On August 31, 1917 notification was given that contracts for the construction of three great Government-owned ship fabricating plants were awarded by the Emergency Fleet Corporation to the American International Corporation, the Submarine Boat Corporation, and the Merchants Shipbuilding Company, and orders were issued to exert every effort to rush the work. The Emergency Fleet Corp. of the US Shipping Board, was headquartered in Philadelphia, since the Delaware River was a center of American shipbuilding at that time.
Merchants Shipbuilding was to be located at Chester, PA, later referred to as the "Bristol yard," described as "a purely private enterprise" of W. Averell Harriman and the rest of the board of directors of Merchants Shipbuilding. In 1917 the Merchant Shipbuilding Corporation (later called Merchant-Sterling) opened in Bristol, PA and began building ships for the war.
The 12 shipways of Merchant Shipbuilding's yard were far up the Delaware in Bristol, more than 100 miles from the sea. The shipyard was and assembly plants, where structural and mechanical components manufactured at hundreds of remote mills would be assembled and installed.
Merchant's contract of 07 September 1917 covered the construction of 40 identical single-screw steel cargo vessels. The 8,800 deadweight ton ships were 418-ft. long and 54 ft. in beam, drew 25 ft. of water laden, and made 11 knots. Their boliers were oil fired, but convertible to coal. Deck guns were mounted on the bow and stern for defense.
A residential development was built to house the thousands workers and their dependents. The "Town of Harriman" was named for the industrialist who undertook the enterprise for the EFC. The small town dubbed "Harriman Village," later annexed to Bristol, began to grow in the area surrounding the shipyards. Most of the houses remain occupied to this day.
Submarine Boat launched the first fabricated ship. Merchant Shipbuilding was always slighted, although its ships had greater deadweight tonnage than Submarine Boat or American International. Merchant Shipbuilding suffered the embarrassment of its first ship, Watonwan, get stuck on the ways during its aborted launching on 03 August 1918.
Merchant Shipbuilding laid fifteen keels at Bristol before the armistice of 11 November 1918, but delivered none prior to the end of the War. The 20-ship contact of 22 December 1917 was canceled. A few Bristol ships carried food to troops and civilians in Europe during 1919.
In the years after the Great War, a manufacturer of amphibious passenger aircraft occupied portions of the shipyard buildings and used one shipway for access to the river. Various other manufacturers occupied the buildings during World War II and thereafter. By the late 1990s, the only remaining operation was Dial's detergent plant, which occupied the old General Stores and Mold Loft building. Concrete pedestals for a few shipways also remained.
In the 1990s, the Bucks County Redevelopment Authority received state and federal funding to identify industrial and commercial "brownfield" sites that could be amenable to redevelopment. Given its riverfront location, the Merchant Shipbuilding site ranked highest in priority. Environmental conditions were a key factor in the redevelopment effort. An environmental assessment was completed, and a remedial action was conducted.
On 20 October 2000 various legislators and officials held a press conference at the former shipyard. By that time, construction of the residential development, known as the Riverfront North Project, was under way, and derelict portions of the shipways were being removed.
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