Business and Labor

The Rise and Fall of the Fore River Shipyard

The Fore River Shipyard started out as a farm in East Braintree, Mass., when Thomas Watson bought it.

Watson had loaned money to his boss, Alexander Graham Bell, to help him develop the telephone. He was the same Watson who Bell had summoned through the phone with the words, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.”

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Thomas Watson

Bell repaid his assistant with a 10 percent share in what would become the Bell Telephone Co. Watson sold the shares and bought the farm, where he started work on marine engines. His company, the Fore River Engine Company near the Weymouth Fore River, would give birth to one of the largest shipyards in the country, if not the world.

Fore River Shipyard

Under Watson’s leadership, the company’s reliable, high-quality engine acquired a reputation that spread throughout the Eastern Seaboard.

The depression following the Panic of 1893 turned out to be a godsend for the fledgling yard. The U.S. Navy awarded two contracts to build two destroyers, the USS. Lawrence (DD-8) and the USS Macdonough (DD-9). This boondoggle was augmented with an award to build the U.S. lightship LV-72. These would be the last ships constructed in East Braintree. In 1901, the yard moved to Quincy Point.

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USS Rhode Island, ca. 1904

In 1902, the keel was laid for the USS Rhode Island (BB-17). Launched in 1904, the Rhode Island took part in the two- year around-the-world cruise of the Great White Fleet. The USS Vermont (BB-20) was also built there and launched in 1905.

Fore River Submarines

John Philip Holland, an Irish engineer, developed the first submarine officially commissioned by the U.S. Navy. The Navy launched his sub, called the USS Holland, in 1900. However, the boat needed improvement. Its storage batteries gave off toxic fumes that killed the crew.

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John Holland in one of his submarines.

Nonetheless, the Imperial Japanese Navy entered into a licensing agreement with Holland and contracted with the shipyard to build five submarines. After completing the subs, the yard then disassembled them to ship to Japan, presumably for use in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

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Submarines for the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Fore River Shipyard.

Holland worked on improving his first designs, and came up with the USS Octopus (SS-9), launched in 1906.

The Octopus was the first American submarine built in the yard, but not for John Philip Holland.  The Electric Boat Company had purchased the Holland Torpedo Boat Company. However, EB didn’t have a yard of its own, so it subcontracted with Fore River to build what turned out to be 69 American subs up until 1922.

Electric Boat, now a subsidiary of General Dynamics, today has a shipyard in Groton, Conn., a fabrication plant in Quonset, R.I. and a design and engineering facility in New London, Conn.

Pre-World War I

We jump ahead to the pre-WW I years. The thriving Fore River Shipyard built and launched destroyers, submarines, merchant ships and four battleships. Bethlehem Steel, the main supplier for the yard, finally bought it to protect its interests in 1913.

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Joseph P. Kennedy ca 1914

The yard then began to ramp up production in anticipation of entering World War I. In 1917, a 28-year-old Irish-American named Joseph Kennedy started working as an assistant general manager at the yard now known as Bethlehem Fore River, later Bethlehem Quincy.

In that job, Kennedy got to know Franklin D. Roosevelt, assistant secretary to the Navy. Roosevelt later appointed him ambassador to the United Kingdom.

World War I

In 1918, the Bethlehem Fore River Shipyard built an impressive 18 destroyers, 10 submarines and six merchant ships. Altogether, the yard built 71 destroyers during World War I, more than all the other U.S. shipyards combined.

Bethlehem Fore River even built a destroyer, the USS Reid, in a record-breaking 45.5 days.

The Roar Turns to a Whimper

During the Roaring ‘20’s and then the Depression years, the Quincy yard produced a whole series of naval ships: submarines, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers, as well as merchant ships. Among them, the “Queen of Flattops,” the USS Lexington (CV-2) in 1927.

“Lady Lex” started out as a battlecruiser, but the Washington Naval treaty of 1922 ended the construction of all new battleships and battlecruisers. So the Navy converted the ship into one of the first aircraft carriers. When a drought in late 1929 caused hydroelectricity shortages in Tacoma, Wash., Lady Lex’s turbo-electric propulsion system supplemented the city’s electricity.

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The launch of Lady Lex.

During the Great Depression, the yard built the USS Wasp (CV-7) and a few other ships. But business slowed, and employment dwindled to 812 by 1931.

World War II

The specter of World War II brought a surge of construction that started in 1938.

Employment reached 17,000 in 1941. By 1943, the payroll at the Fore River Shipyard reached–in today’s dollars– $1.63 billion.

James J. Kilroy worked as an inspector at the Fore River Shipyard during World War II. He said he used the famous phrase, “Kilroy was here,” to mark rivets he had inspected as ships were built. Later, sailors would find the phrase in places like sealed hull spaces. Kilroy later won election as a Massachusetts state representative, and the phrase was engraved on the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Another interesting employee joined the shipyard as a welder in 1942: 20-year-old Florence “Woo Woo” DiTullio. The nickname Woo Woo developed because groups of men would holler out “Woo Woo!” when she walked by. She paved the way for 2,000 women who would work at the yard during the war. She came to be known as Winnie the Welder.

Over the course of the war, some 32,000 people worked at the Fore River Shipyard. They built and launched many destroyer escorts and landing ships from the yard.

They built a second USS Lexington (CV-16) to replace the first, sunk early in World War II.

Fore River Shipyard workers eventually built 71 destroyers during the war, more than any shipyard in the country. To support this output they built a boiler plant at Fields Point in Providence, R.I.

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USS Massachusetts in Battleship Cove.

They completed and launched the USS Massachusetts (BB-59) in 1941. Her crew called her “Big Mamie.” She can still be toured today at Battleship Cove, at Fall River, Mass., a testament to the quality of the work at Fore River. One of the welders who worked on the Massachusetts and the aircraft carrier Lexington came from Barrington, R.I.–Leo Caisse, my father, who learned his trade while serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Fore River Postwar Years

The postwar years were not kind to the Fore River Shipyard. The world had too many ships. In 1954, the yard did win orders for five destroyers, five tankers and a fleet oiler.

However, in 1955 the shipyard bid on some of the Forrestal-class aircraft carriers, but lost them to the Newport News and New York naval yards. The navy, however, awarded Fore River contracts for the building of four frigates as a consolation prize.

After the war, shipbuilding continued and included some noteworthy ships, including the USS Bainbridge (DLGN 25) and the USS Long Beach (CGN 9), both nuclear-powered guided missile ships. Fore River also built destroyers, frigates, the liner Independence and the supertanker Manhattan, among the first ships to traverse the Northwest Passage.

A Texas Tower

Interestingly, the Fore River Shipyard built two radar towers in the 1950’s, Texas Tower 2 and Texas Tower 3. These were U.S. Air Force Air Defense Command platforms, similar to oil drilling platforms, placed along the East Coast to detect Soviet bombers. Texas Tower 4, built in Maine, tragically collapsed in a winter storm in 1961, killing all 28 men off the coast of Long Island.

Sister Yard

In 1964, the General Dynamics Corporation purchased the Fore River Shipyard. It became the sibling shipyard to Electric Boat. General Dynamics invested heavily in the yard, including a 1,200 ton crane nicknamed Goliath capable of lifting up to a thousand tons.

During its tenure in Quincy, General Dynamics built all kinds of naval support vessels and civilian merchant ships as well as several nuclear submarines. Then it shifted all that work to Electric Boat. From the 70’s to the 80’s, 10 liquefied natural gas tankers were built in the yard. Many of them are still in service today.

The yard built and delivered five (MPS) Maritime pre-positioning ships to the U.S. Navy between the years 1985-86. From two miles at sea, these vessels could deliver and support, with all their supplies, 4,000 Marines for 30 days.

Return of the Salem

By the 1980s, the U.S. simply had too many shipyards, and Quincy failed to win any contracts.  That led to the closure of the Fore River Shipyard that year.

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USS Salem

Eventually, General Dynamics sold off the equipment, and none of the efforts to reopen Quincy as a shipyard succeeded. On a brighter note, the USS Salem (CA-139) returned to its birthplace to become the main attraction for the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum at the former Quincy yard in 1994.

With thanks to the Haze Gray and Underway Naval History Information Center, http://www.hazegray.org/navhist/.

About the author of this story: Leo Caisse of East Providence, R.I.,  recently published the book, The Civilian Conservation Corps: A Guide to Their Works in Rhode Island. He has also published a number of historical articles, including Ears On the World in America in World War II Magazine, October, 2017. He has a B.A. and M.A. in American History from Providence College and he lives in East Providence, R.I.

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  1. Pingback: The Story of Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner, Narragansett Bay Aviators - New England Historical Society

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