On a cold, drizzly morning in November 1894, 25,000 men, women, and children surged through the gates of Philadelphia’s Cramp shipyard to witness the launching of the largest liner yet built in the United States. She was the SS St. Louis, the 11,000 gross ton flagship of the American Line, owned by Philadelphia shipping tycoon Clement Griscom. Attending the launching were President Grover Cleveland, shipyard president Charles Cramp, and First Lady Frances Cleveland, who would be the ship’s godmother.
The liner St. Louis was the crowning achievement of William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company. She was America’s entry into the heated transatlantic liner competition of the late nineteenth century. Built of steel and nearly two football fields long. St. Louis would be powered by two steam reciprocating engines able to propel her through the Atlantic at 20 knots. It was hoped that St. Louis and her identical sister St. Paul would capture the transatlantic record from the Cunard liners Campania and Lucania. Shipyard president Charles Cramp (son of founder William Cramp) boasted that, “each successive ‘lowering of the record’ marks a triumph for the designer and builder, a fame world-wide, and substantial benefits to mankind.”**
After her successful launch on November 12, 1894 by First Lady Frances Cleveland, St. Louis would spend another year in the fitting out basin, where hundreds of workers would turn the empty hull into a floating village. Giant floating cranes, including one fittingly named Altas, could handle boilers and machinery weighing up to seventy tons. When complete, St. Louis could carry 1,200 passengers in three classes, most of who would be crammed into lower deck steerage berthes. She would boast electric lights (only a few years earlier, steamships were lit by flickering oil lamps), flush toilets, and steam heating in her public rooms. Her luxurious first class interiors were designed by architect Frank Furness, who had also built Griscom’s “Dolobran estate” on the Main Line. The first class dining room was 55 feet wide and three decks high, capped barrel-vaulted stained glass skylight. At dinner, passengers could enjoy the melodious strains of a full-sized pipe organ.
Unfortunately, despite her owner’s best efforts, the St. Louis and St. Paul were unable to capture the Blue Riband of the Atlantic when they debuted in 1895. They could only make 19.5 knots as opposed to the 21 knots of the two Cunard ships. The St. Paul made history in November 1899 when she carried a famous passenger, Guglielmo Marconi, who had installed his new wireless telegraph system aboard the liner.
As the St. Paul approached the English coast, Marconi powered up his transmitter and continued to send out a message in Morse code announcing the liner’s impending arrival.
Finally, when the ship was fifty miles away from her destination, Marconi got the response he was waiting for:
“Is that you, St. Paul?” the shore station operator asked.
“Yes,” Marconi tapped back.
“Where are you?”
“Sixty-six nautical miles away.”
Thus, the St. Paul became the first ship to have her arrival radioed to shore by wireless.**
By the early 1900s, a new generation of four-funneled superliners from Britain and Germany had completely outclassed the St. Louis, and the American government failed to provide her owners with the subsidies needed to construct new vessels that could compete in terms of size, speed, and luxury. After serving as a merchant cruiser and troop transport in both the Spanish-American War and World War I, St. Louis was destroyed by fire in 1920 and sent to the scrappers. St. Paul was broken up a few years later.
Not until the early 1950s, with the advent of the Virginia-built SS United States, would an American shipyard construct a passenger ship of comparable international prestige.
William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company, known to Philadelphians simply as “Cramps”, was once one of the great shipyards of the world, on par with Harland & Wolff in Northern Ireland (builders of the Titanic) and John Brown & Company in Scotland (builders of the Lusitania and the original Queen Mary). The enterprise was started by William Cramp, the son of German immigrants, who founded a small yard at the foot of present-day East Susquehanna Avenue in 1830.
At its peak in the 1890s, Cramps 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 in the 1890s was undergoing a massive expansion. Rising on the stocks alongside the ocean liner St. Louis in 1894 was another revolutionary vessel: the USS Indiana, the first true battleship in the United States Navy. So well-regarded was Cramps’ workmanship that in 1899 the Imperial Russian Navy commissioned a state-of-the-art heavy cruiser, the Varyag, from the American shipyard.
In its heyday, Cramps was a landscape of vigor, energy, and gritty beauty. In 1902, the principal buildings included a massive 1,200 foot-by-72 foot main structure (housing facilities for plate bending, piping-cutting, and joinery), as well as a boiler shop, machine shop, and blacksmith shop.*** Enormous slipways, where hulls of great ships were constructed before their launch into the churning Delaware, were topped by iron-lattice gantries. Smokestacks soared high above Kensington’s rowhouses and church spires, spewing black coal smoke into the air.
After World War I, Cramps rapidly fell upon hard times, largely due to the Washington Treaty of 1923 which severely limited the size and construction of new warships. After finishing the Matson liner SS Malolo in 1927, Cramps went bankrupt and ceased operations. After a brief revival during World War II, in which the yard built submarines, the boilers went cold and the machine shops went dark for the last time.
In early 2011, the last remaining building of the William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company met the wrecker’s ball, to make way for a new I95-Girard Avenue interchange. All that remains of one of Philadelphia’s great industrial enterprises are a few rotting piers and a massive, weed-choked lot on the banks of the Delaware River.
*Cramp’s Shipyard founded by William Cramp, 1830 (Philadelphia: William Cramp and Sons Ship & Engine Building Company), 1902, p.4-5.
**Degna Marconi, My Father, Marconi (Montreal, Canada: Guernica Editions, 1996), pp. 71-72.
*** Charles Cramp, as quoted by Cramp’s Shipyard founded by William Cramp, 1830 (Philadelphia: The William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company) 1902, p.128.