Thursday, May 28, 2020

Shipbuilding in the 1880s in America By Donna Schlachter

Shipbuilding and design hasn’t changed much throughout history. From the time of the first large water craft until now, a ship must be stable in the water, able to carry cargo, and cost-efficient to build and operate.

Earliest designs of flat-bottomed boats, suitable for calm waters and short trips on inland lakes,
Essex Ship yard
soon proved unstable on the ocean. Thus began the search for the best wood—surprisingly, the sturdy oak is too heavy and can’t bear sufficient cargo weight or endure rough oceans.

Perhaps not surprisingly, at least to those who study and follow Biblical teaching, is that cypress or gopher wood is much stronger and more flexible for open waters and heavy loads.

Next, realizing the need for stability on the ocean, keels were developed and redesigned according to the purpose of the ship. For those transporting passengers and perishable cargo, speed was of the essence, so sleek deep-v hulls for a faster and more smooth ride and large coal-fired engines were included in the new designs. With the advent of increased international trade, larger cargo ships had broader hulls, while racing schooners continued to employ sail power, medium-v hulls for more stability in open waters, augmented by backup gasoline motors.

USS Suzanne
Massachusetts was a well-known shipbuilding area for several reasons, including its protected harbors and bays, as well as the trees required to build the ships. Not only were shipbuilders and designers employed, but also those other trades such as sail makers, rope makers, and suppliers known as chandlers.

Although not strictly a ship, the quintessential dory was first designed and built in Massachusetts. The renowned Gloucester fishing fleet also supplied and empowered the merchant and naval fleets that made the United States a world power.

By the late 1880s, an experienced shipbuilder would make use of his time and effort by employing his ship during the summer fishing season, then he would sell his boat in the fall. This served two purposes: he earned income then sold a seasoned ship with “the bugs worked out” to another fisherman, who would use the downtime of the winter season to get the boat into tip-top shape for the coming year.

Often, a captain in need of a ship would travel to the town of Essex and contract for a new
Captain's Chair
vessel, because the Essex shipbuilders were famous for unsurpassed skill and craftsmanship. Most shipbuilders learned how to build a boat through on-the-job training, including fishing and transport. However, by the late 1880s, universities were training in naval architecture, including theory, which enabled new ideas to flourish. However, many shipbuilders came from a long line of builders, and learned through apprenticeship.

While racing, passenger, and transport schooners were the mainstay of the economy, other types of everyday boats were also required, including tugboats and lightships.

The Navy was also a marketplace for ships, and by the 1880s, were placing orders not only for iron-enforced hulls, but also for steel hulled ships. In 1883, the US Congress approved $1.3 million to build three cruisers and a dispatch ship steel-hulled ships. This group of ships was called the ABCD ships—cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, and the dispatch ship Dolphin—and were the beginnings of a steel Navy. The building of these ships proved that steel was easier to work with than iron, making it the material of choice for future Naval orders.

While my most recent release, Kate, doesn’t take place on the ocean, she does travel westward in a Prairie Schooner—a covered wagon so called because of its rounded sides which reminded folks of a ship.

About Kate:
A prostitute’s daughter, an outlaw’s brother, and a stagecoach robbery—can anything good come out of Deadwood?
Kate Benton, daughter of a saloon floozy, runs away, straight into the arms of Tom McBride, fleeing from his outlaw brother’s past. Can these two, damaged by life experiences, tear down the walls that separate them with God’s help? Or are they destined to remain alone forever?

About Donna:
Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.
her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas and full-length novels. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!
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  1. Fascinating post! I never thought about the "technology" of shipbuilding in the early days, especially the difference a hull shape made. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Linda, I didn't either, until I did this research. One interesting thing is that the Bible mentions gopher wood for building the ark, and while we aren't really certain what kind of wood it was,by all descriptions, it is perfect for ships: strong, resilient, and lightweight. Much like our present day cypress.

  2. Thanks for the post! I'm not aware of cypress and gopher wood growing in Massachusetts, so they must have found other wood just as suitable? It's interesting that nowadays there are schools that specialize in making boats by hand from wood, though certainly for personal use I'm sure.

  3. Hi Connie, thanks for great insight. Yes, those don't grow in Massachusetts, but pine does, and it's a pretty decent substitute. Funny how artisan-based classes are so popular now, from shipbuilding to weaving to cooking and farming.