Historic Sites

From Shipways to Runways: the Transformation of Hog Island, Part One

Purchase Photo   View Nearby Photos
Soon after America declared war on Germany in April 1917, songwriter George M. Cohan released his jaunty, rousing call to arms “Over There”. But despite the popular fervor to take the fight to Europe, the U.S. did not possess the merchant fleet to make war “over there.” With only 430 cargo and passenger ships in its merchant marine, America relied on foreign ships for nearly 90 percent of its overseas trade.[1] Successful German U-boat campaigns in the early months of the war exacerbated the shortage.

With a meager merchant fleet unprepared to serve its troops overseas, the Wilson administration turned to the private sector for assistance. Eventually the government would run 132 shipyards spending over $200 million on ship construction. But no yard was more ambitious and controversial than Hog Island, where the Philadelphia International Airport is presently located. On 31 July 1917, under the aegis of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, the government lavished a multimillion dollar contract on a nebulous conglomerate, the American International Corporation, to construct a massive shipyard on boggy land a company subsidiary had advantageously purchased two months earlier. Paying twenty times the assessed value for the land, the American International Shipbuilding Corporation set its dredges to work. Ceaselessly throughout the summer and fall of 1917, the dredges bolstered the flat island with millions of tons of Delaware River spoil.[2]

From the perspective of the popular press, the process of turning the 860-acre tract “where formerly the song of the mosquito was the only sound to greet the ear of the surveyor or fisherman” into a teeming military industrial complex inspired the same pride in America as Cohan’s martial ditty. National Geographic called Hog Island a “wonderful industrial center” in September 1918. The Historical Outlook, a magazine for teachers published in Philadelphia noted where once was “a low lying unsanitary swamp—merely a strip of wasteland” stood forth the next summer “the greatest shipyard in the world.” In many ways, Hog Island was a projection of early 20th century American idealism—capital, technology, and scientific management in the service of progress.

Purchase Photo   View Nearby Photos

But in other ways, Hog Island was too big for its own good. The contractual obligation to supply “at least” 200 ships meant massive expenditures for site preparation and infrastructure were needed. Writers were fond of hyperbolic comparisons of the yard’s infrastructure to major American cities. Hog Island’s electrical power plant was sufficient to light the combined needs of Albany, NY and Richmond, VA. Its water system could deliver twice the capacity of the city of Atlanta. Its sewer system was equal to that of Minneapolis. With its 70 miles of rail lines sustaining twenty locomotives and 465 freight cars, 250 buildings, 3,000,000 feet of underground wiring, a hospital, trade school, 12 canteens and restaurants, hotel, 5 mess halls, and telephone traffic equal to a town of 140,000, comparisons to a small city were apt.[3]

[1] “Ugly Ducklings,” Time, 13 January 1941.

[2] James J. Martin, “The Saga of Hog Island, 1917-1920: The Story of the First Great War Boondoggle,” The Saga of Hog Island: And Other Essays in Inconvenient History (Colorado Springs, Co: Ralph Myles, 1977).

[3] Ralph A. Graves, “Ships for the Seven Seas: The story of America’s Maritime Needs, Her Capabilities, and Her Achievements,” The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, September, 1918.

“A Few Facts About Hog Island: the Greatest Shipyard in the World,” the American International Shipbuilding Corporation, 5 August 1918.