Federal Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. was located at Kearny Point, Kearny, New Jersey on the west bank of the Hackensack River, about three miles from today's Newark International Airport. A subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation, it was organized in 1917 for the construction of steel ocean-going vessels.
James A. Farrell, Sr., the chief of the export subsidiary of U.S. Steel, realized the key to steel exports lay in providing cheap and reliable ocean transportation. Between 1902 and 1904 the Corporation's exports quadrupled, soon to represent 10% of its total sales. Farrell used ships of any status for the transport of his steel cargos. It was the need for reliable and low cost shipping that moved Farrell to establish Isthmian Line and other lines such as New York and South American, American and Cuban, United States and Brazil. On 10 August 1910 James A. Farrell was named President of US Steel Corporation. From that position which he occupied for decades, he continued to support the activities of the Corporations shipping subsidiaries.
US Steel entered the shipbuilding industry on 24 May 1917, buying 60 acres on Newark Bay through its subsidiary the American Bridge Co. which had proven, in collaboration with Chester Shipbuilding, the viability of prefabricated parts. On 24 July 1917 Federal Shipbuilding was chartered in Trenton, NJ with a capital of $3,000,000 to develop the shipyard.
US Steel began the emergency construction of the Federal Shipbuilding Yard at Kearny, a 160-acre facility intended to produce large numbers of ocean-going cargo vessels to assist the war effort in WW I. The facility included a number of large brick buildings a few hundred feet south of the present Lincoln Highway.
Some of these buildings remain, but the facility, which achieved its historical significance during World War I, is not well preserved, and does not have the integrity to be evaluated as a potential historic district.
At the time the shipyard was under construction, the Morris Canal was still in limited use. In this area the canal had been constructed in 1836, and it ran along the south side of the present Lincoln Highway. The southern span of the railroad bridge therefore had to be long enough to span the canal as well as the eastbound lanes of the highway.
The Federal Shipbuilding Yard at Kearny was built quickly, and 30 vessels of 10,000 ton capacity were constructed in a short time (it performed the same function in WW II). The urgent measures that had to be undertaken by the United States following entry into WW I in 1917 included the construction of large numbers of cargo vessels to replace those lost to German submarines, in order to convey quantities of war material and supplies to Europe.
Such a large industrial enterprise naturally required railroad service, both to provide construction materials for original construction of the shipyard and to supply it with raw materials for its operations. The Pennsylvania RR built a spur south from Meadows Yard in Kearny toward the shipyard. The spur had to bridge the Lincoln Highway to get access to the new ship yard. In order to complete the spur as quickly as possible, the railroad constructed a temporary bridge of 85' span with trestle approaches using, in an ingenious way, some old bridge girders it had. This bridge was to be replaced as soon as possible by a more permanent structure (the site and the temporary bridge are described in Engineering News-Record. 1918).
The first keel was laid at the Federal yard on 14 November 1917. The first vessel, the Liberty, was launched at Federal Shipbuilding 19 June 1918, and delivered to the Shipping Board on 05 October 1918. The War ended a few weeks later.
Federal Shipbuilding in Kearney was similar in many ways to New York Shipbuilding, as it was part of an enormous complex of maritime industries making up the larger Port of New York. The port region contains 750 miles of docks and coastline within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty. Located next to the New York Bay and places like Fort Monmouth (Army Signal Lab), Fort Hancock / Fort Tilden (harbor radar posts) and companies like Sperry, it was a suitable location for running tests concerning ships and radar technology.
Drawing on the region's radical tradition and history of unionization in maritime industries, organizers at Federal ship were very successful in establishing the Marine and Shipbuilding Union in the mid-1930s.
Kearny shipyard was one of the five major pre-war shipbuilders, in continuous operation since 1918, and one of the few that was fully operational before the war. It expanded its capabilities with the aid of $10mm from the Navy.
The CIO Shipbuilding Workers Union struck against the Federal Shipbuilding Company (a subsidiary of Stettinius' US Steel) at Kearny in June 1940. No sooner had the 6,000 workers struck for a 10c hourly wage increase and a week's vacation with pay, than Washington swooped down to drive the workers back into the yards with their demands unmet. Roosevelt led off with the statement he expected cooperation between labor and capital to avoid strikes. The Labor Department rushed a conciliator to Kearny to lure the men off the picket line. The FBI mobilized and descended on the strike. The Secretary of the Navy cried, "We cannot afford to have trouble of this sort in these times." Representative Hoffman introduced a bill in Congress to outlaw all strikes on "defense projects."
When the Kearny settlement was finally negotiated late in June 1940, it didn't contain the 10c hourly wage increase demanded - nor the one week vacations after one year, nor the closed shop, needless to say. Workers who have let themselves be talked off the picket line before a settlement don't have much strength in the negotiations.
By October 1940 US Steel had already begun a considerable enlargement of defense-related facilities. This included a substantial increase in the facilities of the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company at Kearny, New Jersey, so as to undertake the construction of additional vessels for the Navy. This shipbuilding subsidiary delivered to the Navy two completed destroyers seven months ahead of the contract delivery date, to establish a good record in anticipation of war-time orders.
Although the United States was not formally at war, President Roosevelt had declared a defense emergency. American military goods were being sent to England and the Soviet Union, and the US Army and Navy were gearing up for war. In March 1941, President Roosevelt created the National Defense Mediation Board (NDMB), charged with the task of trying to settle labor disputes in businesses with defense contracts.
During the 1941 defense emergency, unions added a new tactic in disputes involving companies with defense contracts. Early in the year, unions used strikes that allegedly impeded defense production at North American Aviation Company in Inglewood, California, and at Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Kearny, New Jersey, as a pretext for President Roosevelt to seize the plants and assign the War Department to operate them in accordance with union wishes.
In mid-1941 National Defense Mediation Board panel recommended a "maintenance of membership" agreement at the Kearny, NJ yards of the Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. Under this plan, union members would have to remain in good standing to keep their jobs, but non-members would not be obliged to join. A seventeen-day strike followed the company's rejection of the recommendation, until President Roosevelt, holding management to blame, commandeered the plant in late August 1941.
The Navy took over the strike-shut Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. at Kearny, N.J. - as the Army took over the strike-shut North American Aviation plant on the West Coast in June. But there were two big differences. This time it was labor that cheered while management just abdicated. And this time it looked as though the Government might have to run the plant for the duration. No question of wages or hours was involved in the Kearny strike. Both sides had accepted the master agreement which established pay scales and working conditions.
In January 1942 the Navy turned the Federal Shipbuilding yards at Kearny back to its officers, who had stood by throughout the Navy's visit, giving what the Navy called "damned good advice."
From 1930 through the last of the Gearing class, Federal built more destroyers than any other builder except Bath Iron Works, including lead ships of the Somers, Benham, Fletcher, Allen M. Sumner and Gearing classes. different destroyer classes were under construction at the same time, as reflected in the mingling of commissioning dates for Gleaves- and Fletcher-class ships. Shortest time from keel laying to launch was achieved with Melvin, at 103 days. Shortest launch-to-commission was set with Thorn at 21 days, as was the yard's record for keel laid to commissioning at 137 days.
Federal also built other types, including cruisers and merchant ships. Cleveland (CL-55) class gun cruisers CL-84 and 88 were assigned to Federal Shipbuilding, Kearny NJ but were cancelled in December 1940 to allow that shipyard to concentrate on destroyer construction.
The P2-S2-R2 type transports were 17,800 gross ton, 622 by 76 foot liner. These nine vessels, the largest to be built for the Maritime Commission during World War Two, were conceived in 1941 for trooping and post war commercial service. They were all built between 1943 and 1944 by the Federal Shipbuilding and could carry up to 5,000 troops. Designed without portholes for extra security, they were given powerful air conditioning plants as compensation.
After the war, construction continued on six Gearings laid down but not yet commissioned. Five of these were completed in 1945-46 and the sixth, Epperson, in 1949.
In its place is the sprawling River Terminal Development complex. Reminders of the site's historic past may still be seen, however, including a rusting construction crane, unused slipways on the Hackensack River and a monument "to the veterans who served aboard the ships launched from this Kearny Federal shipyard and to the men and women who built them."
In 1922, the Morris Canal was officially abandoned, and not long thereafter it was filled in. Presently a billboard stands just east of the bridge in the filled-in Morris Canal bed. A casual observer would not be aware that the Canal was once here, and might therefore wonder why the bridge is so much longer than necessary to span the three eastbound highway lanes.
The present bridge was built after 1918, but almost certainly before 1924, the year the Morris Canal was officially abandoned. The girders of the new bridge, were not new but had been built by the American Bridge Co. in 1915, according to a plate mounted on the girders. It is not known how or where they were used before being incorporated into the present bridge. The thru girder bridge is not a technologically distinguished example of its type and is thus not individually noteworthy.
The bridge can be considered one of the last remnants of the Canal era in Hudson County, as when built it was made long enough to span the still existing Canal adjacent to the highway. The Federal Shipbuilding Yard is now closed, but south of it is a BASF chemical facility that still requires regular rail service using the bridge.
In summary, neither the site nor the structure appear to meet National Register criteria. The bridge is a representative example of a common type, and the shipyard does not retain its historic appearance, including the filling of the Morris Canal. Much of the site has been redeveloped for modern industrial purposes.
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