The United States learned how to mass-produce merchant ships during World War I with much of that taking place right here in Alexandria, Virginia thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Shipbuilding Company.
“We have been waiting for lightening to strike Alexandria for a century,”proclaimed Virginia Representative C.C. Carlin on December 11, 1917 as he confirmed to an anxious crowd of Alexandrians that a permanent shipyard will be built in their city.
Congressmen Carlin’s weather-related metaphor echoed sentiments shared by many residents who had long-dreamed of re-establishing Alexandria as one of the busiest and most prosperous ports in the United States—as it had been in the late 18th and early 19th century.
World War I fueled this rapid buildup in industrial production, and, in particular, merchant shipbuilding. America needed cargo vessels—fast—and, as luck would have it, Alexandria was prepared. Between 1910 and 1912, the Army Corps of Engineers had infilled a 46-acre bay and wildlife preserve – Battery Cove – near Jones Point Lighthouse. The land’s proximity to the Potomac River and its enormous size made it an ideal site for shipbuilding.
In late 1917, Groton Iron Works of Connecticut—a subsidiary of the U.S. Steamship Company—leased the Battery Cove site for five years as a shipbuilding plant. Groton signed a contract with the U.S. Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation (e.g. the Federal Government), which stipulated that a new Alexandria shipyard would be constructed at Jones Point and it would produce “twelve metal vessels of 9400 DW tons, each to cost $1,504,000.00.” The first ten ships were due by the end of 1918.
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