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William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company

Cramp Shipbuilding was a major shipbuilder with a very distinguished history going back to 1830. The Cramp shipyard of Philadelphia enhanced its reputation as the premier maker of modern ships in the naval program of 1890 with the construction of the battleships USS Indiana and USS Massachusetts, armored cruiser USS New York, and protected cruiser USS Columbia. Cramp-built vessels comprised three of the five capital ships that defeated the Spanish fleet in 1898 at Santiago de Cuba, an event that heralded America's emergence as a great power. It truly was the "American dream," growing from a small family business into an industrial leader. It was bought by Averell Harriman's American Ship & Commerce Corporation in 1919 but closed in 1927.

William Cramp, born in Philadelphia of German immigrant parents, was only 23 years old when he started his yard in Port Richmond in 1830, with backing from the Cramp family's shad fishery. There were over a dozen shipyards on the Delaware at that time, but Cramp was one of the few that did make a successful transition from craft to industry. Cramp surpassed them all with speedy wooden clipper ships. William Cramp's original Susquehanna Street yard constructed the only clipper ships built in Philadelphia.

The shipbuilders of Pennsylvania, led by the famous Cramp Yards, contributed to the strength of the navy and merchant marine. When the Civil War accelerated the transition wood to iron warships, the Cramp shipyard made the transition smoothly, remaining the leading Philadelphia shipyard. Cramp built the hull for the steam frigate New Ironsides, one of the North's premier ironclads. The yard began building iron vessels in a comparatively small way during the war. Cramp's became a sort of kindergarten, since most of the workers had to be trained to the work and working appliances had to be designed. "

William Cramp added additional space at Palmer Street and Pettys Island and, after the Civil War, the great shipyard at Norris Street. From Norris Street, William's son, Charles Cramp, guided the enterprise in its glory years. Charles was the technical and business genius who managed the revolutionary transition from wooden shipbuilding to iron and steel hull construction, and adopted modern corporate practices.

Building the New Navy

By 1890 the Cramp shipyard had nearly a quarter of a mile of water-front. Along this frontage were ships in various stages of construction, some on the stocks and some in the water, illustrating almost every step in the building of a vessel. Near the entrance to the yard, was an acre or more of punching-machines, enormous contrivances that, as they close their jaws, with their ungainly teeth bite out holes for rivets in the plates and frames as easily as a farmers wife takes out the core of an apple. In a steel checker-board frame big pins were set in a curve. Against the pins stalwart sledge-swingers, half naked, bent the cherry-red frames and plates, as they were slid out of the furnace, into the shapes they must assume for use in the vessels. A great row of blacksmith forges was next to a building where a dozen monster boilers were in construction, and where a traveling crane lifted and moved them as easily as a hotel porter does big trunks. Foundries where manganese-bronze screws were cast, and where brass and iron were fashioned into a thousand forms. In the great mold-loft every line in the ship was laid down, and from which wooden counterparts of the vessels were made before the steel construction began. The floating derrick could pick up a 70-ton boiler, move it 300 feet, lift it high in the air, and place it in a ship in thirty minutes, with as careful an adjustment as a watchmaker uses in fitting a movement in its place.

As of 1890 there were 5,000 men employed in various capacities machinists, wood-workers, molders, and perhaps most noticeable of all, riveters in sets of three, one man to hold a big sledge against the red-hot rivet, and two, one a right-handed worker and the other left-handed, to pound it until it becomes a part of the ship. So the work went on until after about two years the ship that existed only in specifications becomes a living thing.

In putting a warship together the same methods were used as in a merchantman. The keel wes first laid on big blocks, arranged at intervals of about three feet, on an incline of about five eighths of an inch to a foot, so as to give the requisite pitch in launching. The Paris had an incline of half an inch to the foot, but for the battle-ships, which are shorter and nearly as heavy, a steeper incline is required. After the keel is laid the two frames in the center of the boat were put up, and then others fore and aft follow until the stern-post and ram were fixed into place. The plates on the sides were riveted on.

Launching a Ship - 1890s-style

So the building went on until the launching day comes, and two broad ways are built up against the bottom of the vessel, and the keel-blocks on which it has been resting are knocked away. Each launch- ing way consists of upper and lower planking, between which is spread thousands of pounds of the best tallow. At the bow of the boat these upper and lower planks are clamped together, and when all is ready they are sawed apart, and the vessel starts. The upper part of the ways slides into the water with the vessel, and the lower part with the smoking hot tallow remains stationary. A launch is so smooth, and so soon ended, rarely occupying more than twelve seconds from start to finish, that one scarcely realizes its difficulties.

Three things were absolutely necessary: it must be on time, when the tidal water is highest; it must be of smart speed, so as not to stick on its downward journey to the water; and it must be accomplished without straining. So complex a thing is a launch that the careful engineer-in-charge is able to estimate the strain on every part of the vessel for every position it occupies, at intervals of one foot, on its way down the incline. There is one supreme moment. It is when the vessel is nearly two thirds in the water. The buoyancy of the water raises the vessel, and throws its weight on its shoulders. Here is where the greatest danger of straining comes, and should the ways break down, the vessel would be ruined.

The launch over, the machinery was lifted in and fitted, and then comes the board of government experts, who look the vessel over inch by inch, the fires are started, and the trial trip follows. For four hours, amid suppressed excitement that answers nervously to every quiver of the vessel, the engines are run at full speed. A premium or a penalty is at stake now. The breakage of a bolt or the disarrangement of a valve may mean thousands of dollars of loss to the contractors. Trained workmen are locked in the fire-rooms, not to be released until the test is over. Cooled drinking-water with oatmeal sprinkled upon it is run down to them in a rubber tube from a barrel on the deck. A hose is played on the costly machinery in places where there is danger from overheating, as though it were on fire. Almost every pound of coal used on the trip is carefully selected.

When the four hours are passed and the strain is over, a sigh of relief from every one on board, and even from the vessel herseig goes up, and the ship passes from the contractor to the Government, and day after day while she is in cormission the flag will be saluted, and the score or more of other ceremonies and formalities observed on a man-of-war will follow.

Early 20th Century Devlopments

By 1895 its yard covered 32 acres and employed 6,000. By 1900 Philadelphia was eminently a manufacturing city, and its two greatest establishments were the Cramp Shipbuilding yards in the Kensington district and the Baldwin Locomotive Works on North Broad Street, each the largest establishment of its kind in America.

During the heyday of shipbuilding, around World War I, Philadelphia shipyards set records for physical plant and production. American International Shipbuilding Corporation at Hog Island was the largest shipyard in the world at that time, completing some 122 military vessels for the war effort. Two other giant shipyards contributed to Philadelphia's maritime might: William Cramp & Sons Shipyard in Kensington and the U.S. Navy Yard on League Island.

WWII Submarines

Cramp had been idle since 1927, however, and its facilities had deteriorated badly. The Navy encouraged its reactivation in 1940 and provided $22mm toward the cost. The yard briefly reopened in 1941 for emergency war production of submarines, cruisers and other vessels, employing 10,000 men until war's end. Cramp Shipbuilding closed permanently after the war ended and the site, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, was later occupied by an industrial park.

In the summer of 1940, the Navy Department responded to increased demand by building upon the foundation of vast experience available at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Electric Boat. To amplify the Navy's effort at Portsmouth, the Bureau of Ships (BUSHIPS) expanded the services at Mare Island Naval Shipyard and reintroduced the Cramp Shipbuilding Company of Philadelphia to submarine construction. Both of these yards would take technical direction from Portsmouth.

Although Cramp had a long-standing international reputation as a surface-ship producer, it also had limited experience with submarines. Between 1910 and 1914 it built the USS G-4 to Italian designs under contract to the American Laurenti, Company. After the Great War, the production of American warships declined dramatically and the results of the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922 insured that this trend would continue. These conditions forced one of the Navy's prime submarine contractors, the Lake Torpedo Boat Company, to close its doors in 1924. Cramp reluctantly withdrew from the shipbuilding business three years later. In 1940, at the insistence of the Navy Department, the New York firm of Harriman Ripley and Company agreed to convert the old Cramp facilities, unused for thirteen years, into a modern shipyard capable of building surface ships and submarines.

Of the five building yards producing the Navy's submarines during the war, EB did the job more cheaply than any of the others. On its contract for the SS-222/227 and SS-240/264, EB recorded a unit cost of $2,765,000. This was $284,500 less than Manitowoc and $846,250 less than Cramp. EB's considerable experience in submarine construction would account for these differences. Both Cramp and Manitowoc were relative newcomers.

The Cramp yards employed over 18,000 workers during World War II and had an enormous impact on the community itself.

This site has been vacant so long it resembles natural grassland, and in fact provides quite a beautiful stroll in autumn. And it will remain vacant for a time, with the rejection of Pinnacle Entertainment Inc.'s proposal to build a $800 million casino on part of the site.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:46:29 ZULU