“The cornerstone of Philadelphia’s Iron Age,” wrote Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies in a remarkable chapter on the city’s industrialization, consisted of three companies: the Pennsylvania Railroad, Baldwin Locomotive Works and Cramp Shipbuilding Company.
Today we focus on the last, a company formed in the 1840s that employed 5,600 by the mid-1890s at its 31-acre shipyard in Port Richmond. According to The Scientific American, Cramp had “some 282 vessels” to its credit by the end of 1894 and would, by the time of its final closing after World War II, have 500.
Passenger steamers were Cramp’s bread and butter. They built 112 from the Albatross in 1849 to the Evangeline in 1927. The latter was known for its service on the Clyde line’s Miami-Havana service. Another, the Great Northern, set speed records from Honolulu to San Francisco and for a round trip crossing of the Atlantic: 14 days, 4 hours, 30 minutes.
Cramp’s fast ships attracted clients from around the world to Port Richmond. The Zabiaka, built in 1880 as part of an order for the Imperial Russian Navy, would be clocked as “the fastest cruiser in the world.”
Vessels for another client, the United States Navy, included 65 destroyers from the Smith in 1909 to the Paul Jones in 1920; 31 cruisers from the Chattanooga in 1864 to the Youngstown in the 1940s; 23 submarines from Thrasher in 1912 to Wolfish in the 1940s and 22 battleships – from the Indiana and the Massachusetts in 1893 to the Wyoming in 1911.
Two dozen cargo steamers, could—and often did—serve civilian or military purposes. In 1907, Cramp launched the 375’ Massachusetts for the New England Navigation Company. Through a series of owners and name changes, this ship became the Ogala with the U.S. Navy’s the Mine Division. The Ogala happened to be stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was sunk and subsequently put back into service.
In 1874, Cramp launched ten, 240-foot-long colliers—coal carriers—including six for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company (appropriately named Reading, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Williamsport, Allentown and Pottsville). Over time, Cramp produced 58 barges, 27 tugboats, seven tankers, a handful of ice boats and, of course, ferryboats.
Cramp also made a tool that helped modernize scaled-up shipbuilding. This “monster floating derrick,” the “largest piece of machinery of its kind in the world” staked its claim to “some really remarkable performances” handling with dispatch the heaviest boilers and canon, up to 125 tons. The four boilers of the battleship Indiana, each weighing 72 tons, were choreographed from wharf to vessel in half a day. The 80-ton boiler for the Navy’s cruiser Minneapolis was moved into position, more than 100 feet, in 26 minutes.
The “lifting and traversing gear” of this floating 116-foot tall derrick, its “boom, mast, braces, collars, helmet, and all its lifting and traversing gear… [were] formed of the toughest steel possible.” Its iron pontoon measured 73-by 62-feet by 13-feet deep. The diameter of this derrick’s distinctive cone: 40 feet at the base. This derrick could lift “with ease the heaviest boiler constructed”—as much as 125 tons.
What to name a giant of such strength and speed? Cramp turned to ancient mythology and chose the name of the god responsible for nothing less than holding up the celestial heavens. Their machine at the heart of Philadelphia’s Iron Age would be known as Atlas.
[Sources: Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies, “The Iron Age, 1876-1905,” in Russell Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982)]; Farr, Gail E., and Brett F. Bostwick with the assistance of Merville Willis. Shipbuilding at Cramp & Sons: A History and Guide to Collections of the William Cramp & Sons Ship and engine Building Company (1830-1927) and the Cramp Shipbuilding Company ((1941-46) of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1991. (pdf); Jeffery M. Dorwart, Shipbuilding and Shipyards, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia; The Cramp Ship Yards, Scientific American, (New York) December 29, 1894, 62, no. 26; Millington Miller. “Cramp’s Shipyard and the New United States Navy”, Frank Lesley’s Popular Monthly, vol. 38, July to December 1894; “Building War-ships at Cramps,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 1894; “Warships Nearly Finished,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug 3, 1900; Waldon Fawcett, “Mechanical Appliances in Modem Shipbuilding,” Technical World, vol. 2, no. 1 September 1894; Waldon Fawcett, “Floating Cranes Steel and Iron,” American Manufacturer and Iron World, vol. 69, No. 18, October 31, 1901.]