Saturday, March 23, 2019

The U.S.S. Ambridge

"Mrs. L.D. Reilly, Sponsor U.S.S. 'Ambridge'"
christening ceremony
Federal Shipbuilding Co.
Kearney N.J.
May 24, 1919
courtesy Beaver County Industrial Museum

The stately ship above is the U.S.S. Ambridge at her launch on May 24, 1919. And, yes, she was named for Ambridge PA, where much of the ship was made by the plant that gave Ambridge its name, the American Bridge Co., once the largest structural steel fabricating plant in the world.

During WWI, demand for ships was greater than available shipyards. Ships could not be built as fast as they were needed, even before the U.S. entered the war in 1917.

In 1915, naval architect Chas. P. M. Jack, had a rather brilliant idea. While the Ohio River at Ambridge was too shallow for a shipyard that could construct large ocean-going ships, the American Bridge Co.'s plant there had churned out hundreds of barges over the years. Could the plant construct at least the hull for an ocean-going ship, which could be then be sent to a shipyard where the work would be completed?

Previous similar attempts elsewhere had been failures, but none of the companies that had tried and failed had American Bridge's expertise in fabricating not only barges, but also large structural steel projects. So American Bridge was given the contract to build one hull. Not the entire hull, but 60 percent of one. That hull was shipped to a shipyard in Chester PA, where builders found American Bridge's hull fit the other parts of the ship perfectly.

So the Ambridge plant was given a contract for 12 more hulls to be constructed in 1915 and '16--eight oil tankers and five freighters, all finished by the Chester Shipbuilding Co. Later, American Bridge added new equipment, was awarded more contracts, increased its production, and was able to fabricate enough hulls for as many as four 9,000-ton ships a month. (Daily Times, May 17, 1919)

Eventually, American Bridge and other fabricating plants could produce enough ship parts that the U.S. Shipping Board's Emergency Fleet Corp. built new shipyards to keep pace with the capacity of the plants to supply them. One of the new shipyards was U.S. Steel's Federal Shipbuilding Co. in Kearney N.J.

The U.S. had entered the war by the time American Bridge built Hull #15, Order No. 218259, which was shipped to Kearney, where she was completed and christened "Ambridge," on May 24, 1919, six months after the war had ended. The name was chosen to honor the work done by Ambridge's American Bridge Co. An article on the ship's christening said that the plant had built much more than the hull. "The ship was practically all fabricated in Ambridge, but was shipped to Kearney where a few parts were added and the parts assembled." (Daily Times, May 26, 1919)

The Ambridge was christened by Mrs. L.D. Reilly, wife of the manager of Ambridge's American Bridge plant. She's the woman in the photo below holding the Ambridge pennant, front row, second from left. Her husband also attended, as well as R. G. Manning, the plant's chief engineer, and A. J. Carpenter, shop superintendent, none of whom are identified in the photo. Perhaps Mr. Reilly is the man holding an Ambridge pennant on the far right, front row.

"Launching Party, U.S.S. "Belfort" and "Ambridge"
May 24, 1919
Federal Shipbuilding Company
Kearney N.J.
courtesy Laughlin Memorial Library Archives

The Ambridge was not a military ship, but rather a commercial freighter. The Daily Times article about the christening gave the ship's dimensions as 400 feet long, 55 feet wide, and 35 feet deep, with a speed of 14 knots, and capable of carrying approximately 9,000 tons.

The U.S.S. Ambridge wasn't as imposing when she was at sea as she looked at her launch

"The U.S.S. Ambridge"
The Federal Shipbuilder
Aug. 1919 - Jan. 1922

American Bridge's work was admired enough that the issue of The Federal Shipbuilder with the above photo also included a poem, "General Philip Kearny Asks" by Fred T. Llewellyn, that included these lines:
From Gary come the boiler shells,
Farrell the sheet-bar tonnage makes,
And Ambridge with her quota swells
The multiple array of strakes,
During her career, the Ambridge carried cargo as varied as Dutch flower bulbs and $2,000,000 in gold bullion destined for a U.S. bank, sailing primarily to and from European ports, but also South Africa and Central America.

I don't know how common smuggling via commercial freighters was during the period when the Ambridge was sailing, but she was caught with contraband at least twice.

In February 1927, customs authorities found 4,200 bottles of champagne, valued at $50,000, hidden in a coal bunker on the Ambridge, as well as 13 cases of narcotics. (New York Times, Feb. 17, 1927).

Then in June 1930, customs officials found smuggled champagne again, this time 3,168 bottles valued at $31,680. (New York Times, June 3, 1930)

The Ambridge was scrapped in 1935.