Ships Ahoy! New Vessel Construction at the Navy Yard Signals a Historic Revival

June 13, 2024 | by David Owen Bell

Empire State VII, a new National Security Multi-Mission Vessel built for SUNY Maritime College, was constructed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It was launched on September 24, 2022. | Photo courtesy of Vessel Finder.com

History is being made on the Delaware River waterfront with a new class of ocean-going vessels under construction at the west end of the Navy Yard. The ships are uniquely designed to serve both as state-of-the-art training platforms for five of the nation’s merchant marine academies and to provide humanitarian and logistical support in response to national emergencies, such as hurricanes. They echo Philadelphia’s long history of technological innovation in shipbuilding.

The new National Security Multi-Mission Vessels (NSMVs) are big news in the maritime world—both for their design and method of production. Built for the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), the ships feature classrooms and workshops, simulator and laboratory spaces, navigation lab, and a secondary bridge and engine room for training, along with full galley, sickbay, and accommodations for 600 cadets and 100 crew, staff, and faculty. As part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, each 525-foot-long ship can also be deployed quickly to disaster areas to deliver emergency supplies and vehicles, provide medical services, and house up to 1,000 first responders and relief workers.

What makes the production method unique is its insulation from politics, cost-overruns, and delays often associated with government boondoggles. Having worked with stakeholders and approved the final design, MARAD contracted with TOTE Services, LLC to serve as Vessel Construction Manager (VCM). TOTE then selected Philly Shipyard to build the vessels for a fixed price under its supervision.

“The VCM and its competitively selected shipyard, released from political pressure, could make the myriad decisions required to keep ship cost at the lowest fixed price,” wrote Captain Douglas Burnett, U.S. Navy (Retired), in the U.S. Naval Institute publication, Proceedings. “Government agencies are not well-equipped to resist powerful lobbyists, who enlist their congressional representatives to intervene on their behalf in the contract and equipment selection process. MARAD’s shipyard representatives monitor VCM compliance with its contract; they do not interface with the shipyard. All construction decisions are made between the VCM and the shipyard.”

The historic USS New Jersey arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard’s Dry Dock 3 for maintenance on March 27. It will leave the shipyard on Friday, June 14 for the Paulsboro Marine Terminal, where the battleship will stay for six days before returning to the Camden waterfront. | Photo: Navy Yard

Under the current contract, the shipyard is building five NSMVs. The first, named the Empire State, was launched on September 24, 2022 and delivered to the State University of New York Maritime College last September. The second is scheduled for delivery to Massachusetts Maritime Academy later this year, and the remaining three ships are destined for the California, Texas A&M, and California State University Maritime Academies by 2026.

Still making history is the USS New Jersey, the country’s most decorated battleship. Berthed across the river in Camden as a living history museum and memorial since 2001, the New Jersey was towed to Philly Shipyard on March 27, 2024 for two months of preventive maintenance. Dry-docked for the first time in 32 years, the ship was returned to the dock where it was launched on December 7, 1942—exactly one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor.


An overhead shot of the West Shipyard site in the 1980s.

An overhead shot of the West Shipyard site in 1987. The site was recently the focus of an archaeological excavation. | Photo: from The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia

A long, accessible waterfront, experienced shipwrights from England, and a ready supply of wood for vessels and wharves fostered the birth and growth of commercial shipbuilding in Philadelphia. Established in 1676, James West’s shipyard is considered the first, pre-dating William Penn’s arrival by six years. Fueled by the growing need for vessels to carry goods between East Coast ports and beyond, by the mid-1700s, the Quaker City had emerged as a major center of shipbuilding in the colonies.

Notable Philadelphia shipbuilders of the 17th and 18th centuries include George Eyre, Emmanuel Eyre, Warwick Coates, Bower Brooks, Richard Dennis, Bartholomew Penrose, and Thomas Penrose. Shipyards sparked development of a vibrant waterfront with associated enterprises, such as sailmakers and chandlers. Neighborhoods grew, in some cases specifically to house shipyard workers and their families.

Wharton and Humphreys

In the two decades leading up to the Revolutionary War, local shipyards, concentrated in the Southwark district, were busy turning out privateers and merchant ships. By 1775, they were building shallow-draft, oar-propelled barges armed with a single cannon and converting merchant vessels into ships of war. One of these yards was founded by cousins Joshua Humphreys and John Wharton in 1774. The Wharton and Humphreys shipyard refitted at least four ships for the pending war.

“The speed with which Joshua Humphreys’ shipyard converted the commercial Black Prince into the warship Alfred and built the experimental, stubby row galleys and gunboats attested to the accumulated skills of his and their brethren of local ship carpenters,” wrote James Farley in To Commit Ourselves to Our Own Ingenuity, his account of Humphreys and early Philadelphia shipbuilding. “Next, they extended these ancient and proven skills to the construction of the new frigates for the newborn American Navy.”

Late in 1775, the Continental Congress authorized construction of 13 frigates. One of these, the Randolph, was built at the Wharton and Humphreys yard at the foot of Federal Street. Launched on July 10, 1776, the Randolph is considered to be the United States’ first warship. This early experience positioned Humphreys to play a key role in the birth of the U.S. Navy.

After the war, the federal government tasked Humphreys with designing and building six frigates to help defend the young country. Rather than rely on the traditional design of the Royal Navy frigate, Humphreys’ plan called for additional, heavier cannon to be supported by a longer, narrower hull strengthened with diagonal beams. Innovative planking made the hull impervious to enemy cannonballs.

“Humphreys made some key changes to improve [the design of the] six frigates that became the foundation of the American Navy,” notes the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. “All of the ships… included the modifications suggested by Humphreys and became known for their speed and efficiency.”

The first of these, the USS United States, was built in the Wharton and Humphreys yard and launched in 1797. The following year, the Secretary of the Navy named Humphreys the country’s Chief Naval Constructor, tasked with overseeing construction of frigates in Portsmouth, New York City and Norfolk. In 1801, the Wharton and Humphreys property became the site of the country’s first naval shipyard.

Fitch’s Steamboats

A woodcut by James Trenchard of John Fitch’s plans for a steamboat. Published in the December 1786 edition of Columbian Magazine. | Image: Public Domain

While Humphreys was designing and building ships, John Fitch was inventing the steamboat. A resident of Bucks County, Fitch tested his first model on a pond near Davisville in 1785. He soon partnered with Philadelphia clockmaker Henry Voight to design and build the boilers that would propel his watercraft. Launched in Philadelphia in 1786, Fitch’s first design featured rows of paddles mounted on each side of the boat.

By March 1787, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania had granted patents to Fitch for the exclusive right of navigation by steam on state waters. On August 22, he staged a successful demonstration of his 45-foot-long boat for delegates to the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia. In 1788, he navigated a 60-foot-long boat with improved machinery to Burlington, New Jersey.

By 1790, Fitch had built a larger, faster steamboat using a more compact pipe boiler and stern-mounted paddles and was operating a regular passenger service between Philadelphia’s Arch Street wharf and Trenton, New Jersey. Published in New York Magazine, an account of a trip on August 13 reads, “Fitch’s steamboat really performs to a charm. It is a pleasure, while one is on board of her in a contrary rind, to observe her superiority over the river shallops, sloops, ships, &c., who, to gain any thing, must make a zigzag course, while this, our new invented vessel, proceeds in a direct line.”

The vessel, named the Experiment, logged a total of more than 3,000 miles on the Delaware River. Although the venture was a financial failure (perhaps the name didn’t inspire confidence), Fitch invented and demonstrated a practical steamboat 20 years before Robert Fulton. Historians at the John Fitch Steamboat Museum in Warminster, Pennsylvania quote Fitch as having said, “The day will come when vessels propelled by steam will cross the ocean! And I almost venture to prophesy that the same power will be utilized in moving vehicles on land.”

William Cramp & Sons

William Cramp & Sons shipyard circa 1921-1927. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

The 19th century marked the transition from sail to steam and from wood to iron and then steel, a process hastened by the Civil War. Shipyard owners who couldn’t or wouldn’t invest in the new technology faded away. As the city grew, shipyards shifted upriver to Kensington. William Allen’s 1828 map shows only the Navy Yard and the Ogilby and Burton shipyards in Southwark, with eight shipyards and one mast yard in Kensington. The industry thrived up to and during the Civil War years, but, by the late 1860s, was in a slump that would last through the end of the century.

William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company is notable for successfully navigating both the technological and economic challenges of the times. Founded by Philadelphia native William Cramp in Port Richmond in 1830, the company initially became known for producing fast wooden clipper ships. By the end of the century, it had become “one of the great shipyards of the world,” wrote Steven Ujifusa in a blog for the Philadelphia Department of Records.

“At its peak in the 1890s, Cramp’s employed five thousand men, most of whom lived in the surrounding Kensington neighborhood. It built not only passenger ships, but also cargo vessels, battleships, cruisers, and other craft for the ‘new’ U.S. Navy, which was… undergoing a massive expansion.” During the first World War, the company produced light cruisers, gunboats, and destroyers for the U.S. Navy.

“After World War I, Cramp’s rapidly fell upon hard times, largely due to the Washington Treaty of 1923, which severely limited the size and construction of new warships,” according to Ujifusa. “After finishing the Matson liner SS Malolo in 1927, Cramps went bankrupt and ceased operations.” The Navy had the yard reopened in 1941 to build cruisers, tugboats, lighters, and submarines for the war effort, launching its last vessel in May 1946 and shutting down permanently the following year.

Going to War

Workers at Pusey and Jones’ shipyard in Wilmington, Delaware in February 1944. | Photo courtesy of Hagley Digital Archives

Fueled by the first world war, and buoyed by the second, the first half of the 20th century saw the rise and fall of large, corporate shipyards along the Delaware River. Adjacent communities—some of them specially created to house yard workers and their families—often saw their fortunes wax and wane along with them. Government contracts in hand, their owners mass-produced ships for the war effort, but were ill-prepared for the post-war slumps caused by overcapacity and a surplus of vessels. The most prominent shipbuilders of the era include:

American International Shipbuilding Corporation, Hog Island, Pennsylvania (1918-1921). The largest shipyard in the world when it opened, Hog Island was meant to employ modern mass production techniques to quickly bolster the U.S. merchant fleet in support of allies at war in Europe, but by the time its first vessel was launched, the Great War was almost over. Named the Quistconck, after the Lenape word for the island, the ship’s launching was attended by President and First Lady Wilson, along with 100,000 onlookers, 400 of whom were reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer to have collapsed from the August heat. Hog Islanders built a total of 122 cargo and troop ships before the yard closed. The City bought the land in 1930 and eventually turned it into Philadelphia International Airport.

Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Company, Chester, Pennsylvania (1917-1989). Established by the Sun Oil Company, mainly to build oil tankers, the shipyard employed 40,000 workers at its peak at the start of World War II. In the 1960s and 1970s, the yard also produced breakbulk cargo ships, container ships, and car carriers. It was sold to Pennsylvania Shipbuilding in 1982 and closed seven years later. The north end of the yard is now home to Penn Terminals, a multi-modal cargo facility.

Merchant Shipbuilding Company (MSC), Chester and Bristol, Pennsylvania (1917-1923). The Chester site had been home to Delaware River Iron Ship Building and Engine Works (1871-1908), once the largest shipbuilding company in the United States. MSC launched its first ship at Chester, a freighter named Sudbury, on September 29, 1917. The Bristol yard, along with the adjoining town, was created to build freighters under a contract from the Emergency Fleet Corporation. It launched its first vessels in 1919.

Pusey and Jones Corporation, Wilmington, Delaware (1853-1946). During World War I, Pusey and Jones established the Pennsylvania Shipbuilding Corporation and the New Jersey Shipbuilding Corporation in Gloucester City, New Jersey to build tankers and cargo ships for the United States Shipping Board, while the Wilmington yard built cargo ships and minesweepers. The Wilmington yard also was noted for building the steamship, State of Pennsylvania, which carried passengers on the Delaware River between Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Riverview Park, New Jersey from 1923 to 1960.

New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden, New Jersey (1899-1967). This Camden-based shipyard produced more than 670 merchant and naval ships during its years of operation, including aircraft carriers, destroyers, nuclear submarines, battleships, and the Savannah, the first and only nuclear-powered merchant ship. “At the outset it was decided to break away from the old century’s accepted traditions of shipbuilding and build a yard in which could be applied the most up-to-date labor-saving machinery and advanced methods of structural steel construction,” the company claimed on its 50th anniversary. These include pre-fabrication of large structural assemblies, an overhead crane system, and covered ways that enabled construction in all weather conditions.

From Southwark to League Island

A USGS Topographic Map from 1891 shows League Island at the meeting of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. | Image: Public Domain

For much of its existence, the City of Philadelphia has hosted a naval shipyard. Established in 1801 at the foot of Federal Street in Southwark, the first Navy Yard produced its inaugural ship in 1815, the 74-gun, ship-of-the-line Franklin (1815). Joshua Humphreys’ son Samuel oversaw its construction. The younger Humphreys went on to design the USS Pennsylvania—the largest sailing warship ever built for the United States—and serve as Chief Constructor for the Navy from 1826 to 1846. The Southwark yard built America’s first battleship, the USS North Carolina (1820), along with the USS Princeton (1843), the first screw propeller steam warship ever built.

By the start of the Civil War, the small, out-of-date Southwark yard had become crowded and obsolete. Looking to keep the Navy in town, Philadelphia proposed League Island as the site of a new shipyard and sold it to the U.S. government for one dollar. Having served the Navy through the War of 1812 and Civil War, the Southwark yard was closed in 1876.

League Island grew in spurts prompted by wars and influxes of federal funding, eventually evolving into the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, a multi-purpose Navy base and ship building and repair facility. During its WWII heyday, the shipyard employed more than 45,000 people who built dozens of new warships, outfitted hundreds, and repaired or overhauled hundreds more. Many thousands of workers lost their jobs after the war. “Most Blacks and women offered opportunity during World War II were laid off when the war ended,” noted the Philadelphia Daily News in August 1995.

“The glory days of the Navy Yard have always been in wartime, especially World War II. That glory came at a high price. People died in the war, of course, but 20 or 30 years later, some workers learned that their lungs had been damaged from working with asbestos… and asbestos was not the only hazard. Shipbuilding was dangerous work.”

In 1967, an act of Congress shifted construction of new vessels to private companies, so work at the Navy Yard became limited to servicing existing warships, while the base became home to a portion of the Navy’s reserve, or “mothball,” fleet. A decision by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission resulted in the yard’s permanent closure in 1995.

Into the Future

Work is underway at the Navy Yard to convert the former Receiving Station and Barracks Building into The Waylen, a 223-room full service hotel and outdoor communal space. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The nonprofit Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) stepped in, acquiring control of the Navy Yard on behalf of the City of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development in 2000. Thanks to the efforts of the PIDC and others, the Navy Yard has since been envisioned and redeveloped as a modern, environmentally-conscious riverfront community, home to 150 companies with a total of more than 15,000 employees, including Keystone Shipping Company, Philly Shipyard, Moran Towing, Philadelphia Barge Company, and Philadelphia Ship Repair. The U.S. Navy continues to be represented by the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Naval Foundry and Propeller Center, and Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility.

A hotel, green spaces, public art, and an electric shuttle service complement the diverse commercial enterprises leasing office space there. Last October, ground was broken on the Navy Yard’s first residential buildings, part of a $285 million mixed-use development project.

According to the PIDC, the 2022 update to the Navy Yard Master Plan calls for “a responsive and visionary urban development that supports equitable and inclusive economic growth… and a new community to live, work, make, and play that also empowers local minority-and women-owned enterprises. The Navy Yard of the future will be a place that further promotes creativity and innovation and reflects the cultural vitality of the region.”


About the Author

David Owen Bell writes about marine navigation, ecology, and history.


  1. Nancy says:

    Fascinating history! It’s great to read about these shipyards.

    1. David Bell says:

      Thanks Nancy.

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