Local historians Torben Jenk and Kenneth Milano say the Cramp Machine Shop, then Turret Shop, was part of a business whose impact on Kensington, Fishtown and the city as whole was enormous.
William Cramp & Sons, as the original business was called when it opened in the 1830s, and the war reborn Cramp Shipbuilding Company, not only employed generations of families, but brought fame to the neighborhood. “You can find on eBay on any given day postcards from back in the day, because it was a tourist attraction,” Milano said.
William Cramp's family had built its wealth through the fishing industry, Milano said. The first ships Cramp made were wooden.
The Cramp company was “the only American ship company that successfully transitioned from making wood hull ships to steel hull ships,” Jenk said.
Although William Cramp became extraordinarily wealthy, he stayed in the neighborhood. “He lived in a small, two-and-half story house on Palmer Street until 5 or 6 years before his death in 1879,” Milano said, but not so his sons who moved to the “new money” neighborhoods around North Broad Street.
In the early 1900s, Jenk said, William Cramp & Sons made submarines and tugboats.
The company became more famous when it built Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, Jenk said. “Roosevelt was trying to project American power,” Jenk said. Most ships meant for battle are painted gray, so they disappear into the water, but not these. “He had them painted white so you couldn't miss them. He sent them all around the world to show that America was a superpower. And a lot of them were made by Cramp.”
Note that the flagship of the Great White Fleet is moored downriver a few miles from the Cramp site.
In that era, the shipyard employed about 10,000 people, Jenk said. It also created demand for many supportive industries, such as glass manufacturing, which also sprung up in the neighborhood, Milano said.
Read previous PlanPhilly Cramp Shipyard coverage and check out Jeffrey Totaro's evocative interior photos in the slideshow.