Know Your History: William Cramp and Sons
One of the world’s most renowned shipbuilding companies of the 1800s, William Cramp and Sons Shipbuilding company had a major impact on the areas of Kensington, Port Richmond, and the entire United States. This company was so influential that two Presidents would come to visit it in the span of five years. Today, only remnants of the Cramps’ remain.
William Cramp’s family immigrated to the United States from Germany in the mid-1700s and they settled as fishermen in what was then known as Kensington. They changed their name from “Krampf” to “Cramp” in order to sound more American. It was this family that was partially responsible to giving a portion of that area its nickname of Fishtown.
In 1807, William Cramp was born on present-day Susquehanna Avenue (then Otis Street) and lived on Vienna Street and Queen Street (present-day Berks and Richmond, respectively) before living in two houses on Palmer Street.
Before shipbuilding, Cramp studied to be a minister under Rev. George Chandler, but health concerns had Cramp looking for an outdoor occupation. William worked as a fisherman along with most of the German immigrants in the area, since shipbuilding was an industry that was dominated by immigrants of English descent.
Lucky for Cramp, he was able to marry into a prominent shipbuilding family. His wife, Sophia Miller, had two aunts who married fishermen (William Sutton and John Bennet), a mother who married a fisherman (Henry Miller), and an uncle who was a shipbuilder.
Cramp spent the fishing offseason as a shipwright (shipbuilder), until his uncle got him an apprenticeship at William Grice’s Kensington Shipyard. In 1830, Cramp would open his first shipyard, which built wooden ships, on the Delaware River in Kensington.
Shortly after, in 1846, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad obtained waterfront property in the area as well in order to create a large coal trading industry in Philadelphia. Because of the railroad news, I.P. Morris (Philadelphia’s largest producer of iron castings that was founded in 1828) also relocated to Port Richmond. With the railroad company, iron casting business, and Cramp’s Shipbuilding, the neighborhoods of Port Richmond and Kensington became home to large numbers of industrial workers in these companies.
Cramp’s would move to a larger area in Richmond and eventually expanded to rent out the Norris Street yard on the Delaware River in 1870. By the 1920s, Cramp’s covered the entire Delaware Riverfront from Norris Street to Cumberland Street. With the numbers of workers growing and with new technologies in metal shipbuilding becoming common, Cramp became larger and more successful and had two of his sons (Charles and William) become his business partners in 1857. In 1863, the same year as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (for historical context), Cramp’s other three sons (Samuel, Jacob, and Theodore) joined the family business as well. The firm was renamed “William Cramp and Son’s Shipbuilding.”
In 1877, William Cramp’s health begins to decline and he passed away on July 6, 1879 in Atlantic City. His sons, specifically Charles, take over the business. William Cramp was responsible for the construction of 225 vessels in his life.
The first huge accomplishment of the shipyard after the death of William was the launching of the USS Baltimore in 1888. At the time, the ship cost $1,546,172 to build, but today it would be about 25 times as expensive. The USS Baltimore included four 8” guns, six 6” guns, eight secondary rapid-fire guns, and held 328 men. On May 24th, 1890 the USS Baltimore became the flagship (ship that carries the commanding admiral in a fleet) of the North Atlantic Squadron.
Another great accomplishment came in 1894 when the shipyard launched the SS St. Louis (the largest liner ever built in the United States at that time) in front of a cheering crowd of 25,000 people. In the crowd were President Grover Cleveland and the First Lady with Shipyard President Charles Cramp. The SS St. Paul, the sister ship of St. Louis, was launched the same year.
A few years later, on February 15, 1898, the American Battleship Maine explodes in Havana Harbor in Cuba. Mistakenly considered a Spanish attack by the U.S. (it was not), the consequence was a declaration of war by the United States Congress on April 25, 1898. This is the beginning of the Spanish-American War. Stationed in Hong Kong, the Cramp-built USS Baltimore would be integral in the attack against the Pacific fleet of the Spanish.
Behind only the USS Olympia, Baltimore entered Manila Bay, the Spanish stronghold in the Philippines. In less than two hours, Commodore George Dewey’s fleet destroyed the entire Spanish fleet in the Pacific. The Cramp-built SS St. Paul was also commissioned during the Spanish-American War and it successfully took out undersea communication lines in the West Indies with specialized heavy equipment on the underside of the ship on May 19th.
After the war ends in December 1898, President McKinley visited William Cramp and Son’s Shipbuilding to “compliment the Officers and Crew of the Ship that Fired the First Shot at Manila” according to an April 28, 1899 Evening Bulletin headline.
The SS St. Paul was also famous for the first wireless telegraph communication from ship to shore on November 22, 1899. Ships like the Baltimore, St. Louis, and St. Paul made William Cramp and Son’s Shipbuilding world famous. “The Imperial Russian Navy commissioned a state-of-the-art heavy cruiser, the Varyag, from Cramp’s” in 1899, according to Phillyhistory.com
Cramp’s Shipyard would become incorporated in the 1920s, removing the family from the business and it closed down in 1927 due to Post-World War I battleship construction restrictions. Between 1940 and 1945, the Shipyard opened back up for World War II, but closed down as the conflict ended. Between 1830 and 1946, William Cramp and Son’s Shipbuilding constructed over 500 vessels, including battleships, yachts, oil tankers, and more. Most importantly, the Shipyard brought countless jobs to the inhabitants of Port Richmond and Kensington for 100 years.
Information for this article comes from: Earlyradiohistory.us, Kennethwmilano.com, Loc.gov/rr/Hispanic/1898/intro.html, Navsource.org, Phillyhistory.org, Phillyseaport.org, Spanamwar.com, and Ushistory.org.