From 1850 until the end of the Civil war in 1865, Greenpoint was one of the major shipbuilding areas in the world. For almost a half century after the Civil War, Greenpoint continued to build ships and nautical supplies and the area was rapidly populated by shipbuilders and their families. Shipbuilders also used their skill with wood to build many of the area’s first homes, some of which still stand today.
There was an era when the Greenpoint waterfront was lined with shipyards and the shore rang out with the sounds of sawing and hammering. The Greenpoint yards built some of the largest wooden craft ever built in the United States, including graceful clipper ships, three masted schooners and much smaller wooden craft. However, more importantly they built iron warships that helped the North win the Civil War. Shipbuilding did not come slowly to Greenpoint. It exploded quickly and totally transformed the neighborhood forever, yet wooden shipbuilding began to fade quickly too and the only shipbuilders who lasted were those who built iron ships.
A number of forces drove shipbuilding from Manhattan to Greenpoint in the eighteen forties. The first force that would drive shipbuilding to Greenpoint was the explosive population growth of Manhattan. The Erie Canal transformed New York in the years after its opening in 1825 into the most important city in the United States. Shipping in New York was booming and shipbuilders were vying with shippers, traders and other commercial interests for limited space on the waterfront. Shipbuilder realized that their industry would have to move somewhere else and that place was the western shore of the East River, Brooklyn. Greenpoint and Williamsburg had perfect shorelines with deep draft of up to twenty-five feet so that shipbuilders could launch ships even at low tide. All the conditions were right for the area to become a shipbuilding center.
The development of shipbuilding in Greenpoint coincided with a huge demand for sailing ships. Trade with China and the gold rush in California created a massive need for ships and New York City became the nation’s largest center of shipbuilding. In Manhattan, there were 33 shipyards on the East River alone. This was the era of the graceful clipper ships. They were the largest sailing vessels of the time. They had sharp graceful hulls and towering rigging. However, this era would prove brief. The first Clipper ship built in New York was launched in 1846, yet a mere twenty years later these wooden ships had become obsolete.
Shipbuilding came first to Williamsburg and shortly thereafter to Greenpoint. In 1845 Jabez Williams opened the first yard there, but he and others had their eyes on the undeveloped shoreline north of Williamsburg along the East River in Greenpoint. and it was only a question of time until it arrived in there.
In 1848 New York shipbuilder Samuel Sneden and machinery builder James Cunningham,in association with Williams purchased a large parcel of land in Greenpoint, at the junction of Bushwick Creek and the East River. The “land” that they bought was actually marsh so they began a process that would alter the lay of the land in Greenpoint. They threw up a bulkhead and hired hundreds of men to fill in the land. They took down the Noll where two centuries ago Dirck the Norman had built the area’s first home. The land they created covered more than ten city blocks and cost $220,000 a huge sum at that time. Constructing a shipyard was very unusual for the period, but it would make the investors rich men shortly after when they used the land to set up shipyards. A great advantage in building vessels there was the great depth of water there: over 25 feet deep at low tide enabling builders to launch a steamer or packet ship at almost any hour of the day.
Although Sneeden and his partners were the first to buy land there,they were not the first to set up a yard there. George Collyer and Eckford Webb opened their new yard at the foot of G Street (Green Street today) in August 1850. For the next twenty years more than a third of the people in Greenpoint would work in shipbuilding and the owners of the shipyards became rich men.
George Collyer was one of six shipbuilding brothers from the Hudson River town of Ossining. He had already built a number of vessels in New York City. Eckford Webb came from one of the most prestigious shipbuilding families in America. He was the younger brother of William H. Webb, whom many considered the foremost naval architect of his generation. Their father Isaac was also a skilled shipbuilder who had apprenticed under the famed Scottish shipbuilder Henry Eckford who emigrated to America and became a shipbuilding legend. Isaac Webb would later run Eckford’s New York yard and name his son in honor of the Scot. Webb’s sons also apprenticed in the Eckford yard, as did other future Greenpoint shipbuilders, among them Donald McKay and John W. Griffiths. Shipbuilders were a close community and word traveled quickly that the area was ideal for shipbuilding Collyer would eventually leave the firm and start his own business, but the firm he founded had the honor of building Greenpoint’s first ship in 1851. It was a small ship called the Honda.
At one point there were a dozen shipyards lining the Greenpoint waterfront and there were a number of related plants like rope works. sail makers and Chandlers.
Already in the 1850’s forces were at work that would force shipyards out of business. The amount of wood needed to build these ships was huge and whole forests would be felled to supply the wood for these clipper ships. Soon, the price of wood would make these ships too expensive and make the construction of metal-hulled ships more economical. Competition from British shipbuilders who used iron instead of wood forced prices down and squeezed profit margins too low for some firms to stay profitable.
The movement of the Williams family from Williamsburg to Greenpoint was a major turning point in the history of Greenpoint shipbuilding. They bought land and set up yards next to the Rowland’s works. They were a major New York shipbuilding family and the father Jabez was an esteemed master of the trade. The Williams family initially dominated shipbuilding in Greenpoint. The shipyards of the Jabez and his and sons were right next to each other. Edward F.’s yard was at the foot of Quay Street, adjoining that of Jabez to the north. John T. shared Jabez’s yard which ran to the foot of Calyer Street. They all turned out huge schooners. In 1853 John T. built the first three masted schooner produced in Greenpoint; The Kate Bingham. These three master schooners were a regular feature of the Greenpoint water front well into the nineteen twenties.
Other shipbuilders set up yards and in five years the shoreline changed from pristine sandy beach to a beehive humming with the sound of shipbuilding. When Neziah Bliss established regular ferry service in 1852 it allowed many Manhattan shipbuilders to commute to Greenpoint. Other workers could take the new stagecoach along Franklin Street and cross the bridge over Bushwick Creek into Greenpoint. Men from the shipyards would quickly buy lots and build houses in the growing new town. Sneeden built four ships in the year 1852 and the other shipbuilders were also getting orders for ships. This was the heyday of the clipper ship and Jabez Williams and his son launched a monster sized clipper ship in 1852 called the Tornado. Sneeden’s yard also produced another huge clipper ship in the same year.
In 1854 a nautical disaster affected Greenpoint. The Grand Republic was built in Boston and arrived in New York harbor. She was a huge four masted schooner, 325 feet long, with a 53 foot breadth of beam, and 39 foot deep hold, including 4 complete decks. It was moored near a bakery in Manhattan that caught fire. The fire spread to the ship and most of the ship was destroyed. After the fire, the boat — or rather its hull and three remaining decks – was towed across the East River to Greenpoint and it was rebuilt in Sneeden’s yard. The Great Republic was the largest wooden merchant vessel ever built and took two years to rebuild.
In 1852 Eckford Webb proved worthy of his famous family name. He built three East River steamboats for the Catherine and Bridge Streets Ferry Company. He built three other sidewheelers in that year finishing the year with the 410-ton sidewheeler Metropolis, for the Wall Street ferry. He would build three more sidewheelers the following year and hisyard employed hundreds of men.
The year 1853 closed with the sounds of shipbuilding reverberating in all of the Greenpoint yards. It was a busy year for shipbuilders in general, having been one “of unusual profits to Ship-owners, a large business having offered at rates much above the ordinary average. This has given an impulse to Ship-building.” Greenpoint had gained three new shipbuilders and more were expected to relocate there.
Early in 1854, another Collyer brother, William (an elder of George, formerly of Collyer & Webb) moved to Greenpoint. In just four years since the beginning of shipbuilding there, Greenpoint produced a huge number of ships. Of the 110 vessels, totaling 81,149 tons, reported to have been launched at the port of New York in 1854, almost a third, thirty-five ships in total, were built at Greenpoint by nine shipbuilders.
Not all the rich men in Greenpoint made ships. Daniel Milton created sails and became a very rich man. Milton Street, which became lined with houses in the early eighteen fifties was named for him. Greenpoint also produced nautical rope, brass instruments, anchors and other articles for sailing ships.
It seemed that nothing could stop the growth of shipbuilding in the area, but the business was about to get more competitive. Within two years by 1856 things had worsened. A new law limited the number of steamships that could navigate waterways. The California gold rush was ebbing, so there was less need for ships to sail there. The price of lumber continued to rise as whole forests were denuded to build ships. Prices for ship timber had risen to unprecedented highs. As more and more shipyards opened demand increased, which led shipwrights and caulkers to get higher wages. Shipwrights and caulkers had been demanding an approximately seventeen percent par raise from $2.50 to $3.00 per day Economic and technological forces were working against them, and the year 1854 ended with shipping and shipbuilding at the port of New York in a steep decline. The amount of Freight and the number of passengers also dropped rapidly. Consequently, shipbuilders were being squeezed between contracted prices and the rising costs of labor and materials. The builders sought to raise their prices, but with the decline in shipping, new contracts were not forthcoming. All these factors made wooden shipbuilding far less lucrative.
There was one factor that would end the building of wooden ships. Britain began producing ships with metal hulls. The hulls of these ships would not rot, were produced faster and at lower cost than wooden ships. the competition from iron ships drove down the price of wooden ships. More and more of the major shipping lines demanded iron hulled ships and the British were able to produce these craft at increasingly prices. The first shipyard to feel the economic pinch was the Norris and Griffith shipyard, which went bankrupt in 1855 and was unable to complete the ship it was building. Other firms would later follow its fate. Still, Greenpoint continued producing wooden ships.
By eighteen fifty-five Greenpoint’s waterfront was totally transformed into a beehive of shipyards. Lets stop and imagine what the Greenpoint waterfront must have been like. Hundreds of men were employed in building the ships and there were all types of crafts being built from lifeboats to huge clipper ships. Visitors reported seeing huge stacks of redolent wood waiting to be sawed and placed into these ships. There was white Oak hackamater, locust, yellow and white pine. These woods would be made into ships ribs, decks, floors and aprons. The sounds of non-stop hammering and sawing must have created a never ending din. Laborers worked fifteen hour days making a dollar and twenty five cents an hour, an excellent wage at the times.. The work was exhausting and this was an age before power tools. There were no cranes cables or other mechanical devices. All the lifting and sawing had to be done by hand. Especially grueling for the men was working a two handed saw. The men had to cover their faces because of the sawdust the cutting caused.
One of the first successes in union organizing in New York City occurred when the shipwrights organized a union and got paid two dollars an hour. The success of the union squeezed the profits of shipbuilders even more. The workday dropped to ten or twelve hours in the yards. Shipwrights used the higher wages they received to build wooden framed houses in Greenpoint.
John Englis joined his father’s shipbuilding business in 1850, at his yard at the foot of East Tenth Street in Manhattan. They moved to Greenpoint in 1872, to a site at the foot of Greenpoint Avenue, where Transmitter Park is today. Englis’ two sons joined him in 1882 and the firm’s name was changed to John Englis & Sons. The company closed in 1911, but built several ships. It is famous for having built one of the largest wooden ships ever built, The Grand Republic, which was more than a football field in length.