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Part II, Shipbuilding at Ogdensburg/Oswegatchie


Ogdensburgh Marine Railway

The reconstructed marine railway was 700 feet long reaching from the engine house, about 325 feet from the water, to the outer end of the piers. The ground was excavated, tracks braced, framed and bolted, then re-covered with earth. The carriage ran on these tracks on 600 iron rollers eight inches in diameter, placed four feet apart. The carriage was 300 feet long and 40 feet wide, and had 40 arms. It was now capable of servicing vessels up to 3,000 tons. William L. Proctor, a partner in the Hall firm, was president of the new company. John C. Howard, a former resident of Ogdensburg, recalled in a letter published in the Ogdensburg Republican-Journal on February 20, 1930:

“The revitalized marine railway would now have plenty of business. Much work was done during the winter months. For instance, in January, 1888 there were 16 vessels waiting their turn for repairs. One of the most unique operations at the yard was re-assembling ships built overseas and brought over for the Great Lakes trade in two sections as they were too large to fit in the existing locks along the St. Lawrence River. One of the first of these was the lake freighter Algonquin in June of 1888 (see separate story). Occasionally, this was done in reverse when ships had to be cut in two, to pass down river.”

An interesting example of the type of job undertaken on the marine railway occurred during the Spanish-American War.

When the Revenue Cutter Service commissioned the revenue cutter “Gresham” in 1897, it sparked a minor international incident. The steel-hulled steamer was heavily armed for a cutter, including torpedo tubes. The Canadian government noted the armament violated the 1817 Rush-Bagot Convention, limiting the number of naval vessels and their armaments on the Great Lakes. The Revenue Cutter Service then decided to transfer the “Gresham” from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. On April 26, 1898 she was unable to proceed on her journey down river due to her length, which was greater than the locks of the St. Lawrence canals below Ogdensburg. Her draught was also greater than the depth of water in the canals. In order to make the journey to Montreal, where she was to be put together again, she had to be cut in two, and the draught of the two sections lessened by pontooning.

A section of the boat about 85 feet in length was cut from the rest of the boat, the parts were separated, and wooden bulkheads were built across the ends. Each pontoon was secured to the sides just forward of the propeller to lessen the draught of the stern sufficiently, and smaller pontoons were placed under the forward quarter to support and steady the boat section.

Before hauling the boat out upon the marine railway, the anchors, chains and other movable things were unloaded upon the deck to lighten the load. About the first part of the third week in May the boat was refloated and the work of reloading the anchors was about completed when all of the heavy articles were loaded upon the upper deck, instead of upon the lighter, which could have accompanied the boat through the canals. The load on the deck made the boat section top heavy, and on May 17, it was noticed that boat started to heavily list to starboard.

This list increased rapidly. Then a rapid-fire gun mounted in the boat came loose which caused one section of the vessel to capsize and sink in about 35 feet of water between the piers of the dock. In turning over the gun was thrown out upon the dock, as was also one of the anchors. Fortunately, no one was killed and only one man was slightly injured.

Had the accident occurred some 20 minutes before, there might have been heavy casualties as some 25 men were at breakfast in the section of the vessel which sank. The forward section which sank weighed about 85 tons, and some of the plates which projected from both sections were badly twisted, owing to the close proximity of the two sections of the boat.

The Ogdensburg Marine Railway had the contract for taking the boat to the canals, and they conducted the wrecking operations. An inspection was made after the forward section was raised that disclosed the fact that many of the plates were bent and the vessel was leaking badly. The accident was generally blamed on the theory that the pontoon on which the section rested was filled with water. 

There is another theory in addition to the one already advanced. Preparations were also being made for taking the cutters “Algonquin” and “Onondaga”, then under construction in Cleveland, through the canals. They would not be returning to the lakes, owing to the fact that they could not traverse the canals without cutting them in two as well.

The Spanish-American War ended before the “Gresham” was reassembled. When rebuilt she enforced neutrality laws prior to the U.S. entering World War I. She served as a convoy escort when the U.S. entered the war and after 1919 returned to cruising the Atlantic seaboard.

What was then considered one of the largest dipper dredges afloat on freshwater was built in Ogdensburg in 1900. It was 121 feet long, 40 feet wide and drew 12 feet, 2 inches of water at its working end. It was built for the Daly & Hannan Dredging Co. of Ogdensburg and was initially used in dredging operations at Massena.

George Hall Corporation of Ogdensburg

The George Hall Coal Company found the shipyard a valuable asset. By the early 1900s it had a large fleet of ships involved in both the transportation of coal and pulp. The Hall headquarters was in the Parish building in Ogdensburg. In 1922, six related businesses (George Hall Coal, Frontier Trading Company, St. Lawrence Marine Railway Company and the George Hall Coal Company, Black River Shipping Company and Black River Pulpwood Company of Montreal) merged to become the George Hall Coal and Shipping Corporation of Montreal and George Hall Corporation of Ogdensburg. The corporations with their ship building, shipping business and associated ventures, contributed significantly to the prosperity of the Port of Ogdensburg. The boats of the Hall fleet were transferred to Canadian registry where they remained until the the company was dissolved in 1987.

During 1916-17 some $40,000 were spent on improvements at the shipyard. This work included expansion of the machine shop and extending a line of piers 280 feet out into the river and filled with stone. It was thought that this might stimulate shipbuilding contracts with the federal government to build vessels for the war effort. Shipyard officials were consulted with, but this never materialized. A tug called the “Florence” (replacing an earlier one by the same name) was built there in 1918. But the yard’s mainstay continued to be repair work, largely on Hall boats. George Hall passed away at his home in Montreal on June 24, 1919. He was born in Sackets Harbor on March 11, 1847, starting his career as a telegraph operator.

Arthur Woods, superintendent of the yard for many years, died in Ogdensburg on May 16, 1921 at the age of 70 at his home at 62 King St. in Ogdensburg. He was born in Kingston, Ont., and came to work at the marine railway as a young man. He developed a fine reputation as a designer, master mechanic and draftsman. Several Northern Transportation Co. propellers were built under his supervision. He designed an built the tug “Mary P. Hall”.

The yard tried to keep pace with the times with the introduction of labor saving devices. In 1920 the method of painting ships with the use of a compressed air machine came into use. It was said this was the first such facility in the country to put it to practical use. A railroad siding was built into the site in 1921. That same year a new electrical powered gantry crane was installed. The yard also had a basketball team for a time. The river was deepened in the vicinity of the shipyard in 1925 to permit large boats to be repaired there. In 1922 it was reported the length of the marine railway was 736 1/2 feet over all, cradle of 300 feet, width of 52 feet and depth of 16 feet. It had the capacity of 3,000 tons.

In January, 1927, the property was sold to the James Playfair Interests of Canada that also owned Canadian Vickers Limited. They owned Montreal Drydocks Ltd. which had two dry-docks on the Lachine Canal; a floating dry dock at Maisonneuve; St. John Drydock and Shipbuilding Co. Ltd. which had three dry docks at St. Johns, N. B. D.B. Carswell of Montreal was general manager. The Ogdensburg shipyard was regarded as one of the best on the River or Great Lakes. The Playfairs formed a subsidiary firm called the St. Lawrence Marine Repair Dock Company. It was capitalized at $300,000. The major stockholders and directors were shipping magnates Frank A. Augsbury of Ogdensburg, James Playfair of Midland, Ontario, and John J. Boland of Buffalo.

Among the improvements made at the yard was the construction of a new pattern shop in anticipation of a boom in business. Two large motor vessels intended as grain carriers ultimately were built here for Federal Motorship Corporation for use on the Barge Canal – the “Empire State” in 1929 and the “Buckeye State” in 1930. This was a great employment opportunity. It put 400 men to work during the early days of the Great Depression.

Yard manager Arthur J. Patmore insisted on letting all contracts whenever possible to local businesses. He came to Ogdensburg in 1922 and for several years was the guiding spirit of the shipyard.

The keel was laid for the “Empire State”on January 15, 1929 and she was launched on June 29, 1929 amid much fanfare. Mrs. Frank A. Augsbury did the honors of christening the vessel. The men working at the yard were very loyal and took exceptional interest in the work they performed. Mr. Augsbury was also credited with helping secure work for the shipyard. The “Buckeye State” slid down the ways on May 27, 1930. The boats were in regular use on the Barge Canal for many years. They were powered by Fairbanks-Morse diesel engines.

The “Buckeye State” occasionally returned to Ogdensburg for repair work. Good news came in March, 1934 when it was announced that 65 men would be rehired to perform major repair work on the steamer “Badger State”. This was a former lake vessel which was remodelled after the fashion of the “Empire State” and “Buckeye State” . Work thereafter was sporadic. In April, 1935 the steamship “Inca” which had been moored at Ogdensburg for two years, was taken in for repairs, followed by the steamer “Middlesex” in November.

On March 4, 1936 the Algonquin Paper Corporation, owned by Frank Augsbury. W.E. Westbrook became manager of the yard. The steamship “Harry T. Ewig” was taken in for overhaul in May, 1936. There was little activity there from that time on. Some repair work was done, but no more boats were built. By now, larger ships were being built far beyond this yard’s capabilities with its overall length of 300 feet.

It was rumored during the early part of World War II that the shipyard would be revived and would build small ships for the U.S. Navy, but nothing ever came of it. The equipment was obsolete and no one seemed interested in reviving it. On October 30, 1944, the ship yard and Algonquin Paper Mill were sold to Berst, Forster, Dixfield Company. The paper mill, idle during the war, was expanded as a pulp mill. In 1947 this became a subsidiary of Diamond Match Company. It was expanded several times over the next 30 years. During its peak the plant employed nearly 500 local people. The market dwindled for the product manufactured here and closed in 1978. It was the city’s largest employer at the time.

 

Sources

Austin, John M. St. Lawrence County in the War of 1812. History Press, 2013

Cuthbertson, George A. Freshwater. The MacMillan Company of Canada, Ltd., 1931

Daughters of the American Revolution Reminiscences of Ogdensburg, 1749-1907

Hough, Franklin B., History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties. Albany, 1853

“Along the River in Early Days” - Ogdensburg News, March 8, 1904

Malcolmson, Robert, Warships of the Great Lakes, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2001

Scott, John M. “Burg Once Was Major Shipping Center”. Massena Observer August 8, 1955

History of St. Lawrence County, N.Y., L.H. Everts & Co., Philadelphia, Pa., 1878

St. Lawrence Seaway History on stlawrencepiks.com

U.S. Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, Record Group 41. Certificates of Enrollments Issued at Ogdensburgh, N.Y.

U.S. Treasury Department - Letter in Relation to Steam Engines in the United States, December 13, 1838. Document 21, 25th Congress, 3rd Session

Survey of the Northern and Northwestern Lakes, April, 1922

History of St. Lawrence County, New York. L.H. Everts & Co. ( Philadelphia, Pa., 1878)

Hough, Franklin B., History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties (Albany, N.Y.) 1853

Ogdensburg Advance

Ogdensburg Advance News

Ogdensburg Daily Journal

Ogdensburg Journal

Ogdensburgh Sentinel

By Richard R. Palmer

Richard F. Palmer is a retired newspaper editor and reporter and well known for his weekly historical columns for the “Oswego Palladium-Times”, called "On the Waterfront."  His latest book is the biography of Captain Augustus Hinckley, famed Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River Mariner, as well as a review of the Maritime History of Clayton, NY.  He is also a regular contributor to the www.MaritimeHistoryofTheGreatLakes.ca and is frequently consulted by people searching for shipwrecks on Lake Ontario.

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