of their livelihood, the shipbuilders of Southwark, with their backs turned inland and with their attendant crafts, existed as a community where skill and mutual dependence mattered more than race.
The ascendancy of Thomas Jefferson’s administration and his ill-conceived naval policy terminated Joshua Humphreys’ brief but brilliant career as “Naval Constructor.” The dissipation of Philadelphia’s shipbuilding attended the demise of the U.S. Navy. Instead of global mercantile ventures, Philadelphia’s capital turned inward and westward. Manufactories, especially textiles, appeared seemingly overnight. Railroads and canals moved both people and goods. Southern and western ports and shipbuilding from Baltimore to New Orleans and from Pittsburgh to and across the Great Lakes grew and flourished as Philadelphia’s diminished. But the diminution was only temporary. Technology changed, it always seems to change. First steam superseded sail in naval locomotion, then iron, and steel replaced wood in ship construction. Great industrialized shipyards, Cramp’s and Sun replaced the artisanal yards of Humphreys and Penrose and Parrock and West.
Today, except for the newly resurrected Aker’s Shipyard in a portion of the closed U.S. Navy Shipyard, the shipyards have nearly vanished. No major ship construction occurs along the whole hundred mile stretch of the Delaware River.
This work traces the history of Philadelphia shipbuilding from 1640 to 1820. By name it identifies some of the most prominent shipbuilders during that period. It illuminates the craft of shipbuilding, especially the complex relationship between shipbuilders and the merchant ship owners for whom they built. It argues that demand in skill gave middling artisans leverage in negotiating with their social “betters,” and gave them purchase, profit, and respectability. It focuses on the career of one shipbuilder in particular, Joshua Humphreys, and highlights his role in the creation of the U.S. Navy. It examines shipbuilding families and communities. It finds, not surprisingly, that shipbuilders employed multiple strategies: intermarriage, collective investment, bi-occupationalism, and legal manipulation to secure themselves, their families, and their progeny. Surprisingly, perhaps, it even finds that, for a brief time, skill and co-operative artisanal strategy trumped race among the shipbuilders of Southwark. What Joshua Humphreys and his compatriots would think of the Philadelphia waterfront today, we cannot know.