Bethel wasn’t the only successful shipbuilding town in 19th century Delaware. Wilmington, Smyrna, and Milford could all lay claim to strength in that industry.
But Bethel, thanks to its location on the Nanticoke River, had easy access to the Chesapeake Bay and its markets. Bethel was surrounded by more extensive stands of virgin oak and pine than its northern neighbors, whose forests had already been worked hard in the 18th century. Bethel was adjacent to America’s northernmost stand of cypress, another convenient source of quality lumber.
Perhaps most importantly, Bethel had the engineering ingenuity of one John M. C. Moore. Moore was the man responsible for the design of a distinct class of schooner that came to be known variously as the ‘Chesapeake ram,’ the ‘sailing ram,’ or the ‘Nanticoke ram.’ These ships earned their names because they butted their way through the other schooners on the Chesapeake & Delaware canal.
The C&D canal, combined with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, put Bethel on the map.
The town today known as Bethel didn’t yet have a name in 1795, when Kendall M. Lewis built a simple dock along Broad Creek. The dock, called Lewis’ Wharf, did a busy trade as the offload point for supply ships coming up the Nanticoke from the Chesapeake. The creek is deep at the wharf, but for the final leg of the trip to Laurel, several miles further upstream, merchandise had to be transferred into shallow-draft scows. The numerous mills of Laurel and nearby Seaford produced finished lumber and grain products that in turn filled the waiting ships at Bethel.
In 1840 Kendall Lewis laid out 12 building lots on farmland abutting his wharf, and named the place ‘Lewisville.’
The Delaware Railroad built out to Laurel and Seaford in the 1850s, connecting them to the country’s mainland. And on the mainland, the transcontinental railroad began construction in 1863. Jonathan Moore, Captain George K. Phillips and Captain William T. Moore set up a partnership in Lewisville to repair sloops, schooners, and pungies right about that time.
The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. That same year, Jonathan Moore’s son Jonathan M.C. Moore, now the managing owner of the Lewisville Marine Railway, raised $400 in shares to shift the business more toward new ship construction. As its stock was gradually sold off, Moore, George Phillips and William Moore became the three principals.
Jonathan M.C. Moore, George K. Phillips and William T. Moore incorporated their Lewisville Marine Railway Company formally in 1871.
Lewisville incorporated as a town in 1880, but had to change its name because another Delaware town had the same name. The town’s reputation as a center for ship repair and construction by now was firmly established. It seemed like local business growth would climb forever. In the Bible, Bethel is the location where Jacob dreams of a ladder leading to heaven. Hence, that choice of a name for the booming Delaware town.
Why was completion of the transcontinental railroad important to the rise of shipbuilding in Bethel? Because shipbuilders there now had access to the best wood, Oregon cedar, for ship masts.
Lewisville Marine Railway Company, like other shipbuilders in the region, knew it had to solve the ship design problem presented by the narrow C&D canal.
The canal was the crucial link between Baltimore and the Atlantic coastal markets. The canal’s original locks, completed in 1829, confined a ship’s width to about 24 ft. Steamboats were in the ascendant, but the weight of the coal supply to heat their boilers, combined with the weight of the water to create their steam, combined with that width restriction, limited their speed. A narrow sailing ship remained the first choice for long freight hauls.
Jonathan M.C. Moore was the shipbuilder who came up with a schooner design that took the 24 ft beam requirement, maximized the ship’s length for cargo (about 125 ft), and configured the mast choices and rigging for speed. His schooner–the ‘ram’–had 3 masts, a flat bottom and straight sides. The ram was built without top masts or jib booms and could be sailed with one or two fewer men as crew. The Oregon cedar masts were roughly 100 ft high. Moore used oak used for the keels; pine for the deck planking.
The Bethel shipyard crews could turn out a ram every 90 days. Between 1871 and 1918, as many as thirty rams were built in Bethel shipyards.
In August 1918, the company by then known as Bethel Marine Railway secured a Federal contract to build two barges for the government. But on November 2, the US Shipping Board unexpectedly canceled its intended purchase.
“The company had gone to considerable expense in enlarging the yard to take care of the government work and had taken on many new men who have now been laid off,” noted the News Journal [Wilmington].
What the US Shipping board knew that the Bethel shipyards didn’t know is that the following year the US Army Corps of Engineers would be starting to deepen and widen the C&D Canal. Between that and the rise of the diesel powered ship, the Chesapeake ram was no longer needed.