From Whalers to Warships, Always a City of Seafarers

Industry and Commerce
Published December 31, 1998

From Whalers to Warships, Always a City of Seafarers

| Published December 31, 1998

In 1925, the Passaic River was a major transportation artery with tugs and their barges plying the waters. The Newark Public Library

Did you ever think of Newark as a maritime town?

Well yes, in some ways, for remember it was founded in May 1666 by a handful of settlers from New Haven, Conn., whose 'crude little boats, fashioned by men of agriculture, lay low in the water, for the most of the 30 families aboard average five or six children, plus animals, household goods, weapons and a few fruit trees.' In the early days, the Passaic River was the city’s major source of transportation, and in this century its port competes with other East Coast facilities as an American ocean terminal. It is one of the most modern and efficient in the United States, and is known around the world as a major importer of all sorts of products such as cars, agricultural goods and industrial raw materials from the four comers of the world for the city’s and region’s manufacturers. In wartime, it was vital in the nation’s defense efforts and was one of America’s primary shipbuilding centers. In the 332 years from its founding to the present, it has kept a constant attachment to the sea and the world’s oceans. This is nearly a secret to those walking down Broad and Market, in the towers of the Gateways or the soon-to-be-renovated 1920s skyscrapers, in the university complex or in the tree-lined residential neighborhoods of Forest Hill, Weequahic or Society Hill. But the tie is there, and it has been constant.

Recently, we looked at the story of the three ships named for Newark. This week, let’s pursue other sea tales and the captains, crews, shipbuilding and maritime episodes around the world and their ties to the city. From the earliest days, skiffs, flatboats, scows, shallops, two- and three-masted barks and any number of other vessels sailed the Passaic, and they carried the bulk of the region’s commerce and passenger traffic. By the 1830s, steamboats had begun to provide service between Newark and New York. Steamboat service was made possible through the efforts of Col. Stevens, Nicholas Roosevelt and the steam engine of Josiah Hornblower, and as early as 1818 the freight line of Stephen Condit and Cox was running to New York. Cornelius Joralemon of Belleville was engaged in shipbuilding efforts and 'earned a reputation for quality and speed of his sloops.' Moreover, by May 1832, the Morris Canal ran from Phillipsburg in the west of the state and over the 'roof of Jersey' to bring coal and other raw materials to the factories of Newark and other industrial cities along the way. At this point in history, water transportation helped develop New Jersey’s early industries.

A Whaling Town

An interesting chapter in Newark’s maritime history opened in 1847 with the sailing of its two best-known whaling schooners, the John Wells and the Columbus, from the Centre Street Wharf. Each sailed with a crew of about 30 men and boys out into the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, into the Pacific and on up into the Bering Sea in search of whales and eventual fortune and fame. The John Wells was commanded by Capt. John Russell and the Columbus by Ephraim Black. Both ships moved in tandem along the ocean in search of the great whales. A while back we met Michael Nerney, a cabin boy on the Wells, as an old man and keeper of the Newark Bay Lighthouse. As both ships made their way into the Arctic Ocean, where they took on 8,000 barrels of whale oil and a large amount of whalebone, all seemed to be going well until the Columbus struck an iceberg and was lost. Fortunately, most of its crew were picked up by the Wells, and with the exception of 16 lost in the disaster and other accidents returned to Newark approximately two years later. An old rhyme has come down to us describing the venture: 'Oh, it’s yo, ho, ho! To away we go, To the Arctic’s stormy gales Avast and belay, For it’s there we’ll stay Until we get some whales. All hands on deck All sail are set, Ahoy, crew up the slack, Two ships went out, With their timber stout, But only one came back.' Before the loss of the Columbus, the daily search for whales started with the vigil from the crow’s nest or watch, the lowering of a light boat into the water and the harpooning of the prey. The ovens of the Wells and Columbus glowed red all night and sent up columns of black smoke by day as the blubber was melted, run into the Newark-made barrels and placed in storage for the voyage home. To finance these oceangoing adventures, scrip was sold in the form of 371/2-cent notes issued as late as 1854, which were handsomely engraved by a New York City banknote company. According to one contemporary source, these early notes were as large as the American $10,000 bill. After its successful return, the Wells sailed on several other money-making voyages only to be retired in a few years. However, several other voyages may have been made by other ships until as late as the 1850s. Unfortunately records of these activities are sketchy. There is even a veiled reference to involvement in the triangular trade.

The Emergence of the Port

In the early days, when you sailed from Newark, it meant that you departed from some warehouse dock on the Passaic River as in the days of the colonists or the 18th or 19th century Newarkers. With the coming of the present century, it means that you left from the modern Port of Newark. The idea of sailing from a great port facility in the swampy meadows was not new; indeed, the whole concept was entertained from the earliest times. By 1914, dredges were clearing out the drainage area known as the 'Peddie Ditch' based upon recommendations of Mayor Jacob Haussling’s committee, the Advisory Dock and Meadow Reclamation Committee of 1908. But it was almost a year before the new port was used. In 1916, the schooner A. J. West brought Newark a load of mahogany from Manila, the first cargo for the new seaport warehouse. In anticipation of the port’s success, the Newark Evening News reported on October 20, 1915, that 10,000 Newarkers braved bad weather to see 'Newark become a center of world commerce.' For the event, Frank Leslie, a well-known songwriter, composed the following lyric: 'Out of Newark Bay soon will come the day Captains will escort ships of every sort To this wonderful port When everything’s complete—just watch us. Dredges dumping clay from the bottom night and day; Picture right before my eyes A great commercial center lies on Newark.' Soon the great terminal at Port Newark was a center for regular ocean traffic, while Passaic River tonnage tended to become more sporadic after 1920. Before the new port opened, ships had sailed directly from the river’s factory docks with Newark-made equipment, paint, beer and the like to customers along the Atlantic coast, the Deep South and Latin America. With the opening of the new port, the situation quickly changed. The superior facility attracted more and more commerce. It had become easier to transport Newark-made materials as well as to import silver from Mexico, diamonds from South Africa, gum products from the Far East, jute from India, chocolate from South America, straw from Cuba and tin from Great Britain. As the new port continued to grow and the city prospered, it also became evident that tremendous financial backing was going to be necessary to insure its successful operation. In 1947, the city council and mayor watched with mixed emotions as the facility was absorbed by the New York Port Authority. Newark, with its limited resources, thought better about operating a facility that had outgrown its parent and the state, and looked to an era of partnership rather than take on financial burdens for the future.

World Wars I and II

In the 20th century, Newark was a great shipbuilding town, one of the nation’s greatest. Rumors of government plans to build a shipyard here circulated in June 1917, and became reality on September 14 when the Submarine Boat Co. signed a contract to build 50 vessels. Henry R. Sutphen of Morristown proposed the idea of standardizing and developing a prefabricated ship at Newark, as he had already successfully done in Canada. At Newark, 28 quays were built in the meadows, and soon a town of more than 16,000 was ready to produce a fleet. Railroad tracks and trolley lines were brought in for the nearly 20,000 workers at the construction site, and the first keel was laid December 20, 1917. The ship Agawam (Lenni Lenape for great salt meadow) was launched on Memorial Day 1919, after World War I was over, and soon the Submarine Boat Co. was hiring hundreds of riveters, tool-sharpeners and allied workers, including many women new to the workforce. The Newark News reported 'Thanks to the Submarine Boat Co., Newark led all American cities in shipbuilding tonnage in 1919.' Eventually almost 150 ships were to be launched here. After the war, the booming facility fell into disuse, and was so dilapidated when the Second World War broke out there was no thought of using it. Fortunately, the Federal Shipbuilding Co., a division of U.S. Steel in Kearny, was contracted and took over the facility. Soon there were 20,000 employees assigned to an around-the-clock operation. The joint efforts at the Kearny and Newark yards produced 22 percent of all the nation’s destroyers. This combined effort generated hundreds of millions of dollars.

The City’s Ships at War

In addition to the ships built in Newark that took part in World War II, many that were berthed here sailed into combat. In 1934 the Weyerhaeuser Steamship Co., a division of the timber company of the same name, moved its Eastern naval fleet to Port Newark. From here, the original eight vessels grew to 60, until the bombing of the William S. Ladd on March 12, 1945, by the Japanese reduced the fleet by one. The dispatch noted that the Ladd was unloading gasoline and ammunition when it was destroyed. At the same time other company ships were away transporting troops. Another of the line’s ships was the Heffront, which was bringing Newark’s last World War II shipment of rubber from British Malaya when it was attacked somewhere near Australia. Although it averted destruction by the Imperial Japanese Navy, her fate was sealed later on by a German torpedo. A young war hero and Newark native, Nicholas Polifronti, was cited for 'shaking the senses back into a haggard shipmate and helping him into a capsized lifeboat as other survivors swam up to upright it and bail it out for a five-hour journey to the nearest landfall.' The crew won other citations for heroism. Capt. John LaPoint was cited in 1942 for 'control of 47 thirsty and hunger-maddened men who spent 32 days in a crowded lifeboat, but who, after being returned to port, paid off and newly outfitted, sailed again on other ships.' Even the British Admiralty received a report on the crew’s valor when the S.S. George G. Meade stopped to pick up survivors during enemy action. All in all, a pretty good record for valor of both men and company.

The Dixie and the Tugs

Between the two world wars, several other types of vessels appeared on the Passaic, in Newark Bay and at Port Newark which were neither barges nor warships. There was the Dixie, a great passenger steamer, and there were the river tugs, 'highly successful but ugly though highly necessary workhorses of the mercantile and military fleets.' The Dixie was the largest passenger vessel ever built in the Newark area, constructed at the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Corp. at the cost of a little more than $2.5 million for the Southern Pacific Steamship Company’s Morgan Line. To imply that the Dixie was a local product was an understatement. 'About the only thing that did not come from New Jersey, 'it was said, 'are the teakwood railings and the mahogany trim. The vessel is deluxe, with hot and cold fresh and salt water, a smoking room, music room, and a big dance and observation parlor and accommodations for 271 passengers and a crew of 110. The promenade deck was 10 feet wide, and the ship was 445 feet long and burned fuel oil.' Quite a change from the first tiny steam ship built almost a century earlier by Nicholas Roosevelt powered by a steam engine of Josiah Hornblower! As for the fact that it was a New Jersey product, it should be noted that the turbines were from Trenton, the fire system from Bloomfield, the propellers from Trenton and the boiler from Bayonne. Yes, it certainly was a Jersey product. Another type of vessel frequently found on the Passaic was the little but powerful tugboat that moved mountains of larger ships. They were like 'ugly, angry waterbugs on a millpond, darting here and there, emitting shrill, ear-splitting blasts from their whistles. They became essential for the movement of modern cargo ships in the entire Newark-New York area. Shipping life on the Passaic and in the port was pretty much controlled by these creatures.' In 1930 it took two firemen to keep their boilers steaming and 15 tons of coal to operate them for a 24-hour period, and almost always good food was served from the ship’s kitchen. Capt. James B. Ashley was a typical local captain. He worked for the Newark and New York Tug Boat Co. at 1 Passaic St. When not working aboard his tug, he might be found at home in Maplewood. He earned a monthly salary of $240.

By the end of World War II, most Newarkers felt that the city’s port might prosper under an outside agency because vast improvements were needed to constantly update it. The engineering firm of Harland Bartholomew and Associates agreed, and suggested the Port of New York Authority as a possible future developer. In 1947 the transfer was negotiated under the City-Port Authority Agreement. In the last year the city owned the port, it handled 450 vessels, 881,780 tons of cargo with 1,537 workers. In 1964, the seaport processed 1,500 vessels, 4 million tons of cargo, and 4,500 were involved in the process. As the New York Port Authority took over the port, it found it necessary to develop distribution buildings, container ship facilities, an automated banana-handling terminal, a wine terminal and cold storage warehouses. Ships have always been important to Newark for transportation, defense and recreation, but mostly for commerce. In the city’s long history, they helped create a healthy economy, and today they ensure Newark’s role as one of the nation’s major ports of call, which probably will continue well into the next century. So if you see a sea gull hovering over Broad and Market, it’s not so strange, is it? We’ve always been a maritime city.