Historic Sites

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

Whether it was the poor conditions of the site or a tough winter or contractors’ graft, preparatory construction began to drag on interminably, leading Congress to investigate the goings on at Hog Island. By February of 1918, seven months after the issuance of Hog Island’s contract, a New York Times reporter touring the site was surprised to hear no sound of rivets on steel and only 12 of the planned 50 shipways completed.[1] The Shipping Board’s chief constructor had investigated the site a month earlier and cynically announced that it would be a wonder if the yard produced a ship “at all” in 1918. Compounding the frustration was the mounting cost of doing nearly anything on Hog Island, mainly the result of the cost-plus-profit contract system that placed expediency before oversight. Initially, the American International Corporation estimated the cost of the yard at $35,000,000. By the time the first ship came off the ways on December 3, 1918—almost a month after the Armistice—the cost of constructing the site had ballooned to $66 million. In their defense, the officers of the American International Corporation began to take a long view of the utility of the site. Perhaps not of great service to the war effort, Hog Island would be a boon to Philadelphia. At a meeting of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the chairman of the American International Shipbuilding Corporation promised postwar employment for 100,000 Philadelphians. Hog Island, he argued, would make Philadelphia the greatest shipbuilding center in the world.[2]

Despite the rancor surrounding the yard’s construction and operation, Hog Island only existed because of the backbreaking labor of nearly 30,000 workers laboring throughout the cold winter of 1917-1918. Before the canteens and the YMCA, there were rough accommodations and hardship. Steam injections softened the frozen ground before workers could excavate for sewer lines. Other workers waded into the cold Delaware to dig out the channels for the shipways. Simultaneous to the attention-grabbing headlines of mismanagement and corporate greed was the untold story of a unique identity forming among the “Hoggies”. They worked among their friends—blacks, Italians, Polish, Irish, and Germans—all under the glaring eyes of the foreman, the engineer, and the military policeman. And though they may have lived in barracks near where they worked, they brought their traditions, faith, and foods such as the bulky fortifying sandwich that took on the island’s name. On December 23, 1918, the boys band from St. Francis Xavier-Holy Name parishes played for a flag raising in the bitter cold. During their down time, the Hog Islanders squared off on the gridiron against the other military installations up and down the river. Much like the soldiers in the field, the “Hoggies” who worked the shipways during the war were forced to coexist and cooperate, drawing strength from the uniqueness of their difficult work.[3]

Although massive preparation time meant that the $66 million Hog Island Yard failed to produce a single ship during wartime, the yard continued its contract assembling 122 ships from prefabricated parts. Most of these sturdy utilitarian Hog Islanders saw action in World War II but suffered high losses. Despite assurances that Hog Island would turn Philadelphia into the Clyde of America, the shipways went silent in 1921 and the timbering and piers beginning to rot, vegetation growing up through the corduroy roads. In 1925, the City purchased land near Hog Island for a municipal airfield to handle the growing traffic in passenger planes. Eyeing the derelict Hog Island property to the south with its rail lines and shipways still intact, members of the Philadelphia Business Progress Committee began advocating for an air-marine-rail terminal on the site of the old shipyard. In 1930, the City paid $3 million for the flat, well-prepared Hog Island site. As the airport expanded, its runways devoured the entire Hog Island shipyard—one monstrous technological machine consuming another.

[1] “Senate Committee to Go to Hog Island, Piez Shows Big Financial Affiliations of the Corporation’s Directors,” The New York Times, 16 February 1918.

[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] “Hog Island,” Philadelphia Record Photograph Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Although there are contrary claims, linguist William Labov has demonstrated that the lexical root of the word “hoagie” was “hog-“ or “hogg” after World War I. See William Labov, “Pursuing the Cascade Model,” 25 November 2002, This is also borne out in Eames, Edwin and Howard Robboy. 1967. “The sociocultural context of an American dietary item.” The Cornell Journal of Social Relations 2:63-75, p. 4.