Construction of Shubrick in 1900
Historic photo from the National Archives Collection
Today’s equivalent of launching a warship from Richmond, as happened amid great excitement on Oct. 31, 1899, would be the inaugural flight of an independently constructed spacecraft blasting off from Shockoe.
The advent of the William R. Trigg Shipbuilding Co. came amid the great surge in national pride and arms production following the victorious Spanish-American War a year earlier, as well as Richmond’s grand civic boosterism.
William Robertson Trigg would relate how, at age 13 during the Civil War, he was captured by Union troops and then released because “he wasn’t worth keeping.” He married Roberta Nicholls Hanewinckel, daughter of the German consul to Richmond.
Brushing off the scandal of a stint in jail for being an accessory to murder after the 1873 duel between John B. Mordecai and Page McCarty, Trigg was not only made president of the exclusive Commonwealth Club but also rose to the presidency of the Tanner and Delaney Engine Co. In 1887, the company underwent management and organizational changes and was renamed the Richmond Locomotive and Machine Works. Its 24-acre plant was situated in Shockoe, at the far north end of 17th Street.
The factory’s 3,000 laborers built some of the world’s largest locomotives. And in 1891, the shops fashioned the machinery, boilers and engines for the battleship Texas, delivering them on time, despite a fire.
In August 1898, as director of his own ship company, Trigg announced the securing of government contracts to build several torpedo boats and destroyers. He leased a factory building at 17th and Cary streets, on a narrow jut of land bordered by the James River and the Kanawha Canal. The yard, which employed 2,000 men and included 15 buildings, spread out along Chapel Island, in and around what is now Great Shiplock Park.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorialized that “at first, the idea of building warships at this city was received with skepticism, not to say ridicule, especially by the seashore cities.” Not to mention some of Trigg’s peers.
Work began on two Navy torpedo boats, Shubrick and Stockton. Their keels were laid by January. Because there was no harbor, Trigg’s ships would be launched sideways. Trigg wanted $3.5 million in federal appropriations for river improvements to allow for the maneuvering of larger vessels.
Trigg’s brother, Connally, envisioned a time when “Richmond will be a miniature Glasgow [Scotland] and when the great activity in ship-building on the Clyde will have a counterpart on the James.”
The launch of the first U.S. ship from Richmond and, with it, the city’s entrance into maritime industry, moved renowned Jefferson Ward political boss Sam Stern to suggest a suitable celebration. The idea inspired action from business and civic leaders. President William McKinley would witness the launch and officiate over the beginning of a three-day event involving parades, fireworks, street celebrations and racing at the fairgrounds on Broad Street.
Everything worked — except the weather.
On Tuesday morning, a northeast wind blew in with terrific force, followed by a deluge probably generated by a tropical storm. “What a saucy, rabid, mischief-making wind and rain it was that come to lash the opening day of the long-planned Civic Carnival!” the Times-Dispatch lamented.
But the dreadful conditions didn’t hold back a massive turnout at the Trigg yards. The number of residents overwhelmed the extra streetcars arranged for transit. The torpedo boats Thornton and Stockton and destroyers Dale and Decatur were on view in their various stages of construction, promising future launches under better conditions.
An estimated 30,000 people crowded on and around the grandstands to hear McKinley speak, though the clanking of machinery as the Shubrick was maneuvered for its sideways launch rendered unintelligible most of his remarks about national unity and Richmond’s industry.
Near the moment of the Shubrick’s christening, the steamer Lou capsized, when 100 spectators swarmed too quickly to one side for the view. No one was hurt.
Christening duties went to ringleted 10-year-old Carrie Shubrick, the great-grandniece of the ship’s namesake, Mexican War-era Rear Adm. William Branford Shubrick of South Carolina. When little Carrie swung the champagne bottle against the vessel’s prow, it made an anticlimactic clunk. As the vessel began its slide, a quick-moving worker successfully smashed the bottle against the vessel.
The 175-foot-long, 17-foot-wide torpedo boat eased down the ways into the canal. Uproarious cheering and a cordon of railway engines blasting their whistles met the moment.
The next day, a rescheduled parade went down Franklin Street, replete with horse-drawn tableaux of industry and commerce. Some 50,000 people lined the route.
Subsequently, Trigg Shipbuilding Co. produced cruisers, cutters, destroyers, dredgers, excursion steamers, tugboats and several more torpedo boats — about 26 vessels.
Trigg suffered a paralyzing stroke in January 1902. His business went into receivership in December. Court proceedings revealed that the company had submitted bids too low to support the plant’s continued development. Without Trigg’s effective leadership, the company’s fate followed his. Trigg died Feb. 16, 1903, at age 53, and the shipyards soon ceased operation amid lawsuits that continued for years afterward.
Shubrick operated primarily out of Charleston, South Carolina, and served with neither mishap nor guns fired in anger until her 1920 scrapping by a New York salvage company.
Of the Trigg yards, only the concrete upper canal gate remains on the south side of Great Shiplock Park.