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NEWS | Nov. 15, 2016

American Shipbuilding and the Charleston Navy Yard: A Link to the Past

By Joshua Mayes 628th ABW Historian

In the 1720’s a large merchant ship sank at Browns Ferry on the Black River in Georgetown County approximately an hour northeast of the Naval Weapons Station Charleston. At the time of the sinking, Benjamin Franklin was a young man in his 20’s and George Washington was not yet born. The Browns Ferry carried 25 tons of bricks made on a local plantation, English wine bottles, oars, millstones, iron pots and smoking pipes made of gourds

Fast forward to 1973 when local recreational divers found the wreck lying just off the bank in 20 feet of water.  Dr. Ralph Wilbanks of the state Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology spent six weeks preparing the wreck for removal from the Black River. The archaeologists used milk crates to bring up the 10,000 bricks that lay atop the boat and in the mud. 

A few years later, in 1976, 8,000 people lined the riverbank as the boat was finally lifted from its watery grave and driven on a flatbed tractor trailer to Columbia. The trailer had to stop every 10 miles to borrow water hoses from local gas stations to soak the boat to prevent decay from being exposed to oxygen.  The boats’ construction consisted of oak, cypress and pine and had to be meticulously preserved by replacing the water in the cells of the wood with polyethylene glycol.  The process of conservation, from start to finish, lasted nine years.   The vessel now resides in the Georgetown Rice Museum and a model of the ship is in at the South Carolina Maritime Museum.  Both museums are located on Front St. in Georgetown, South Carolina.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century boats, although rare, are discovered periodically in the rivers and lakes of the United States. However, this Black River find is the rarest.  The discovery is primary evidence that American shipbuilding was occurring perhaps 50 years earlier than previously thought.  In 1979, Dr. Richard Steffy of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M stated it was, “The most important single nautical discovery in the United States to date.” 

As Charleston’s trade and transportation network grew in the late 17th and early 18th centuries the need for a variety of watercraft increased. The abundance of building materials made Charleston one of the earliest productive ports along the Atlantic seaboard. At the time of the sinking of the Brown Ferry ship, many merchants were turning from the sea and building large agricultural plantations. Thus, the shipbuilding enterprise slowed until the American Revolution and the formation of the U.S. Navy in 1775. 

The merchant ship, like the one found at Brown’s Ferry, would have aided in the war effort of the colonists during the American Revolution by transporting men and supplies along the southeastern river systems. It is likely that the designs of early American shipbuilding also helped win the war in the Lowcountry but, by the end of the American Revolution, the shipping industry in the newly independent United States was all but destroyed.  From the late 18th century to 1865, Charleston was supported by 14 shipyards although the heyday of shipbuilding had passed into history. 

The Charleston shipyards provided a legacy that dimmed briefly to be reignited by the establishment of the Charleston Navy Yard on the west bank of the Cooper River in 1901. The Charleston Navy Yard eventually became the Charleston Navy base serving as a homeport for numerous ships and submarines. The Navy base supported the nation through all U.S. conflicts until its closing in 1996.