William Cramp



Occupation 1


Occupation 2

from wood to iron/steel




NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Heroic Age of Sail (1816-1865)








Shipbuilder� After attending public schools, Cramp studied under the naval architect Samuel Grice� In 1830 Cramp established his own shipbuilding firm on the Delaware River, first in Kensington and then in a larger facility in Richmond. Over the next decades this shipyard grew to become one of the most important in the United States, constructing wood, ironclad, iron, and eventually steel ships. He remained president of the firm for forty-nine years, from its founding until his death in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Cramp constantly modernized his equipment to adapt to changes in ship construction. The ability of the Cramp firm to adapt to the changing technology of shipbuilding and ship propulsion through the mid-nineteenth century brought both Cramp and his company lasting fame. As sail power gave way to steam-powered paddle wheels and then propeller-driven vessels, Cramp developed steam-engine facilities. During the Civil War he provided the Union navy steam-propelled ironclads, which played crucial roles in blockade duty and sea engagements. Following the Civil War iron construction replaced wooden hulls through the 1870s. The firm was ready for the revolution of the 1880s, which brought steel-hulled ships into the naval and merchant fleets of the world. During his lifetime Cramp personally oversaw the construction of more than 200 ships.

In 1862 the Cramp company constructed for the Union navy New Ironsides, the largest ironclad warship of the Civil War and the one that saw more engagements than any other. Other warships constructed by Cramp in this period included gunboats and ironclads, and the first-class cruiser Chattanooga. In the early 1870s the Cramp yard turned to all-iron construction, producing four passenger ships for the Philadelphia-based American Steamship Line. Each of the vessels was about 3,000 tons, and they were launched within a few months of one another.

Cramp brought his sons into the business, admitting Charles H. Cramp as a partner. In 1872 he changed the name of the firm to William Cramp and Sons' Ship and Engine Building Company. The company won contracts to build warships for several foreign navies, including those of Russia and Venezuela. The performance of Cramp ships in the Russian fleet in the war between Turkey and Russia (1876-1878) enhanced the reputation of the Cramp firm as a constructor of warships. As the U.S. Navy pressed for expansion of the fleet in the 1870s and 1880s, the firm of William Cramp and Sons played a role both in advocacy of the new navalism, and in construction of the steel ships of the new navy.

Cramp understood both merchant and naval shipbuilding as matters of national pride and national power, anticipating in his own way the later doctrine of Alfred Thayer Mahan that linked national power to a strong navy. He articulated a doctrine of shipbuilding--in competition with the British in particular--which was intensely nationalistic. He claimed that the long British supremacy in shipbuilding had given them a sense of proprietary right to the sea, and a right to the carrying trade of the United States. The British, he claimed, were so arrogant that they resented any effort to build an American passenger fleet as a usurpation of their prerogatives. With the construction of the iron ships of the 1870s for the American Steamship Line, he laid the groundwork for later expansion in liners by Cramp and Sons in the 1890s. Similarly, the construction of ships for Russia paved the way for the warships needed in naval expansion in the United States at the end of the century.

The William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Company was a major contributor to the growth of Delaware River shipbuilding in the late nineteenth century, concentrating manpower, skills, technological capability, facilities, and political power. In addition to Cramp's firm and the Philadelphia Navy Yard, many shipbuilding companies on both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the river converted this fifteen-mile stretch of the Delaware into one of the major shipbuilding centers of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Related Locations


Related Source

Ships for the Seven Seas: Philadelphia Shipbuilding in the Age of Industrial Capitalism

Record ID: 482