Learn about shipbuilding in the United States during the 20th century.
Detail view of ship repair work
From the years following the Civil War to the early 20th century, the U.S.
shipping and shipbuilding industries declined dramatically. The small amount of
trade that occurred was concentrated in the Great Lakes and coastal regions of
the United States. The majority of the foreign trade market was left to the highly
experienced and organized countries of Germany and Great Britain. From a military
standpoint, the U.S. preferred to maintain small armed force units and remain
uninvolved in foreign affairs and had little desire to establish a fleet of ships
as part of national security.
Expansion of overseas markets lead to the Navy Act of 1883, which called for
construction of steel cruisers and lead to the construction of the first armored
ships of the U. S. Navy. However, the U. S. still embraced a defensive, nearshore
strategy with little thought of a strong presence in distant water, hence a limited
navy. Most ocean trade was carried by foreign vessels and the merchant marine
In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, serving at the Naval War College, published
The Influence of Seapower Upon History (1660-1783). This book transformed the
naval thinking of the U. S. by arguing that great empires, as the United States
was beginning to see itself after a century of concentrating on settling its huge
continental interior, require overseas naval stations and strong military and
merchant navies. In 1890, a Navy Act passed authorizing the construction of three
modern battleships, and in 1891, the Ocean Mail Subsidy Act was passed, which
increased the federal subsidies for ocean-going mail in order to encourage shipbuilding.
In 1898, with the coming of the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of
overseas territories, Congress further expanded the Navy and by the first years
of the new century, the U.S. ranked as an oceanic power. However, the world in
the early years of the new century found itself in a naval arms race as major
world powers constructed newer and larger battleships with which to challenge
each other on the high seas.
Shipbuilding at Southwest Marine Terminal
Click on the image to view an animated map
Lost in the U.S. naval expansion was the merchant fleet. With the start of
World War I, however, the U.S. quickly recognized its vulnerability to loss of
foreign trade when both Germany and Great Britain withdrew their merchant fleets
from transatlantic service. In 1914, only 2% of vessels involved in the foreign
trade market were of U.S. registry. To strengthen the U.S. economically and militarily,
Congress passed two acts authorizing swift construction of a maritime and wartime
fleet in 1916 and 1917, respectively.
The government shipping program prompted the formation of several new shipbuilding
companies throughout the nation that soon assembled a massive fleet of ships,
the most ever produced in the world until that time. In October 1918 alone, the
shipyards delivered 391,000 tons of vessels.