Defoe Shipbuilding Company History

By: Mr. F. A. Swanson, Vice President, Defoe Shipbuilding Co.
Presented before the Society of Naval Architects Marine Engineers at Bay City, MI on May 21, 1964.
arial view

The Defoe Shipbuilding Company of today is the outgrowth of a small wooden boat business started in 1905 as a partnership between H. J. Defoe and F. W. Defoe, brothers, and G. H. Whitehouse, a brother-in-law. H. J. Defoe was a public school principal in the Bay City schoos, F. W. Defoe was a young lawyer in Bay City and G. H. Whitehouse was in the wholesale fish business, at that time a flourishing industry in Bay City and other points on the Great Lakes. The partnership operated under the name of Defoe Boat and Motor Works.

The first jobs undertaken were some fishing boats -- trap net skiffs they were called. They were flat-bottom or semi-flat-bottom with two sails and a raise-and-lower centerboard which could be raised in shallow water around the nets and so that the skiff could run its nose right up to the beach if desired. These were numerouse about Saginaw Bay at that time and before, and a person could look and see one to three of four under sail at any time of day. They were used to lift the nets and then carried the fish into port, where the fish was frozen or salted and packed for shipment in boxes, pails or tubs.

In 1905, however, the gasoline engine was coming into use and sail skiffs were gradually replaced or converted to power skiffs of much the same design.

The gas engine was also beginning to interest people in pleasure craft, and Harry Defoe, who was from the beginning the one active member of the partnership, began making them for occasional patrons. By 1911-12 he was building cruisers up to 65 feet, and by the outbreak of World War I had several of them on the Lakes and a few on the Coast. Two of them, a 57 footer and a 65 footer, were sold to the government here in Bay City and served throughout the war.

All these early years, however, the bread and butter sales consisted mostly of knock-down frames (fore-runners of the "pre-fab" boat) and full sized paper patterns, both of which were advertised and sold through Boating and other magazines, to be shipped around the world - United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Alaska, South Seas, China, and England. They were completed by the purchasers, some for commercial and some for pleasure uses. Also one of the early ventures consisted of an 18 foot strip-built complete launch with a 3 HP gasoline engine, which sold as a standard model for $130-$140, and it was quite widely distributed for lake and river use in this country.

The first government contract was for five 40 foot Spent Torpedo Chasers, which were delivered to the Navy at New London, Conn. in 1917. At that time it was considered quite a venture and the Navy inspection was surprised that these vessels were completely laid donw on the mold loft floor, even to the planking, and non of the work had to be lifted from the framework.

In1918, practically at the end of WWI, the Defoe Boat and Motor Works was awarded a contract by the Army Transport Service for eight 98 foot steam mineplanters and the company was confronted with the problem of erecting a steel building yard.

The company had begun buisness in 1905 in a small shop on the east side of the Saginaw River at the north end of what is now Wenonah Park. When this property was taken by the City for the park, the Defoes purchased about two acres of ground on the West Side, just south of the approach to the New York Central railroad bridge. That was in 1908. In 1917 in preparation for the steel yard, they made a trade with the New York Central of that site for the preperty across the river, at the other end of the bridge, where the yard was built and still stands. [Today there is a new bridge and the rest is of the property is owned by a wrecking yard. ed.]

The necessary steel yard "know-how" was readily found in Bay City, as skilled men remained from the shipbuilding days of the F.W. Wheeler Company, started in 1875 and later sold to the American Shipbuilding Co. about 1898. The American Shipbuilding Company dismantled the yard in 1905, the same year that the Defoe Company began building wooden boats. The old Wheeler-American Shipbuilding yard was located directly across the river from the present Defoe plant. It had been a very busy yard for 30 years and many good men had been trained there.

So the Defoe steel yard was started and completed rapidly and the Mineplanter contract was completed in 1921, the whole fleet being manned here at Bay City and leaving the harbor in formation. Some of these ships later sold by the goverment, are still operating as tugboats. This we know because of inquirires received from time to time for plans and information applying to them. They were powered with double expansion steam engines and were sturdily build.

After WWI and passage of the prohibition law, the company built fifteen 75-foot wooden rum-runner chasers and twelve 100 foot of the same in steel. Delivery of these was completed in 1924 and 1925. This was a rush program. Following this was a spell in which we built some small steel fruit carrying boats for Lake Michigan use and a few lesser private jobs.

After this came an extensive season of yacht building, which will be remembered by many of you, running all through the boom years until the time of the depression. Although the company had built yachts for several years, it now found that it had to compete for the bigger business with such yards as Lawleys, Chas. Seabury, Luders, Bath, and Pusey and jones. In order to meet this competition, it build up a joinery and finish department which made its yachts very successful. At the last information, the 165 foot Olive K build for Chas. Kettering was in use as the pilot ship for the Port of New York. Similarly the 157 foot SARAMAR, build for Chas. T. Fisher, was in use in New Orleans under the Port Authority. Two years ago the 142 foot JANIDORE built in 1930 for Isadore Zellerbach in San Francisco, was in our yard at Bay City and those among us who remebered the yacht days were very proud to see all of her soodwork and finish practically as good as new. Most of these larger yachts were designed by the owner's naval architect -- Gielow, Cox & Stevens, John Wells, Thomas D Bowes, W.E. Fermann. In the meantime some of the yachts were designed and built by ourselves. President Kennedy's yacht, HONEY FITZ, was built by [Defoe] in 1931 for Sewell Avery from Tom Bowes' design. Of course, this period came to a rather sudden end in 1930 and 1931 as those familiar with the trade will remember.

The company had hardly begun to feel the depression, however, when the Coast Guard came out with plans and specifications for some steam turbine cutters, the ESCANABA, ONANDAGA and TAHOMA which we built, the ESCANABA was on patrol duty during the war and was torpedoed in the North Atlantic, leaving only one survivor. what became of the other two the writer does not know. These were delivered between 1932 and 1934 and while they did not constitute extensive work, they kept the yard busy and the organization intact.

In 1936, [Defoe] delivered the Lighthouse tenders HOLLYHOCK and ELM. We also built the 96 foot fireboat BUSSE for the City of Chicago, and a small mailboat named the MOOK for use in the Detroit River, where mail is delivered to all ships both upbound and downbound between the upper and lower lakes.

Following this came two 90 foot ice breaking cutters for the U.S. Coast Guard, the RARITAN and NAUGATUCK. These were remarkable little ships as we demonstrated by taking one of them out in Saginaw Bay and running through 12-inch thick ice, to the satisfaction and astonishment not only of the Coast Guard officers, but such engineers as C.F. Kettering who was here to observe the trials. We found that we could stop this boat in 12-inch ice, climb over the side, out on the ice which did not seem to be broken up except in a narrow path which the boat made for itself, and after that start the boat ahead again, without having to back and fill.

After this the war program began to take precedence over everything. [Defoe] had the designing job for the first two PC boats, 451 and 452. 451 was delivered by us to Norfold, Virginia under her own power, after an entirely satisfactory voyage. PC452 was originally designed for steam power plant, using a flash type boiler but the boiler trials were not satisfactory at the point of manufacture and the boat was finally towed to the Coast minus the boiler and delivered to the Navy for study and completion with the desired power plant. The hull design of 452 however, was adopted for the whole remaining PC fleet. These two deliveries were made in 1940.

Following close upon this, there were three 100 foot diesel electric tugs for the Navy. These were the YT type, and following closely upon them came four 220 feet diesel-electric Minesweepers, AM type. Meantime we were getting into quantity production of the 170 foot PC boats of which we completed during the enxt three years some 56 ships. These were built upside down on a cradle, rolled over into an upright position for machinery installation and completion, and after going through three construction stations were dropped into the water by a mechanical lift. [Defoe was] able to turn these out at the rate of one per week but soon found that we could not get the engines fast enough to meet this program.

Later [Defoe] contracted for 28 of the 309 foot steam turbine destroyer escorts which [Defoe] also built in the upside-down position. After the pilot ship had been built on the standard building way, we constructed two cradles on which to build these 308 footers in the upside down position from which they were rolled over into an upright position and after 20 to 30 days launched sideways in normal fashion into the slip and then towed around to the river front for three stages of fitting out. The last 11 ships of these 28 were altered into fast troop trasports carrying landing craft. This program ran from 1943 to practically the end of the war.

Meantime during 1941 and 1942 [Defoe] built four 143 foot ocean going diesel electric tugs which were transferred to the British Navy. These were the BAT type, and all were taken out of Bay City by British crews. Among other ships built [by Defoe] during the war effort were 47 LCI(L) landing craft, diesel equipped, and 10 YF lighters for the Navy.

All of these ships built during the war, with the exception of the British tugs and one of the 220 ft. Minesweepers which was kept on the Lakes for a training ship, had to be delivered via the Mississippi to New Orleans becuase of the submarine menace in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the Atlantic seaboard. They all went under their own power from Bay City to Chicago where they were placed in tow and taken down the River. This was not a simple process, especially with the larger ships like the DE's which had to have part of the upperwork taken off and laid on deck to pass under the bridges and at other points had to be floated up by pontoons in order to get down the canal from Chicago and down the Mississippi. When they reached New Orleans they were drydocked and refitted and final acceptance taken. The trial trips however, had all been run in the Great Lakes, out of Bay City, before they left [the Defoe] yard and all machinery and other installations were proved satisfactory before the trip down the river.

The end of the War meant a sudden end of operations. [Defoe] had cancelled at that time a Navy contract for thirty 180 ft. diesel minesweepers from AM391 to 420. This caused a terrific cut-back in [Defoe's] crew but the relief of war tension did a lot to compensate for this. The Company decided to reach out for yacht work and completed a design which H.J. Defoe had been developing on his own for a 188 ft. x 18'6" seagoing yacht, propelled by two tandem General Motors 6-71 diesels. Through magazine advertising campaing and some selling effort, six of these streamline yachts were sodl and they all proved very popular but not very profitable. All but one of these has since changed hands and changed its name and they are still operating with reported satisfaction to their present owners. One of these yachts was built for a Brazilian and delivered by [Defoe] to Rio de Janeiro. The others all went to domestic owners.

In 1946 [Defoe] built and delivered two 120 ft. lightships, the DIAMOND and the POLLACK to the U.S. Coast Guard. After this [Defoe] did considerable repair work, some for the Navy on the 170 ft. PC boats which were used for training purposes on the Great Lakes. Also repair work on the Straits of Mackinaw ferries, City of Petoskey and City of Munising, and several tank top, side tank and ballast piping replacements on Great Lakes bulk freighters. It was in this period that [Defoe] built and delivered the Milwaukee Fire Boat DELUGE. [Defoe] also built three diesel tugs, the LIMESTONE, for U.S. Steel Corp., the JOHN A. McGUIRE for Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., and the WILLIAM C. GAYNOR, also for the Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co.

[Defoe] built one 57 ft. all plastic experimental Minesweeper MSB23, for the Navy which was delivered complete in 1954. This was a design job.

In 1952-53 [Defoe] built two Great Lakes bulk freighters (643 ft.), the CHARLES L. HUTCHINSON for Pioneer Steamship Company, later sold to Ford Motor Company and renamed the ERNEST R. BREECH; and the RICHARD M. MARSHALL for the Great Lakes Steamship Company, which also has since changed hands and been renamed the JOSEPH S. WOOD.

[Defoe] also got back into Navy work and from 1954 on have built two DE's, the COURTNEY and the LESTER; four DDG's (guided missile destroyers), the WILSON, the McCORMICK, the ROBISON and the HOEL, and have under construction at present [as of May 21, 1964] three DDG's which are to be transferred to the Australian Navy after completion, and three steam turbine DE's, 1047, 1049 and 1051, for the U.S. Navy.

The foregoing is a brief narrative of the growth and development of the company. The name was changed from the Defoe Boat & Motor Works to Defoe Shipbuilding Company in 1942 and the company was changed from a partnership to a corporation in 1956. It continued, however, under the same management, and that meant primarily Harry J. Defoe.

Harry Defoe was passionately devoted to boat and shipbuilding. His father sailed on tugboats and knew and was casually interested in nearly all of the ships on the Great Lakes. He was born in what is now Bay City in 1846, when accessibility to the outside world was almost exclusively by water, and hence boats were of top importance. Harry's uncle, John Defoe, was a local boat builder. Harry J. derived his initial interest from these sources and his mother said that from the time he could first use a jackknife, he whittled from the soft cork pine then so plentiful, one boat after another - tugboats, schooners, and in his teens, steamboats, in which he used tin cans for boilers, rifle cartridges for cylinders, and for the variouse castings, babbitt or old type metal. And his steamboats ran under their own power.

In spare time of his school-teaching days he advanced from toy size to rowboats and from them to small motor launches, the first of which was powered by one of the first crude motorcycle engines. As you may imagine, the operation of this 16 footer was a problem, but it ran -- most of the time -- and was an adventure and an experience. His friends shook their heads in doubt but he kept on building little motor boats for occasional people besides himslef and was always advancing.

He never did build a gasoline engine but when he quit teaching and the Defoe boat & Motor Works wa founded, he made an arrangement with Fred Stork of Saginaw, to sell Stork motors in connection with the knock-down boat business and used and sold many of them from Stork's 3 horsepower 2 cycle to his heavy duty 6 cylinder 7-1/2 x 9, 4 cycles. They were, for their time, very good motors.

He always kept aspiring to something new and better in design and construction, and while as the business expanded, he worked to designs of various naval architects, he kept his own hand in on the designing, and after WWII, he brought out his own design for a 188-foot seagoing yacht, "The Cruisemaster", of which six were built and are still in service.

In devoting these last remarks to Harry Defoe, it is because it was his spirit and determination that kept the business going in hard times as well as good times. But he had other good men in his organization.

There wer numerous top-notch ship carpenter, mill men, etc., whose names would be only of local interest. But there might be mention John Lind who helped enormously to establish the steel yard. He had been chief loftsman for the F.W. Wheeler Company and knew steel ship construction thoroughly as it was practiced in the early days. Following his came Albert Johnson, a nephew of his, who developed ito little less than a genius at shipbuilding and mechanics generally.

In the more stricly buiness end, it was Wesley Whitehouse, Defoe's nephew, who came into the office from the Navy, where he had been a lieutenant in WWI. Through the years succeeding, he was a right-hand man right up to H.J. Defoe's death and his own failing health in the late 1950's.

At the time of Harry Defoe's death in 1957, he had bought out his brother Fred's interest in the business and concentrated it in the hads of himself and his two sons, Thomas J. and William, who for several years after the second war, occupied the same office with him and literally absorbed the principles and methods which his long and arduous experience had taught him

It may not be interesting to members of this audience, but to the "old timers" in the Defoe organization, reminisces of interesting people and things are. Like the time that certain Irish members of the Chicago Fire Deparment, for which [Defoe was] building a fire boat, got Wes Whitehouse at a dinner in Chicago, tried unsuccessfully to make him eat a live gold fish, and when that failed, set up a phony broadcast over their radio to the effect that the Defoe plant in Bay City was burning down. As a comeback, Wes arranged that Chief Mulvaney should ride the boat in at the launching -- which is a five-second experience that few people care for.

There were also the times when [Defoe] built each of the two yachts for Charles F. Kettering. On the first 105 ft. yacht, he said that the motor generatro set ought to be self-starting. Ed Pawlicki, our electrical engineer, said that it could not be done - that the manufacturer himself said so. To which Kettering replied, "Give me two men and I'll make it self-starting tonight," wich he did. And from that time on, neither Pawlicki nor any of several other leaders around the shipyard ever said something couldn't be done. The second OLIVE K (169 ft long) for Kettering, furthermore, was made by him into a floating laborator in which he started several new things including the General Motors 2-cycle diesel.