Read CHAPTER III - SHIPBUILDING AT QUINCY of The Old Coast Road From Boston to Plymouth , free online book, by Agnes Rothery, on

The first man-made craft which floated on the waters of what is now Fore River was probably a little dugout, a crude boat made by an Indian, who burned out the center of a pine log which he had felled by girdling with fire. After he had burned out as much as he could, he scraped out the rest with a stone tool called a “celt.” The whole operation probably took one Indian three weeks. The Rivadavia which slid down the ways of the Fore River Shipbuilding Corporation in August, 1914, weighed 13,400 tons and had engaged the labor of 2000 men for fifty months.

Between these two extremes flutter all the great sisterhood of shallops, sloops, pinks, schooners, snows, the almost obsolete batteau and periagua, the gundelow with its picturesque lateen sail, and all the winged host that are now merely names in New England’s maritime history.

We may not give in this limited space an account of the various vessels which have sailed down the green-sea aisles the last three hundred years. But of the very first, “a great and strong shallop” built by the Plymouth settlers for fishing, we must make brief mention, and of the Blessing of the Bay, the first seaworthy native craft to be built and launched on these shores the pioneer of all New England commerce. Built by Governor Winthrop, he notes of her in his journal on August 31, 1631, that “the bark being of thirty tons went to sea.” That is all he says, but from that significant moment the building of ships went on “gallantly,” as was indeed to be expected in a country whose chief industry was fishing and which was so admirably surrounded by natural bays and harbors. In 1665 we hear of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts which distinctive term is still applied to the Massachusetts Legislature forbidding the cutting of any trees suitable for masts. The broad arrow of the King was marked on all white pines, twenty-four inches in diameter, three feet from the ground. Big ships and little ships swarmed into existence, and every South Shore town made shipbuilding history. The ketch, a two-masted vessel carrying from fifteen to twenty tons, carried on most of the coasting traffic, and occasionally ventured on a foreign voyage. When we recall that the best and cheapest ships of the latter half of the seventeenth century were built here in the new country, we realize that shipyards, ports, docks, proper laws and regulations, and the invigorating progress which marks any thriving industry flourished bravely up and down the whole New England coast.

It is rather inspiring to stand here on the bridge which spans the Fore River, and picture that first crude dugout being paddled along by the steady stroke of the red man, and then to look at the river to-day. Every traveler through Quincy is familiar with the aerial network of steel scaffolding criss-crossing the sky, with the roofs of shops and offices and glimpses of vessels visible along the water-front. But few travelers realize that these are merely the superficial features of a shipyard which under the urge of the Great War delivered to the Navy, in 1918, eighteen completed destroyers, which was as many as all the other yards in the country put together delivered during this time. A shipyard which cut the time of building destroyers from anywhere between eighteen and thirty-two months to an average of six months and a half; a shipyard which made the world’s record of one hundred and seventy-four days from the laying of the keel to the delivering of a destroyer.

It is difficult to grasp the meaning of these figures. Difficult, even after one has obtained entrance into this city within a city, and seen with his own eyes twenty thousand men toiling like Trojans. Seen a riveting crew which can drive more than twenty-eight hundred rivets in nine hours; battleships that weigh thirty thousand tons; a plate yard piled with steel plates and steel bars worth two million dollars; cranes that can lift from five tons up to others of one hundred tons capacity; single buildings a thousand feet long and eighty feet high.

Perhaps the enormousness of the plant is best comprehended, not when we mechanically repeat that it covers eighty acres and comprises eighty buildings, and that four full-sized steam locomotives run up and down its yard, but when we see how many of the intimate things of daily living have sprung up here as little trees spring up between huge stones. For the Fore River Plant is more than an industrial organization. It is a social center, an economic entity. It has its band and glee club, ball team and monthly magazine. There are refreshment stands, and a bathing cove; a brand-new village of four hundred and thirty-eight brand-new houses; dormitories which accommodate nearly a thousand men and possess every convenience and even luxuries. The men work hard here, but they are well paid for their work, as the many motor-cycles and automobiles waiting for them at night testify. It is a scene of incredible industry, but also of incredible completeness.

To look down upon the village and the yard from the throbbing roof of the steel mill, seven hundred and seventy feet long and a hundred and eighty-eight wide, is a thrilling sight. Within the yard, confined on three sides by its high fences and buildings and on the fourth by Weymouth Fore River, one sees, far below, locomotives moving up and down on their tracks; great cranes stalking long-leggedly back and forth; smoke from foundry, blacksmith shop, and boiler shop; men hurrying to and fro. Whistles blow, and whole buildings tremble. The smoke and the grayness might make it a gloomy scene if it were not for the red sides of the immense submarines gleaming in their wide slips to the water. Everywhere one sees the long gray sides of freighters, destroyers, merchant ships, and oil tankers heaving like the mailed ribs of sea animals basking on the shore. Practically every single operation, from the most stupendous to the most delicate, necessary for the complete construction of these vessels, is carried on in this yard. The eighty acres look small when we realize the extent and variety of the work achieved within its limits.

Yes, the solitary Indian, working with fire and celt on his dugout, would not recognize this once familiar haunt, nor would he know the purpose of these vast vessels without sail or paddle. And yet, were this same Indian standing on the roof with us, he would see a wide stream of water he knew well, and he would see, too, above the smoke of the furnace, shop, and boiler room, the friendly green of the trees.

Perhaps there is nothing which makes us realize the magical rapidity of growth so much as to look from this steel city and to see the woods close by. For instead of being surrounded by the sordid congestion of an industrial center, the Fore River Shipyard is in the midst of practically open country.

While we are speaking of rapidity we must look over toward the Victory Plant at Squantum, that miraculous marsh which was drained with such expedition that just twelve months from the day ground was broken for its foundation, it launched its first ship, and less than two years after completed its entire contract. Surely never in the history of shipbuilding have brain and brawn worked so brilliantly together!

In this way, then, the history of the ships that have sailed the seven seas has been built up at Quincy a dramatic history and one instinct with the beauty which is part of gliding canoe and white sails, and part, too, of the huge smooth-slipping monsters of a modern day, sleek and swift as leviathans. But all the while the building of these ships has been going on, there has been slowly rising within the selfsame radius another ship, vaster, more inspiring, calling forth initiative even more intense, idealism even more profound the Ship of State.

We who journey to-day over the smooth or troubled waters of national or international affairs are no more conscious of the infinite toil and labors which have gone into the intricate making of the vessel that carries us, than are travelers conscious of the cogs and screws, the engines and all the elaboration of detail which compose an ocean liner. Like them we sometimes grumble at meals or prices, at some discourtesy or incompetence, but we take it for granted that the engine is in commission, that the bottom is whole and the chart correct. The great Ship of State of this country may occasionally run into rough weather, but Americans believe that, in the last analysis, she is honestly built. And it is to Quincy that we owe a large initial part of this building.

It is astonishing to enumerate the notable public men, who have been influential in establishing our national policy, who have come from Quincy. There is no town in this entire country which can equal the record. What other town ever produced two Presidents of the United States, an Ambassador to Great Britain, a Governor of the Commonwealth, a Mayor of Boston, two presidents of Harvard University, and judges, chief justices, statesmen, and orators in such quantity and of such quality? Truly this group of eminent men of brilliance, integrity, and public feeling is unique in our history. To read the biographies of Quincy’s great men would comprise a studious winter’s employment, but we, passing through the historic city, may hold up our fragment of a mirror and catch a bit of the procession.

First and foremost, of course, will come President John Adams, he who, both before and after his term of high office, toiled terrifically in the public cause, being at the time of his election to Congress a member of ninety committees and a chairman of twenty-five! We see him as the portraits have taught us to see him, with strong, serious face, austere, but not harsh, velvet coat, white ruffles, and white curls. He stands before us as the undisputed founder of what is now recognized as American diplomacy. Straightforward, sound to the core, unswerving, veracious, exemplifying in every act the candor of the Puritan, so congruous with the new simple life of a nation of common people. I think we shall like best to study him as he stands at the door of the little house in which he was born, and which, with its pitch roof, its antique door and eaves, is still preserved, close to the street, for public scrutiny.

Next to President John Adams comes his son, John Quincy Adams, also a President of the United States. Spending much of his time abroad, the experience of those diplomatic years is graven upon features more subtly refined than those of his sire. But for all his foreign residence, he was, like his father, a Puritan in its most exalted sense; like him toiled all his life in public service, dying in the harness when rising to address the Speaker of the House. Him, too, we see best, standing at the door of his birthplace, a small cottage a stone’s throw from the other cottage, separated only by a turnstile. Fresh white curtains hang in the small-paned windows; the grass is neatly trimmed, and like its quaint companion it is now open to the public and worth the tourist’s call. Both these venerable cottages have inner walls, one of burnt, the other of unburnt brick; and both are unusual in having no boards on the outer walls, but merely clapboards fastened directly on to the studding with wrought-iron nails.

Still another Adams follows, Charles Francis Adams. Although a little boy when he first comes into public view, a little boy occupying the conspicuous place as child of one President and grandchild of another, yet he was to win renown and honor on his own account as Ambassador to England during the critical period of our Civil War. America remembers him best in this position. His firm old face with its white chin whiskers is a worthy portrait in the ancestral gallery.

Although the political history of this country may conclude its reference to the Adamses with these three famous figures, yet all New Englanders and all readers of biography would be reluctant to turn from this remarkable family without mention of the sons of Charles Francis Adams, two of whom have written, beside valuable historical works, autobiographies so entertaining and so truly valuable for their contemporaneous portraits as to win a place of survival in our permanent literature.

A member of the Adams family still lives in the comfortable home where the three first and most famous members all celebrated their golden weddings. This broad-fronted and hospitable house, built in 1730 by Leonard Vassal, a West India planter, for his summer residence, with its library finished in panels of solid mahogany, was confiscated when its Royalist owner fled at the outbreak of the Revolution, and John Adams acquired the property and left the pitch-roofed cottage down the street. The home of two Presidents, what tales it could tell of notable gatherings! One must read the autobiography of Charles Francis Adams and “The Education of Henry Adams” to appreciate the charm of the succeeding mistresses of the noble homestead, and to enjoy in retrospect its many illustrious visitors.

To have produced one family like the Adamses would surely be sufficient distinction for any one place, but the Adams family forms merely one unit in Quincy’s unique procession of great men.

The Quincy family, for which the town was named, and which at an early date intermarried with the Adamses, presents an almost parallel distinction. The first Colonel Quincy, he who lived like an English squire, a trifle irascible, to be sure, but a dignified and commanding figure withal, had fourteen children by his first wife and three by his second, so the family started off with the advantage of numbers as well as of blood. At the Quincy mansion house were born statesmen, judges, and captains of war. The “Dorothy Q.” of Holmes’s poem first saw the light in it, and the Dorothy who became the bride of the dashing John Hancock blossomed into womanhood in it. Here were entertained times without number Sir Harry Vane, quaint Judge Sewall, Benjamin Franklin, and that couple who gleam through the annals of New England history in a never-fading flame of romance, Sir Harry Frankland and beautiful Agnes Surriage. The Quincy mansion, which was built about 1635 by William Coddington of Boston and occupied by him until he was exiled for his religious opinions, was bought by Edmund Quincy. His grandson, who bore his name, enlarged the house, and lived in it until his death when it descended to his son Edmund, the eminent jurist and father of Dorothy. The old-fashioned furniture, utensils and pictures, the broad hall, fine old stairway with carved balustrades, and foreign wall-paper supposed to have been hung in honor of the approaching marriage of Dorothy to John Hancock, are still preserved in their original place. Of the Quincy family, whose sedate jest it was that the estate descended from ’Siah to ’Siah, so frequent was the name “Josiah,” the best known is perhaps the Josiah Quincy who was Mayor of Boston for six years and president of Harvard for sixteen. The portrait of his long, thin face is part of every New England history, and his busy, serene life, “compacted of Roman and Puritan virtues,” is still upheld to all American children as a model of high citizenship.

But not even the long line of the Quincy family completes the list of the town’s great men. Henry Hope, one of the most brilliant financiers of his generation, and founder of a European banking house second only to that of the Rothchilds, was a native of Quincy. John Hull who, as every school-child knows, on the day of his daughter’s marriage to Judge Sewall, placed her in one of his weighing scales, and heaped enough new pine-tree shillings into the other to balance, and then presented both to the bridegroom held the first grant of land in the present town of Braintree (which originally included Quincy, Randolph, and Holbrook).

From the picturesque union of John Hull’s bouncing daughter Betsy and Judge Sewall sprang the extraordinary family of Sewalls which has given three chief justices to Massachusetts, and one to Canada, and has been distinguished in every generation for the talents and virtues of its members. In passing, we may note that it was this same John Hull who named Point Judith for his wife, little dreaming what a bête noir the place would prove to mariners in the years to come.

There is another Quincy man whom it is pleasant to recall, and that is Henry Flynt, a whimsical and scholarly old bachelor, who was a tutor at Harvard for no less than fifty-three years, the one fixed element in the flow of fourteen college generations. One of the most accomplished scholars of his day, his influence on the young men with whom he came in contact was stimulating to a degree, and they loved to repeat bits of his famous repartee. A favorite which has come down to us was on an occasion when Whitefield the revivalist declared in a theological discussion: “It is my opinion that Dr. Tillotson is now in hell for his heresy.” To which Tutor Flynt retorted dryly: “It is my opinion that you will not meet him there.”

The procession of Quincy’s great men which we have been watching winds its way, as human processions are apt to do, to the old graveyard. Most of the original settlers are buried here, although not a few were buried on their own land, according to the common custom. Probably this ancient burying ground, with its oldest headstone of 1663, has never been particularly attractive. The Puritans did not decorate their graveyards in any way. Fearing that prayers or sermons would encourage the “superstitions” of the Roman Catholic Church, they shunned any ritual over the dead or beautifying of their last resting-place. However, neglected as the spot was, the old stone church, whose golden belfry is such a familiar and pleasant landmark to all the neighboring countryside, still keeps its face turned steadfastly toward it. The congested traffic of the city square presses about its portico, but those who knew and loved it best lie quietly within the shadow of its gray walls. Under the portico lies President John Adams, and “at his side sleeps until the trump shall sound, Abigail, his beloved and only wife.” In the second chamber is placed the dust of his illustrious son, with “His partner for fifty years, Louisa Catherine” she of whom Henry Adams wrote, “her refined figure; her gentle voice and manner; her vague effect of not belonging there, but to Washington or Europe, like her furniture and writing-desk with little glass doors above and little eighteenth-century volumes in old binding.”

It has been called the “church of statesmen,” this dignified building, and so, indeed, might Quincy itself be called the “city of statesmen.” It would be extremely interesting to study the reasons for Quincy’s peculiar productiveness of noble public characters. The town was settled (as Braintree) exclusively by people from Devonshire and Lincolnshire and Essex. The laws of the Massachusetts Colony forbade Irish immigration probably more for religious than racial reasons. On reading the ancient petition for the incorporation of the town one is struck by the fact that practically every single name of the one hundred and fifty signers is English in origin, the few which were not having been anglicized. All of these facts point to a homogeneous stock, with the same language, traditions, and social customs. Obviously there is a connection between the governmental genius displayed by Quincy’s sons and the singular purity of the original English stock.

Little did Wampatuck, the son of Chickatawbut, realize what he was doing when he parted with his Braintree lands for twenty-one pounds and ten shillings. The Indian deed is still preserved, with the following words on its back: “In the 17th reign of Charles 2. Braintry Indian Deeds. Given 1665. Au: Take great care of it.”

Little did the Indian chief realize that the surrounding waters were to float hulks as mighty as a city; that the hills were to furnish granite for buildings and monuments without number; and that men were to be born there who would shape the greatest Ship of State the world has ever known. And yet, if he had known, possibly he would have accepted the twenty-one pounds and ten shillings just the same, and departed quietly. For the ships that were to be built would never have pleased him as well as his own canoe; the granite buildings would have stifled him; and the zealous Adamses and the high-minded Quincys and Sewalls and all the rest would have bored him horribly. Probably the only item in the whole history of Quincy which would have appealed to Wampatuck in the least would have been the floating down on a raft of the old Hollis Street Church of Boston, to become the Union Church of Weymouth and Braintree in 1810. This and the similar transportation of the Bowditch house from Beacon Street in Boston to Quincy a couple of years later would have fascinated the red man, as the recital of the feat fascinates us to-day.

Those who care to learn more of Quincy will do well to read the autobiography of Charles Francis Adams and “The Education of Henry Adams.” Those who care more for places than for descriptions of them may wander at will, finding beneath the surface of the modern city many landmarks of the old city which underlies it. They may see the scaffolding of the great shipyards latticing themselves against the sky, and the granite quarries against the hills. They may see the little cottages and the great houses made famous by those who have passed over their thresholds; they may linger in the old burial ground and trace out the epitaphs under the portico of the golden-belfried church. But after they have touched and handled all of these things, they will not understand Quincy unless they look beyond and recognize her greatest contribution to this country the noble statesmen who so bravely and intelligently toiled to construct America’s Ship of State.