New Albany Shipyards

From the mid-1820s to the Civil War, shipbuilding fueled New Albany’s economic growth. New Albany shipyards produced $12 million worth of rivercraft by 1860. Production began in 1819 and peaked in 1856, when New Albany builders produced twenty-two boats. Riverboat construction attracted skilled craftsmen to the city and created a thriving industrial complex. During the 1850s, the five largest yards employed about 450 laborers and mechanics. Master builders gained fame and fortune by supervising construction of large ships destined for service on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Six firms dominated the shipbuilding trade: Dowerman and Humphreys, William Jones, Charles Wible, John Evans, Peter Tellon and Jacob Alford, and George Armstrong. New Albany became second to Pittsburgh in the tonnage launched from its riverfront. The town’s location at the northern terminus of the shipping route between New Orleans and the Falls of the Ohio and its proximity hardwood forests benefited shipbuilders. Firms that supplied goods and services to shipyards employed hundreds of workers. Foundries, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths, and tin and coppersmiths prospered. The Phoenix Foundry, founded by William Lent, Benjamin South, and W. C. Shipman, became a leading producer of steamboat engines and boilers. By 1860 it employed over 100 workers.  Historian Lawrence Lipin has estimated that suppliers to New Albany shipyards employed between 2,000 and 2,500 “able-bodied mechanics, artisans, and laborers.”

New Albany shipyards built several ships that became famous because of their elegance and exploits. The Eclipse (1852), the A. L. Shotwell (1853), and the Baltic (1856) all became widely known. The Eclipse was one of the largest boats built west of the Appalachian Mountains. At 1,117 tons, it was about three times as large as most boats on the western rivers. Like other “best boats,” it featured elegant interiors designed to woo guests with luxury and comfort. An opulent grand saloon, or main cabin, served as the ship’s dining room and main social venue. One hundred and forty staterooms stood alongside.

Like other highly touted vessels, the Eclipse also drew attention for its speed. It participated in the most famous steamboat race before the Civil War, a contest with the A. L. Shotwell. The race failed to produce a victor—the captains of both vessels claimed the win—but attracted great notoriety.

Shipbuilding ended in New Albany after the Civil War.  Railroads quickly supplanted riverboats as the preferred means of moving goods and people.  The firm of Murray and Company remained in business by concentrating on production of flatboats and barges for carrying coal and other heavy freight.  Foundries and cabinetmakers turned to other markets, and craftsmen and laborers went to work for new employers.  New Albany remained a manufacturing and shipping center, but its boatbuilding days lay in the past.

Images

Dowerman House

Dowerman House

Jacob Dowerman and Thomas Humphreys operated one of New Albany's most successful shipyards. It lay on the river south of downtown. Dowerman built this handsome house overlooking the yard in the 1830s. Today, it is a rare surviving reminder of the historical importance of New Albany shipbuilders. Image courtesy of Daniel Vivian. | Source: Daniel Vivian | Creator: Daniel Vivian View File Details Page

Steamboats under construction, ca. 1850

Steamboats under construction, ca. 1850

Steamboats under construction in New Albany, circa 1850. This is the only known photograph of New Albany's shipbuilding industry during its heyday. | Source: Harold Vincent Miller, "The Industrial Development of New Albany, Indiana" (M.S thesis, University of Chicago, 1934), View File Details Page

Foundry Advertisement

Foundry Advertisement

Shipbuilding made New Albany a manufacturing center. Foundries, cabinetmakers, and craftsmen supplied shipbuilders with good and services. After the Civil War, many of these firms remained in business by finding new markets to serve. Image courtesy of Floyd County Gazetteer  | Source: Floyd County Gazetteer (Chicago: John C.W. Bailey and Co., 1868). View File Details Page

Captain Thomas Humphreys

Captain Thomas Humphreys

A partner in the firm of Dowerman and Humphreys, Thomas Humphreys was one of New Albany's most successful boatbuilders. The firm's yard lay on the waterfront south of downtown. Image courtesy of New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collection | Source: New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collection View File Details Page

Peter Tellon

Peter Tellon

With his partner Jacob Alford, Peter Tellon ran one of New Albany's most successful shipyards. Located on the waterfront between West Fourth and West Sixth streets, it produced steamboats such as the Peter Tellon, the Robert J. Ward, and the D.B. Campbell. Tellon also built a large foundry and several machine shops.Image courtesy of New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collection  | Source: New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collection | Creator: George Morrison View File Details Page

New Albany as seen from Silver Hills, circa 1850.

New Albany as seen from Silver Hills, circa 1850.

Artist George Morrison painted this view of New Albany about 1850. It provides a rare view of shipyards, foundries, and machine shops along the waterfront during the heyday of steamboat construction. Image courtesy of New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collection | Source: New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collection | Creator: George Morrison View File Details Page

<em>Eclipse</em>

Eclipse

Built in 1852, the Eclipse was among the most luxurious boats of its time. It won acclaim for racing the A. L. Shotwell in a celebrated race that failed to produce a victor.Image courtesy of New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collections.  | Source: New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collection View File Details Page

<em>Belfast </em>and <em>Eclipse</em>

Belfast and Eclipse

New Albany-built steamers the Belfast and the Eclipse at dock. Ship captains sought to attract passengers with luxurious accommodations and promises of speedy travel.Image courtesy of New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collecitons  | Source: New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collections View File Details Page

Steamboat Race

Steamboat Race

Steamboat races attracted widespread attention and made heroes out of ship captains. The Baltic (right) and the Diana squared off in a highly touted match in 1859.Image courtesy of New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collection  | Source: New Albany-Floyd County Public Library Digital Collection View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Ashley Slavey, Megan Simms, Wes Cunningham, Eric Brumfield, and Katy Morrison, “New Albany Shipyards,” Discover Indiana, accessed March 24, 2017, http://indyhist.iupui.edu/items/show/154.

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