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Henry Eckford - Master Shipwright

Henry Eckford (1775–1832) was a Scottish-born shipbuilder, naval architect, industrial engineer, and entrepreneur who worked for the United States Navy and the Navy of the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century. After building a national reputation in the United States through his shipbuilding successes during the War of 1812, he became a prominent business and political figure in New York City in the 1810s, 1820s, and early 1830s.

Eckford was born in Kilwinning, near Irvine, on 12 March 1775, the youngest of five sons. As a boy, he probably trained as a ship's carpenter in the shipyard at Irvine on the Firth of Clyde

In 1791, at the age of 16, Eckford left Scotland to begin a 5-year shipbuilding apprenticeship with his mother's brother, the noted Scottish-born Canadian shipwright John Black, at a shipyard on the St. Lawrence River in Lower Canada. In 1796, he moved to New York City to work as a journeyman in a boatyard on the East River

In 1800, aged 25 he opened his own yard on the river.  The yard prospered, turning out a series of ships that were handy and seaworthy, and upon which he built a reputation as a talented shipbuilder  In the years before the 1812 war he assembled merchant vessels and occasionally formed partnerships to construct small craft for the United States Navy. In 1808 Eckford and Lester Beebe completed 4 gunboats for the defence of New York harbour.  In addition to his superior skill in shipbuilding, Eckford was a leader who inspired exceptional dedication from those who worked under his direction. Commodore Isaac Chauncey, speaking of Eckford, stated "there is not his equal in the United States or perhaps the world."

Henry Eckford busied himself with the reorganization of the United States Navy for President Andrew Jackson.  Eckford's efforts, along with those of Adam and Noah Brown, were key to American success on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. It was Eckford's extraordinary ability to design, lay down, and build ships, ranging in size from a very small schooner to the largest frigates, working in a wilderness and in severe winter weather with sick or dissatisfied labour, and to do all this in extremely short periods of time, that maintained American superiority on Lake Ontario.  From a naval shipbuilding point of view, the outstanding men of the War of 1812 were Eckford and the Browns, Adam and Noah [who also designed and built ships at Sackets Harbour]. Through the efforts of these three, the U.S. Navy held control of the lakes and prevented the British from invading the North and Northwest [i.e., modern-day Ohio]  No officer or constructor of the Navy accomplished more. There were no competitors to the Browns and Eckford among the navy yards, or in the contract shipyards along the coasts, even though on the lakes building was made infinitely more difficult than on the coast because of climate and geographical conditions, to say nothing of scarcities of labour and some materials.  One advantage Eckford and the Browns may have had was a lack of attention by U.S. government officials to their activities;  Federal officials focused their efforts on the coasts, where they greatly interfered with shipbuilding decisions and progress during the war.

He then prepared a publication on Naval Architecture.    Around the same time he donated $20,000 to establish a professorship of Naval Architecture at Columbia College.

 

Ship Construction at Sackets Harbour during the War of 1812 
Like the Brown Brothers on Lakes Erie and Champlain, Eckford was required to establish shipbuilding facilities in the wilderness along the shores of Lake Ontario. Most of the necessary labour and materials were imported from the Atlantic coast, resulting in frequent shortages of supplies. Work was carried out in freezing weather under strict construction deadlines. Despite these difficulties, Eckford managed to complete and outfit 7 large ships, and was building an 8th, an enormous 110-gun ship of the line, when the war concluded.

 

Building Jefferson
Eckford began the construction of the brig using the best available wood for shipbuilding: white oak. Softwoods (pine, hemlock and spruce) were used where durability and strength were not as important. The shaping and assembly of the timbers showed considerable care and attention to detail. To speed construction, the ship was built entirely with iron fasteners.  One of the most unique features of the ship is that it was constructed without knees. Knees are naturally curved timbers used to reinforce critical stress points within a vessel. Cutting and fitting them was an extremely laborious and time-consuming task. By constructing the boat without them, Eckford saved weeks of construction time.  Instead, a series of diagonal rider timbers were installed between the keelson and the clamp.

The design of Jefferson seems to have been adapted from fast-sailing small-craft types of the period. The overwhelming strength of the Royal Navy led shipwrights to build extremely sharp-hulled vessels with the speed to outrun British ships. The brig Jefferson exhibits characteristics similar to those of a thoroughbred racing horse: capable of a high rate of speed, but demanding constant and very close attention. The ship carried 21 guns weighing a total of 32.2 tons. The combination of the extreme hull form with the weight of the armament would have made the brig 'crank', meaning that it was unstable and prone to capsizing. This required vigilance by the crew when the vessel encountered strong gusts of wind.

The Naval Career of Jefferson
By April of 1814, Jefferson was outfitted and rigged in preparation to join the American squadron. Commodore Chauncey assigned Master Commandant Charles G. Ridgely and a crew of 160 men to the ship.  After more than 3 months of waiting, Jefferson was sent up the lake to intercept supplies destined for the British forces fighting along the Niagara River frontier.  At the end of the war, the ship was abandoned at Sackets Harbor.

 

In 1831 his talents were brought to the attention of Sultan Mahmoud of the Ottoman Empire, who commissioned Eckford to build a sloop-of-war.  Afterwards, he was given the office of Chief Naval Constructor for the Empire.   A year later he travelled to Turkey where he established a navy yard, but then suddenly on November 12 at the age of 57 - just as he was about to be made a Bey of the Empire - he died probably of Cholera.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013