Ohio River Shipbuilding 1800-1807
by Joe Cook
The annals of American shipbuilding at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century are dominated by the Atlantic and Chesapeake ports where the American merchant fleet blossomed and the young navy's frigate-building program produced the iconic United States, Constellation, and Constitution (which remains in commission today). Much less is known about the"backwoods" shipbuilders on the Ohio River who produced at least twenty-five seagoing vessels. There is evidence that some seagoing ships were built as far upstream as Pittsburgh, but the center of the burgeoning shipbuilding industry was at Marietta, Ohio. By the end of the eighteenth century, the British and French shipbuilding industries, driven by near incessant war, had denuded Britain and the Continent of wood suitable for shipbuilding. First, the materials needed were imported to Liverpool and other shipbuilding centers from the American colonies. The colony of Georgia was founded with a specific eye to her bountiful supplies of live oak for timbers, cotton, pitch, and pine rosin for caulking, and hemp for cordage. At some point, it became more cost-effective, rather than to import the lumber, to export the components of the ships that required a sophisticated industrial base to manufacture or fabricate, and to export skilled labor to shipbuilding locations closer to the sources of lumber. Thus was born the American shipbuilding industry. When the American colonies gained their independence, Britain then turned to Canada as a source for its shipbuilding needs. The same principle of moving the industry closer to the source of raw materials drove the rise of Ohio River shipbuilding. Excellent lumber from the vast forests of the Ohio valley was extremely cheap. Iron and coal from Ohio and Pennsylvania were available, as was copper from Michigan. Opportunity and westward migration brought shipwrights from the mid-Atlantic and New England to the Ohio valley. There were only a couple of problems. One, those pesky Native Americans still entertained some notion that the Ohio valley might in some way belong to them, and could thus impede the "wheels of progress". Secondly, there was the inescapable fact that the closest deep-water port accessible by water was over two thousand river miles away, and easy navigation of the as-yet unchannelized Ohio was impeded by rocks and shoals on the upper river, and by the falls at Louisville. Navigation of the western rivers by flatboat or keelboat was one thing. Transporting a viable ocean-going vessel down the rivers was another thing entirely. The Ohio frequently had too little water-except for the times when it had too much. The seasonal high water made the one-way trip possible for deeper draft vessels. One source credits Commodore Edward Preble, later captain of the U.S.S. Constitution with building the first Ohio-built deep water ship, a 120 ton brig, in Marietta in 1798-99 and sailing her to New Orleans, Cuba, and Philadelphia where she was sold. This ship does not appear on a more exhaustive list of Marietta-built vessels which shows the first as being the Brig St. Clair, 110 tons, Charles Greene & Co., built by Stephen Devol in 1800, and commanded by Commodore Whipple. Of course the river placed limits on the size and type of vessels that could feasibly be built so far upstream. The most popular forms were first the two-masted brig which employed both square and fore-and-aft sails, could carry a respectable cargo, and required only a small crew to sail, and later, the two-masted schooner which became the standard coastal trading vessel of the era. Typically, these vessels displaced from 100 to 150 tons, although by 1806, there were a few full square-rigged ships produced in Marietta displacing 300 to 350 tons. Systems were devised using barges on each side of the vessels to reduce their draft and float them over the shoals at high water. The problem of "having more ship than you have water" remained. (In 1849, one Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was granted a patent for a device to solve this problem, but the device was never manufactured.) One Ohio River-built ship was about to be confiscated by customs officials as she was delivered for sale in Leghorn, Italy on the grounds that her papers were false, claiming Pittsburgh as her point-of-origin. She was released when her captain produced maps showing that Pittsburgh was indeed connected to the ocean by a riverine route, convincing the skeptical customs men. Despite the problems, the shipbuilding industry on the Ohio flourished, until late 1807, but as is often the case, politics trumped technology. The seeds of the conflict that became the War of 1812 caused the Jefferson administration to pass the Embargo Act, prohibiting trade with European belligerents. The Embargo discomfitted the Europeans little-they merely shifted their trade to South America-but it destroyed the nascent shipbuilding industry on the Ohio as well as most other American foreign trade. The Embargo was repealed in 1809 in one of Jefferson's last acts as President, but the damage was done. The Ohio River shipbuilding industry did not resume production until the 1840's. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, the focus of shipbuilding in the west shifted from the rivers to the Great Lakes. Both Britain and the United States raced to build fleets of warships on Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and Lake Huron. While the British effort consisted primarily of adapting and refitting existing vessels, the U.S. had to build its Great Lakes fleet, based primarily in Erie, PA., from scratch. Construction of the brigs Lawrence and Niagara and Commodore Perry's other vessels was made possible so far from traditional shipbuilding facilities partly because there were people available in the area who had built ships in the wilderness before. They were no strangers to improvisation. When no cotton or oakum was available for caulking, these shipwrights caulked their craft with lead. The cash-strapped and penurious Federal government approved the practice since lead had some salvage value, where traditional caulking did not.

Excerpts from a letter detailing Marietta-built boats 1800-1814
Pt. Harmar
April 10th, 1833.
Col. Ichabod Nye
Dear Sir:
Enclosed you will find a list of all the vessels built in Marietta with the names of owners, builders and commanders &c.
  • Brig St. Clair 110 tons, Charles Greene & Co., built by Stephen Devol in 1800, commanded by Commodore Whipple.
  • Ship Muskingum built by J. Devol for B. I. Gilman, in 1801, 200 tons, Capt. Crandon.
  • Brig Eliza Green, built by J. Devol for Charles Greene in 1801, 130 tons, Capt. Hodgkiss.
  • Brig Marietta, by J. Whitney for Abner Lord, in 1802, Capt. O. Williams, 150 tons.
  • Brig Dominie, by S. Crispin for D. Woodbridge, Jr., 1802, Capt. Lattimore, 140 tons.
  • Schooner Indiana, by J. Barker for E. W. Tupper, in 1802, Capt. Merrill, 80 tons.
  • Brig Mary Avery by D. Skilinger for G. Avery, 1802, Capt. Prentiss, tons 150.
  • Ship Temperance, 230 tons, built by James Whitney for A. Lord, in 1804, Capt. Williams.
  • Brig Orlando, built by J. Barker for E. W. Tupper, in 1803, say 160 tons, Capt. Miner.
  • Schooner Whitney, built by J. Whitney for A. Lord.
  • Schooner McGrath, built by J. Whitney for A. Lord, in 1803, Capts. Williams & Wilson, 70 tons.
  • Brig Ohio 170 tons, built by J. Devol for McFarland & Co., in 1804, Capt. Rose.
  • Brig Perseverance, 170 tons, by J. Whitney for B. I. Gilman, in 1805, Capt. Wilson.
  • Ship Rufus King. 300 tons, by J. Whitney for Clark and B. I. Gilman, in 1806, Capt. Clark.
  • Two Gun Boats, by T. Vail for E. W. Tupper, in 1806.
  • Ship Tuscarawa, 320 tons, by W. McGrath, Marshall S. Jones for A. Lord, 1806.
  • Ship I. Atkinson, by W. McGrath for A. Lord, 320 tons, 1806.
  • Brig Hope, by A. Miller for Charles Green, 120 tons, 1806.
  • Ship Francis, copper fastened, 350 tons, by J. Whitney for B. I. Gilman, Capt. Wilson, 1807.
  • Ship Robert Hale 300 tons, by J. Whitney for B. I. Gilman, Capt. Holden, 1807.
  • Brig Golet, 120 tons, by W. McGrath for A. Lord, Capt. Sennet, 1807.
  • Brig Rufus Putnam, 150 tons, by W. McGrath, Col. Lord, Capt.
  • Schooner Belle, 103 tons, by J. Whitney for Gilman and Woodbridge, Capt. Boyle, 1808.
  • Schooner Maria, by J. Whitney for B. I. Gilman, 70 tons, 1814.