Eyewitness 1863: Pittsburgh's shipyards were booming during Civil War


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Pittsburgh was known as a center for shipbuilding as early as 1811. Pittsburgh workers completed work that year on a steamboat called the New Orleans for entrepreneur Nicholas Roosevelt, an ancestor of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Fifty years later, businessmen and ship captains continued to look to the forks of the Ohio as a source for new vessels. "The reputation of Pittsburgh for rapidly building steamboats and the superior character of the workmanship put upon them has been so widely known that it is always the first point of thought of river men when they propose building a new boat," according to a story that appeared April 9, 1863, in The Daily Post.

"[It] is generally conceded that a boat can be built here better and cheaper than at any other place above Cairo -- and in a shorter time," the story said. The reference to Cairo was to the city at the southern tip of Illinois where the Ohio River enters the Mississippi.

A total of 51 new steamboats worth $1.5 million were registered at the U.S. Customs House in Pittsburgh in 1862, the Post reported. That number is equal to about $35 million in modern currency. The money spent on materials and employment of "many of our skilled artisans in several branches has ... added greatly to our wealth and prosperity."

The pace of local shipbuilding picked up dramatically the following year as more civilian vessels were converted for use as troop transports and warships, the newspaper said. That increased demand meant that "every yard in the district is now pushed to its upmost capacity in constructing hulls, to which the upper works will be added here." Ten new boats had been registered as of April 1863 and another 37 ships were in various stages of completion. In addition, Pittsburgh boatyards were under contract to construct four new ironclads for the U.S. Navy.

The firm of Mason & Snowden had one warship "well advanced," according to the paper, and a second "just begun." Operating on the south bank of the Monongahela River, near the Smithfield Street Bridge, Mason & Snowden had "the most perfect machinery for every operation required in constructing these boats."

Tomlinson & Co. had Navy orders for two more ironclad gunboats. Its shipyard was about two miles upriver on the opposite side of the Monongahela, near the present-day Birmingham Bridge.

Mason & Snowden's ships, named Manayunk and Umpqua, were of similar size. Each was about 224 feet long, four times the length of the original ironclad Monitor. Both were armed with two cannons in their "cheese box" revolving turrets, according to a story by Louis Vaira that appeared in 1923 in Volume Six of The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. That same article also described the two smaller monitor-class gunboats built by Tomlinson. They were named the Marietta and the Sandusky.

Monsignor A.A. Lambing, then president of the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society, described the construction of the gunboats in a story he wrote for the Jan. 15, 1900, edition of The Bulletin of the American Iron & Steel Association. A seminary student during the Civil War, he remembered observing all four ironclads being built, and he had been able to spend "considerable time examining [the Marietta] a short time before it was launched."

The Civil War ended before final outfitting of the boats was completed, Father Lambing wrote. As a result, "all these boats were completed too late to take an active part in the great struggle."

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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