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Hog Island

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.

American International Corporation [AIC] was formed on 22 November 1915. It had a board of directors that was a Who's Who of American industry and finance. It had an interlocking relationships with a variety of subsidiaries and related firms. American International Shipbuilding Corporation was wholly owned by AIC. Arrangements began in May, 1917, a few weeks after the declaration of war, between the AIC and the Shipping Board, with the latter having requested" them to undertake the construction of an enormous shipyard and to build therein 200 prefabricated steel ships. No competitive bids were involved and no other firms considered at any time during the preliminaries.

On 31 August 1917 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. American International Shipbuilding was the largest single recipient of contracts awarded by the US government Emergency Fleet Corporation. The company signed substantial contracts for war vessels with the Emergency Fleet Corporation. The first contract called for fifty vessels, followed by another contract for forty vessels, followed by yet another contract for sixty cargo vessels.

Hog Island was a sizable piece of land -- about a thousand acres -- between Philadelphia and Chester, south of what was known then as League island, with a frontage along the Delaware River. The land was sold to the AIC in June 1917, well before the awarding of the Hog Island contract, after the transaction was in the government-business negotiation machinery in May], but well before public awareness [in August]. Hog Island landowners, jacked up the price to $2000 an acre, versus the $100 price that was previously the going rate.

Hog Island was built in just 10 months, under the shadow of scandal. The Yard was built on the glorified bog six miles southeast of the Philadelphia City Hall, its surface raised by fill dredged from the Delaware River. The yard laid its first keel on 12 February 1918. The keel of Quistconck was laid in a half completed berth and plant construction interfered with ship assembly, so that ship carpenters remained idle for weeks until constructions workers had completed the groundwork. At that time the sum of $23,313,362.68 had already been spent on Hog Island, $19,029,972.42 on the shipyard, and the remainder on ships and materials for building ships, with 12 of the 50 ways now completed. Hog Island was projected by the well-known firm of Stone and Webster, contracting engineers.

The grandiose lines on which it was planned by them testify to their imagination and vision. The yard covered 846 acres and comprised 250 buildings. It had 80 miles of railroad track; 3,000,000 feet of underground wiring; a hospital; YMCA, hotel, cafeteria, trade school, 12 service restaurants and 5 mess halls. Twenty locomotives, 465 freight cars and 165 motor trucks hauled material within the yard. Hog Island's telephone traffic was equivalent to that of a city of 140,000 inhabitants. The 50 ways of the yard extended about a mile and a quarter along the Delaware. Altogether there was a water frontage of 20,000 feet. Fifty ships could be built on the ways while 28 were being fitted out at the piers simultaneously, making a total of 78 ships under construction at one time. There never before had been conceived or executed a plan for the fabrication of ships on such an enormous scale. Every steel fabricating plant in America, 88 of them in all, from Montreal to Kansas City, funneled steel plate into Hog Island and machinery and gear from hundreds of manufacturing plants all over the country poured into the mammoth assembly plant.

August 5, 1918 was a day to remember at Hog Island, the occasion of the launching of the first ship produced there. President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and a cheering crowd of 100,000 were present. Mrs. Wilson christened the vessel the Quistconck, an Indian word meaning "hog's place." This ship was only 65% riveted, and much additional work had to be done on it before it was turned over to the Shipping Board. This did not happen until after November 11, by which time the war was over. The second Hog Islander to hit the water was the Saccarappa, on December 22, with the war now over more than 40 days. The freighter, which was to be known as the Hog Islander, became a familiar sight on the oceans of the world in the interwar decades.

The Hog Island yards in 1919 began to launch ships in a frenzy, once as many as seven in a single day. In the first few months of 1919 the installation was going full bore, with a labor force of 29,000 -- mostly from Philadelphia, and a weekly payroll now of at least $800,000. Hog Island laid its last keel on December 8, 1919. The Yard eventually built a total of 122 ships by 1921.

The cost of building the shipyard had run up from $27 to $66 million, though there was no observable expansion of the plant and facilities. The cost of each Hog Island ship had escalated from $1 million to $2 million each.

Luncheon sandwiches eaten by workers became known as hoagies. There are several versions of the story. The Irish and Italian people who lived on Hog Island during the early 20th century where known as "Hog Islanders." In addition, they referred to one another many times as "Hogans" during their lunchbreaks. Eventually, the unique sandwhiches the men ate (they where large loaves of Philadelphian bread filled with meats--a precurser to the modern sub/hoagie) simply became known as "hoggies." During the Depression, out-of-work Philadelphian Al DePalma went to Hog Island near the naval shipyards in South Philadelphia to find work. When he saw the shipyard workers on lunch break wolfing down their giant sandwiches, his first thought was "Those fellas look like a bunch of hogs." Instead of applying for a job at the shipyard, DePalma opened a luncheonette that served big cold cut sandwiches, listed on the menu as "hoggies". Sometime by the end of WWII, the word transformed into its modern pronunciation and spelling: "hoagie."

The United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation was responsible for the construction of the Hog Island Ship Yard and its operation, through the American International Shipbuilding Corporation, during World War I. The Philadelphia Department of Director of Public Works was involved with land acquisition, improvements to roads, repair of the Penrose Avenue Bridge, extension of the a street-car line to facilitate access to the Ship Yard, eradication of mosquito breeding grounds; and plans for drainage sewers, water supply, and street improvements in order to accommodate the construction of housing for shipyard workers in the 40th Ward by the Emergency Fleet Corporation.

The week before Christmas of 1920, the work force at Hog Island had shrunk to 3500 men, all that remained of the more than 36,000 employed there at its peak. They were finishing the last four ships.

The site was sold to the city of Philadelphia in April of 1930 for $3,000,000, a little less than twice what the Shipping Board paid for the land alone in 1920. It was scheduled to be the terminus of a major air, rail and water port, with most of the acreage occupied by the shipyard ways destined to be a 494-acre airport. This site is now occupied by Philadelphia International Airport.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:49:20 ZULU