I’ve posted a few pictures of American naval ships and naval yards over the last year or so, so here’s a slightly different perspective on the subject. William Cramps shipbuilding yard in Philadelphia was a long established, privately owned shipbuilders that built ships for three major conflicts fought by American forces (the Civil War, World War 1 and World War 2) as well as ships for the civilian market.
Started by William Cramp (Cramp being an anglicised version of his great grandfathers German surname Kramp) as a builder of wooden sailing ships, the yard evolved over time to produce steam powered ships, ironclads, and then finally all iron ships by the 1870’s. This was clearly a period of great change and innovation in shipbuilding as it was in many industries at that time – if nothing else, the actual industrialisation of shipbuilding itself is worthy of note. William’s son was made a partner in 1870 and the company name was changed to William Cramp and Sons’ Ship and Engine Building Company.
The yard started to build warships for foreign powers in the 1870’s, breaking into a market dominated by British, French and German yards. The picture above was taken from the deck of the Russian battleship Retvizan, which was launched in 1900.
As can be seen from these pictures, output was a mixture of warships and commercial shipping of various types. So while notable liners of the time were built, slipways were also filled with warships, and the US Navy’s first true ‘dreadnought’ type battleship, the USS South Carolina, was built by Cramps and launched in 1908.
Although the US navy had extensive shipbuilding capacity of its own, it still relied heavily on private shipbuilding operations such as Cramps, especially in wartime. It was estimated that in WW1, a quarter of the tonnage of ships built for the war was built at Cramps.
A post war decline in shipbuilding, not helped by the Washington Naval Treaty in 1921 which limited the construction of battleships, battle cruisers and aircraft carriers, culminated in the yard closing in 1927. I can only presume the yard was mothballed as in the late 1930’s, the U.S. Government initiated a naval building program and moves were made by the U.S. government to re-open the yard. This was not a straightforward affair as the old company owed money to the U.S. Navy as well as the local authority. Once this had been resolved extensive refurbishment and re-equipping of the yard could begin. But going from a standing start was no simple affair as although 1000 or so workers who lost their jobs in 1927 were taken back on or came out of retirement, thousands of new people needed training up. Thankfully, there was an available pool of labour, as the local textile industry had run down due to the war, so training schools were set up to retrain these workers. By 1944, the yard employed 14000 people, doing a 53 hour week. Over 40 ships, mostly light cruisers, ocean tugs and submarines were built for the navy.
The yard closed for good following the cessation of hostilities in 1945, and the land was sold for use by other industries and businesses. Gradually, all evidence of the areas historic past disappeared, and the last building was finally demolished in 2013, the land being required for a motorway junction (or interchange in American parlance).
An excellent history (which I used in the writing of this blog post), as well a list of ships built by the yard can be found in this PDF.
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The head photo panorama is in fact the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. rather than the Cramps Yard. The three armored cruisers being fitted out left to right are the Charleston (her name can be read on her stern), the Maryland and the West Virginia; the warship on the ways is most likely the Battleship Virginia. The time period would be 1904-1905. The location is clearly identified in the Library of Congress file, and verified by the time line for warship construction.
Yes, thanks for the comment, that picture shouldn’t have gone in this blog post – an error on my part.