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Off-chance repair leads to first iron shipbuilding in USA

the bangor steamer, 1843-4 / Library of Congress

Above: The Bangor, first iron steamer in America, built 1843-4

In 1842 the Wilmington outfit Betts, Pusey and Harlan, a builder of railroad cars, was a modest 20 person operation. That was all about to dramatically change, when Samuel Harlan accepted a repair job on the iron cylinder of the wooden steamboat Sun from Captain William Whillidin.

This was Betts, Pusey and Harlan’s first machine work connected with the world of ships. It was a bold move on Harlan’s part, one that presaged the firm’s meteoric success to come.

Hearing of the caliber of the shop’s repair work on the Sun and its reputation for professionalism, Bangor Steam Navigation Company of Maine sought out Betts, Pusey and Harlan to build an iron steamboat from the ground up. And thus, an off-chance repair in an area not related to its core business led to Betts, Pusey and Harlan becoming the first iron shipbuilding yard in the USA.

The company commenced work on the Bangor, a passenger and freight service ship, in October 1843.

“Her career was marked with disaster, and ended in oblivion,” notes historian Anna T. Lincoln.

In May 1844 the firm (renamed Betts, Harlan and Hollingsworth) completed the Bangor, the nation’s first iron sea-going, twin-screw propeller steamer. The launching timbers broke as she was gliding into the water, causing the vessel to fall on her side in the mud. The ship’s crew was able to right the ship, and it made a trial run trip to Cape May, NJ in just over six hours, traveling 10.61 miles an hour.

She made her first working trip in July 1845, but the Bangor caught fire on her second trip from Boston, a mere month later, and on August 31 was beached on the coast of Castine, ME. Judged a wreck, she was towed to Bath, ME to be rebuilt.

from "George Adams and Son's New Columbian Railroad Atlas and Pictorial Album of American History," 1879 / Library of Congress
from “George Adams and Son’s New Columbian Railroad Atlas and Pictorial Album of American History,” 1879 / Library of Congress

Despite this humble beginning, Betts, Harlan & Hollingsworth scaled up its operations with stunning speed. For a dozen years after the Bangor build, Wilmington produced more iron tonnage in shipbuilding than any other US city. Betts left the firm in that period, and Harlan & Hollingsworth grew to become the largest shipbuilder in Wilmington.

From an initial shipyard of 2 acres the corporation expanded by 1887 to 43 acres, on both banks of the Christiana. H&H boasted a patented dry dock that could accommodate a 340 long vessel.

Within 40 years of its 1844 launch, the company, known by then worldwide, had constructed 232 vessels; including 3 ‘monitors’ for the government during the Civil War.

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