Cecil County had an abundance of the resources needed for ship and boat building — timber, iron and waterways — and research in the files, newspapers, and books in the library of the Historical Society of Cecil County has uncovered evidence of boat building activity from colonial times.
In 1744, the General Assembly supplemented the original act of incorporation of Charlestown, empowering the town commissioners to purchase or condemn two acres of land at Seneca Point, a short distance down the river from Charlestown, for use as a shipyard. All persons building any ship or other vessel with a keel longer than 20 feet would have to buy a license from the commissioners for a sum not to exceed six pence per ton. A cart road from the town to Seneca Point was to be laid out so as to do the least possible damage to the property through which it ran (owned by Edward Oldham) and was to be kept open and free for the use of the shipyard.
In her “History of Charlestown,” Sue B. Weaver writes that the acreage at Seneca Point was essential for shipbuilding at Charlestown in as much as the water depth around the town itself was not sufficient for launching sizable ships. Further, to help insure the success of the shipyard, it was illegal to launch ships from any local site except Seneca Point. In 1754, John Cooper established a plantation at Seneca Point and for a time built small vessels there. The booklet “Charlestown’s 250 Year Celebration,” mentions that most of Charlestown’s early carpenters were also boat builders. A water tank of thick cypress with a pegged frame structure and “shiplapped” siding, built at Seneca Point for the McKown house, is still used for storage.
In 1852, a small steamboat built by R. H. Thomas was launched at Port Herman, a new town on the Elk. It was intended to run to Elkton, North East, Port Deposit, and up the Sassafras, Bohemia, and Chester rivers and other tributaries and to connect with Philadelphia and Baltimore boats at Port Herman. It needed no wharf and could land and receive freight and passengers at almost any point on the shore, giving farmers a cash market at their doors.
As early as 1890 there was a boat house on the Sassafras River at Fredericktown. Sturdy and dependable boats were built there by a Mr. Ross for the river fishermen. In 1897 he built his first power boat (and first powerboat on the Sassafras) for Captain Andrew Woodall of Georgetown. Later boats built by Mr. Ross used the same design. It was 26 feet long, of white cedar planking and oak ribs, and had a one cylinder 7 hp engine. He called the boat “Toddy,” the name by which Captain Woodall was known to his family. Ross built one or two Toddies a year and they were used by all the fishermen on the Sassafras, Bohemia, and Elk Rivers, as well as by shad fishermen in the rough waters off Betterton. There is no record of any of these boats ever sinking.
In 1887, a few years before Mr. Ross established his yard on the Sassafras, Henry Deibert, a boat builder of Schuykill Haven and Landingville, Pennsylvania, brought his family and seven workmen to Elk Landing in Elkton and made preparations to begin building canal boats.
One of the men who came to Elkton with Mr. Deibert was Harry McBride, my grandfather, who had worked for the shipyard in Pennsylvania. He married Sarah Jane Foster of Cecil County, and thus acquired a Maryland heritage. Work at the shipyard could be hazardous, as this item in the Cecil Democrat of October 22, 1898, indicates: “Harry McBride was accidentally hit on the head with a hammer while at work at Deibert Boatyard on Saturday. His head was cut and he was unconscious for a while.”
Under Henry and his sons, the Deibert shipbuilding business grew rapidly. By 1892, a nearby wharf on the Roberts estate had been rented for a second yard. The upper yard was known as the Deibert Boatyard; the lower yard, as E. Deibert & Brothers.
By 1902, the Deiberts had constructed upwards of 70 barges. They averaged about two months in construction, ranged from 100 to 200 feet in length and 100 to 900 tons carrying capacity, and cost between $1,250 and $11,250. Launching was done sideways on seven skids. They were build of oak and yellow pine. The yard employed 45 workers with payroll as high as $1,500 a month. By 1906 the business had more than doubled with three yards in operation, working on three boats at a time. Customers included prominent concerns in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other places.
There were other boat builders at Elk Landing: Rudolph & Bennett and, later, Patridge & Hollingsworth. But after the U.S. government stopped dredging the Elk River, ship building ceased at Elk Landing. By 1911, when the Deiberts moved their operation to Chesapeake City, no large vessels could come or go from Elkton, though one boat builder operated until 1946.
The third man hired by Henry Deibert after he opened his boatyard at Elk Landing was George Washington Boulden. After working for Deibert for ten years, in 1900 Boulden opened his own combination boatyard, blacksmithing, and wheelwrighting business on Water Street between Bow and Bridge streets. In 1917, Mr. Boulden temporarily rented out his business when he was called for a special job in Norfolk, Virginia — to build a barge 125 feet long with a 33 foot beam for the Southern Transportation Company. He directed a work crew of 35 men who had had no previous experience in building barges. After his work was completed, he returned to Elkton and continued to operate his boatyard until 1946 (Cecil Whig, May 7, 1953).
In 1911, the Deiberts moved their yard, the Henry Deibert Barge Building Company, to Chesapeake City. Stock was sold for $100 a share and was purchased largely by the people of the town. It was the company’s wish to make this plant a “town interest.” The officers were: Elmore Deibert, president; Clarence Deibert, vice president; and Arthur Deibert, secretary-treasurer. The company pushed work on a marine railway near the entrance to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, expected to be completed in February 1911, that would allow ships to be hauled in for repairs. The first barge built at the new yard was 200 feet long with a capacity of 1200-1500 tons. The largest was a 235 foot seagoing barge; the average was about 185 feet. They also made the “lemon-squeezer,” built in two parts, each about 75 feet long, that tied together could maneuver in small rivers. For most of the year, the yard, west of town near a cove used for mooring tugboats, ran full-time, with more work than t could handle. It was the larges industry in town, employing 90 to 100 men. The plant consisted of a number of buildings including a machine shop, power plant, houses for lumber and tools, and the railway. Increasingly, many of the barges were built for the Southern Transportation Company, which bought the yard in 1913. The Deiberts had not wanted to sell, but since Southern Transportation would build its own yard and force them out of business, they had no choice (From “The History of Chesapeake City.” compiled by the Chesapeake City High School Class of 1917).
World War II
World War II caused a boom in the shipbuilding industry in Cecil County. Several boatyards were operating at this time: the Lancaster Iron Works in Frenchtown/Perryville, the Wiley yard in Port Deposit, and the Berg Boat Company in Fredericktown. In October, 1942, the management and employees of the Berg Boat Co. earned the Army-Navy E for their output of Navy barges (Cecil Whig, Oct. 29, 1942).
The Lancaster Iron Works boatyard on the waterfront at Frenchtown, about one mile from Perryville, had 100 employees and six ways under construction in May 1942. The yard had an 850 foot frontage on the Susquehanna River opposite Garrett Island near the B&O Railroad bridge, an ideal location for bringing in prefabricated sections from the Lancaster Iron Works in Pennsylvania. The company had contracts for barges, derrick barges, lighters, and cargo boats, the largest over 200 feet. Some of the work was done at Port Deposit. A large building was being constructed so that the work could continue in bad weather (Cecil Whig, May 7, 1942). The company built 220 foot coastal tankers for the U.S. Maritime Commission and barges and dredges for the army and navy. It also built the “Delaware Belle” for the Wilson Line, launched June 27, 1946. However, after the war there were few orders and the shipyard was abandoned in 1950. It was leased as a marina shortly after hurricane Agnes in 1972.
Port Deposit was the location of Wiley Manufacturing, founded in 1939 by Glen M. Wiley of Lancaster, who had designed and developed a 350 degree revolving crane, the “Wiley Whirly.” It build hundreds of vessels during World War II. Two ocean-going vessels were launced at Wiley. The “Turecamo” was a double-bottomed, 13,700 long-ton tank barge. The other was a single skin oil tanker of 70,000 ton capacity. Wiley also built a great variety of small craft, including fishing boats, and larger vessels up to 425 feet. In addition, it produced automatic hatch covers, heavy lift masts, concrete steam cranes and buckets, and any manner of floating steel up to 2,400 tons dead weight. After the war, when most shipyards were experiencing financial difficulties, it was one of the most rapidly growing small commercial yards on the East Coast, in Maryland third only to Baltimore’s Bethlehem Steel Company yard and the Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, and with a steady workforce of 380. Their motto was “We Build Steel That Floats.” The floating steel included tunnel components that were floated and towed away without being placed on barges.
The location at Port Deposit presented some challenges. Experienced welders and fitters were hard to come by in the area and special training programs had to be set up. Limited space necessitated expanding to the old Tome School property in the south. Company offices, previously housed in a historic half-round concrete warehouse built to withstand the ice jams common before the Conowingo Dam was built, were moved to the old school house, at a location subject to flooding. “Agnes” brought a flood of three feet.
One of the largest ships manufactured at Wiley was “M/V Miss Circle Line,” built for the Circle Line-Statue of Liberty, Inc. of New York. The 400 ton, 152 foot ferry, with a twin screw diesel engine, which could carry 1037 passengers, took over 8 months to build in 1964. Another ferry, the “Surry,” carrying up to 50 cars and 350 passengers, plied the waters of the James River between Glasshouse Point and Scotland, Virginia. The 120 foot ocean-going tug “Big Bill” was one of the first in the United States with a Kort Nozzle (a stationary ring built around the prop giving 25% more shaft power), long used in Europe. Wiley also built a fishing boat, the “Ammon G. Dunton.” One of the last large orders was the manufacture of the tubes used in the Fort McHenry Tunnel.
The Wiley Company, the last commercial shipbuilding company of Cecil County, ceased operations in 1987. In 1993, the Port Deposit town board approved the Tome Landing development project, a self-contained community including town houses, marina, and commercial and retail complexes, on the Wiley Manufacturing Company site.
The era of Cecil County shipbuilding had ended.