Shipbuilding on Mangin Street
Nicholas Brenner, ‘19
The block that our school is on was not always as quiet as it is today. 200 years ago, the same streets that are now dominated by the sounds of cars, students, and M14-Ds would have echoed with the sounds of “the strokes of the ships’ carpenter’s axe and plane, of the blacksmith’s and the caulker’s hammer” (The New York Evening Post, May 6, 1831). The land BHSEC sits on was home to the shipbuilding industry, the engine of New York’s prosperity and global commerce for the first half of the nineteenth century.
The relationship between this area and the shipbuilding industry began in 1804, with the opening of a shipyard that ran from Stanton Street to 4th Street by Charles Browne. He was chosen by Robert Fulton to build the Clermont, the first successful commercial steamboat in the United States. In 1807, this ship opened up a new epoch in maritime history, with a round-trip voyage from New York to Albany, proving to the world that steam travel was a viable means of transport. It is amazing to think that the place where we go about our high school existences was the exact spot where maritime steam travel, the way in which so many people came to this country, was born.
In 1807, Adam and Noah Brown purchased Charles Browne’s shipyard. Returning to New York after building ships in the Great Lakes for the government during the War of 1812, the Browns built the first Black Ball liners. As the first transatlantic ships to run on a regular schedule, they carried most of the passengers, news, mail, money, and luxury goods between Europe and America in this period. They earned a reputation for their punctuality, relied upon by traders to keep in contact with Europe and by immigrants seeking a new life in America. During this period, the Browns also worked on naval contracts for foreign governments, such as those of the newly independent South American nations. In fact, the site where our school lies today was the mold loft of Brown’s shipyard, the place where lifesize plans for ships were drawn up by draughtsmen. In 1820, Adam and Noah Brown’s shipyard was purchased by David Brown and Jacob Bell.
The shipbuilders of New York allowed the city’s merchants to take the lead in international trade, eclipsing cities such as Boston and Philadelphia. The prosperity being generated here was aided by the immigration of skilled mechanics from Britain and Germany starting in 1825. At the same time, a movement for a shorter, 10-hour working day developed. Shipyard workers lived in a condition “that was almost slavery” (Morrison 66). They worked from sunup to sundown, with little time for relaxation: “the writer was told by a shipbuilder who was apprentice for Smith & Demon prior to 1830 that many evenings he came home from the yard so completely worn out physically from the labor of the day, that he has laid down to rest, fallen asleep, too tired to eat his evening meal. This was not once, but many times.” (Morrison 67-8). As a result of these conditions, workers in different shipyards organized strikes, most of which, due to their small size, failed. However, two of the major mutual benefit societies (the predecessors to unions), the New York Journeymen Shipwright’s Benevolent Society and the Caulkers’ Benevolent Society, were incorporated in 1833. In 1834, pressure from the now better-organized shipyard workers resulted in the installation of the Mechanic’s Bell, on a section of Mangin Street that is now the south side of the field next to our school. The Bell was rung 6 times a day, to mark the beginning of the work day at 6 AM, breakfast, lunch, and the end of the work day at 6 PM. The Mechanic’s Bell represented the gains of the first successful labor campaign in American history. The power of this early labor movement declined as a result of the economic downturn after the Panic of 1837.
As the power of the workers declined, new advancements were being made in luxury travel. In 1837, the workers of Brown and Bell’s shipyard built the first of Edward K. Collins’ Dramatic Line. These steamships were outfitted with plush, theater-inspired interiors, and marked a major transition in maritime travel. The Dramatic Line set new standards for transatlantic travel. Passengers could enjoy the pleasures of steam heating, French chefs, and the first barber shops on the high seas. Technological advancement also took place in steam travel and ship design during this period. In 1841, the first two steamships, the Lion and the Eagle, were built in Brown and Bell’s shipyard for the Spanish government. In the same year, one of the first clipper ships bound for China, the Hoqua, named after the leader of the Chinese merchant guild engaged in international trade in Guangzhou, was built by Brown and Bell. The clipper ships represented the pinnacle of wooden ship design, unsurpassed in speed and beauty. The beginning of the Gold Rush in 1849 ushered in a greater demand for clipper ships, and the shipyard flourished with new contracts and constructions. However, its days of glory, and those of New York ship construction, were coming to an end. While the New York shipyards produced some of the fastest and most advanced wooden ships of their time, their owners failed to realize the change that the ironclad ship would bring. After 1854, the amount of ships built in New York rapidly declined, with only a solitary ship being built in New York in 1867. The shipyards moved away from New York to Brooklyn, at that time a separate municipality, and they were succeeded on Mangin Street by lumber yards, coal yards, brick yards, and kerosene factories. The mold loft was replaced by the 6-story factory of Kerr, Kellnor, & Co. American Desk Manufactory, which produced office desks and school desks. The block had transitioned from being a center of innovation at the heart of the American economy in the first half of the nineteenth century to a supportive role in the second half of the century, providing equipment to the growing number of offices and public schools around the country.
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