Succor for Sick Ships
Down at Saint John, N. B., they've built the world's largest drydock where once was desolate waste
LOUIS ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM
BATHERS along the Brinkport shore saw what they affirm without hesitation to be the original seaserpent. It was ninety feet long ...”
Now I’ll tell one—I saw a 17,000-ton steamer in a hole in the ground; and this doesn’t require much affirming either, for the hole is there yet and there’s any number of vessels going into it sick and coming out healed. It has marvelous curative properties, and it doesn’t matter how badly a boat is hurt she’s bound to emerge pretty much like new.
This hole is on the eastern shore of Courtenay Bay where once was the shipyard of Gavin Rainnie and John Dunlop and where, in 1855, the good ship Levanter was built and launched for Thomas E. Millidge and William Davidson, of Saint John, merchants. The Levanter was a great windjammer, the yard that built her was a great yard, but neither the builders nor the townsfolk of that bustling time could have visioned what the future held for the rocky shore bitten with many little coves by the restless tide. To-day the site of the old shipyard of Gavin Rainnie is covered with miles of trackage where dinky little engines flit up and down; with belching smokestacks, plate-shops, boilershops and power-houses; and in the ground adjoining the shipyard that built the Levanter, is the greatest drydock in the world.
But the years between—I went swimming there with the other small boys of the town, played ball on the hard-packed sand when the tide had ebbed, played pirate and smugglers’ cave in the rocky fissures, dug clams, picked dulse and "pennywinkles” around the shore of the bay—most Saint John fellows have: it was the city’s first playground. Then one day some chap pressed a button, there was a great blast and presently men transformed the place with drills, dredges, derricks, pumps, hoppers, caissons—tore it all up and built a drydock and a mile-long breakwater with the excavated rock.
The Colosseum has nothing on this hole in the ground. You stand on a hill looking down into it—a mammoth coffin-like affair almost a quarter of a mile long, its sides rising in narrow altar-like steps fifty-four feet above the floor of the Bay of Fundy.
At the seaward end is a huge red gate closing it. This is called a caisson. There’s another caisson cutting it in two, so that it can be either one dock or two and is thus able to take care of the largest ship afloat. Men working on the floor of the drydock, among the keel blocks on which docked vessels rest, look like ants at the bottom of a gallon can. A fellow planing a deal down there reminded me of the mechanical toys reputed to amuse little tots. Deep down below the floor of the Bay, it stretches like an amphitheatre or the tomb of some leviathan more immense than the mind of man can picture. Altogether, it’s a pretty vast business, this great drydock of Saint John, and there’s a great deal to it, as you’ll agree if you care to roam about with me a while.
A steamer is coming in on the rising tide ... a neat, but wornlooking ocean-freighter. The white
letters on her black bow tell you she’s the Canadian Volunteer. She registers 3,188 tons—quite a hefty skiff. In order for her to come in for her annual overhauling and refurbishing, it’s necessary to flood the outer dock, where she’s going to lie, with sufficient water to float her in; and of course it’s essential to get that big red caisson or gate out of the way to permit her entry. If you didn’t know the inside of the business or have some patient chap explain it to you, you’d derive several excellent headaches figuring how they are going to handle the caisson. It doesn’t slide into a groove in the dock wall; even the big traveling cranes that roam up and down the sides of the abyss couldn’t budge it, let alone lift it out. So what’s to be done? Well, it simply floats out of the way. Like this . . .
As the tide rises in Courtenay Bay, valves are opened in the wall of the dock and through gratings in the wall at the base of the caisson the water is allowed to pour in and fill the dock. As it rises, the caisson itself floats up, for it is built with air-compartments and resembles a very narrow hull of a ship . . .
The caissons fit into the dock like huge wedges and the rising of the water, causing them to float, releases them; water is allowed to enter them to serve as ballast. Once afloat, they can be manoeuvred like a boat by means of cables and winches and thus they are pulled open like gates to let the ship pass in. It is most important to have the water in the dock at the same level as that in the Bay outside; otherwise the caisson
will tip. Once the ship has entered, the caisson is swung back by means of wire cables which had sunk beneath her to let her pass over and now are tightened by the revolution of the windlass drum. The caisson, back in place, is scuttled by the admission of more water and sinks down like a wedge, closing the dock again.
Now the water in the dock, depending in depth on the draught of the ship that has entered, is pumped out by means of three gigantic aircompressor pumps of 750 H.P. each, which force 75,000 gallons of water per minute out of the dock. It gushes and foams out of a huge tunnel and the pumps thrum-thrum steadily in their subterranean house of concrete. Through a grating in the floor of the pump-room I saw the huge metal pipes which were carrying water out of the inner dock—seepage—while the outer dock was being filled.
The water rushed and foamed in from the Bay, torrential jets pouring in their quotas on either side of the dock and the frothy flood crept up, up along the graduated scale in the wall, filling the mammoth trough with water enough to float an ocean-freighter, while on the other side of the inner caisson, in the dock, a three-masted schooner sat high-and-dry on the blocks and men were calking her deck seams!
There is a regular labyrinth of concrete passages, and rooms filled with switchboards and apparatus; generators and dynamos, built below the level of the dock-side. You’d never suspect they were there at all, but you climb down a pair of stairs and wander from room to room, reveling, if you do revel, in the smell peculiar to engine and machine rooms. And you marvel at the multiplicity of switches and levers, the infinitude of operations germane to the mere bringing of a ship into drydock.
There are few drydocks in the world to compare with this. In Boston, Quebec, Victoria, Port Natal, Liverpool, San Francisco and Bombay are docks that exceed 1,000 feet in length; but Boston’s is the longest of these and falls short of the Courtenay Bay dock by fifty-four feet. Then, parallel with the dock, there is a patent slipway, called a marine railway, used for hauling ships right up on the land. It is 720 feet in length, with a 240 foot cradle and a lifting power of 1,800 tons; and a gridiron 185 feet Continued on page 48
Continued, from page 11
in length. The cradle slides down into the water on its countless little red wheels, the ship to be repaired is manoeuvred into it and the great wire cable winds slowly on the drum, pulling ship and cradle up from the deep. Big four-masted schooners like the Cutty Sark have been hauled up on this strange sea-going trolley.
A Double-Barreled Dock
IMMENSITY is the keynote of the
plant. Here, the most potent forces of machinery are at the beck and call of puny man and it is hard to credit that ordinary mortals swing open those mammoth gates and ease great ships into this artificial valley of concrete and steel. Men work with chipping hammers knocking rust and old paint from the plates of steamers, the clatter of the electricrivetter is heard, the crash of sledges on metal, the tense sound of the acetylene blowpipe cutting its way through steel.
What can they do with ships?
“Anything,” the manager, Mr. Wilson, told me. “We’ve never been stumped yet. From the fitting of a new propeller blade to the replacing of a set of bottom plates the drydock is quick and thorough on the job.”
Few ships come to Saint John in summer and there is little work for the shipmen to do. This would seem to put a stop to the activities of even the greatest of drydocks. But here is a unique situation—the workmen of the Saint John Drydock and Shipbuilding Company, as well as being A-l shipmen, that is, mechanics capable of building steel ships in every operation required, are also steel-makers par excellence. Thus, the same crew of men who turn out steelgirders by the dozen can walk from the fabricating plant to the ships and carry on with the utmost smoothness.
The hull-superintendent, boss of the mechanical end of the business, is a sturdy Scot from Toronto—a regular fiction steel-worker, so to speak, of the type one meets in books but doesn’t expect to see in real life—hard-boiled, quick in movement, snappy in retort, with a spontaneous grin and a philosophy all his own.
Tucked away in a corner of the plateshop and reached by a Jacob’s ladder of a pair of stairs, he has an office where, by dint of shouting fairly loud, one can be sure that the other fellow will know he’s talking; though the workmen are able to attune their voices to the infernal symphony so that they can bear and be heard without much difficulty.
Up to this little box, then, I went with the hull-superintendent, W. Kaptain. I was interested in W. Kaptain. He had, quite fittingly, steel-blue eyes and thus helped out a theory I have long petted that tools and materials shape the man.
“We’re making structural steel right now,” said W. Kaptain. “Our market is wherever we find it, but most of the steel used in the Maritimes comes from here, and we’re reaching out to the other provinces of the Dominion. The same holds true for ships—we went up to Boston and stole one from them the other day.” That pleased him immensely.
“We have a hundred and eighty-five men working right now, all Canadians; practically all Saint John men who learned their trade right here with me. I’ve been on the job since it started in 1923. Yes, there may be a few men who’ve worked on the Clyde or the Mersey. But it’s different here ... In the Old Country, shipmen specialize—they’re rivetters or they’re blacksmiths or shellmen, deckmen or framemen; one fellow screws on the same nut, year in, year out. Here we try for versatility and we succeed in developing good all-round mechanics. They can go from steel-making to shipbuilding without a hitch. As soon as there’s a job to be done, I assign a man to do it, without any particular thought of his qualifications for that one job. He does it or
learns how before he’s through. We have treble this number of men working in the winter—lots of ships then. Last season—” He reeled off a long list—the first name— shades of the China Clippers!—was the Cutty Sark, a four-masted schooner built during the wartime revival of wooden shipbuilding at Courtenay Bay, namesake of that beloved old warhorse of the China Seas. Then, names like Montnairn, Emperor of Montreal, Canadian Inventor, San Giuseppe, Koenigshaven, Patrick and Michael. They worked on thirty-three ships in the drydock in 1927, with a total of 490 days labor expended. This was business three times greater than that done in 1926, and the total gross tonnage of vessels handled was 122,445. The largest to enter the dock was the Canadian Pacific steamer, Montnairn, 17,282 tons.
“We’ve been lucky, too,” said W. Kaptain. “Not a serious accident in all the time of operation. A chap did fall and has one leg a bit shorter than the other as a result of it—but nothing else. The men know first-aid. The Workman’s Compensation Board gave them courses in that. We have our own hospital for minor injuries.”
“Are you a steel-worker—primarily?” I asked.
“Shipman—first and last. Building ships is really my job. I worked on dozens of ’em. I began in Toronto; then I moved on to Buffalo, then to Quebec, then to Saint John. Fourteen years in Quebec,” he said earnestly, “and one night I decided I’d been in the same place long enough. You can stay too long in one place—oh, yes. I’ve never seen the wisdom of holding the same job forever in the same spot. You learn more by going about and in this business every new job teaches you something.
“We’ve only built one vessel here. Maybe in time there’ll be more. Labor and materials are more costly on this side. It’ll be mostly repair work for us. We get all sorts of jobs—sawing, joining, boilermaking, whatnot. They’re just play with the tools we have. We could do any type of work on any ship that sails—just give us the chance.”
The discrepancy in costs of production of ships between here and the Old Country is astonishing. The figures tendered by the Saint John builders for Government Merchant Marine vessels were nearly double those quoted by the shipyards in Great Britain, and it is doubtful, to say the least, that Saint John will ever do with steel and iron ships what it did with those made of wood.
The reason of this is that the initial outlay, the securing of a great number of high-class shipmen, the cost of material would be far greater than prospects for building steel ships here would warrant. Protection of the industry would help, but the time for building vessels on a large scale on this side of the pond is not yet ripe.
Yet this privately owned drydock and steel-fabricating plant is a priceless asset to a seaport town, especially to one that handles practically all of Canada’s winter trade. A ship that suffers damage on the way across, especially if she belongs to our own Merchant Marine, wdll make for Saint John or Halifax, and the Saint John drydock is the more modern and more completely equipped of the two; vessels are forced through necessity to make for this port for repairs. Before the drydock was built, the Union Foundry Company used to make temporary repairs and the injured vessel would then go off to some port that had a drydock. Now, instead of the $5,000 or so that these temporary repairs would cost, probably $50,000 or more will be spent in having the damage made good.
W. H. Milne, the general superintendent, is, like Mr. Wilson, very youthful, keen and optimistic. Both men look upon ships entering the long dock with the
appraising eye of dentists looking for cavities.
Since 1924 the drydock has more than doubled each year the amount of work done in the year preceding. Last year it made earnings great enough to pay all operating expenses. The bonds of the company are guaranteed by the Government for a period of thirty-five years. There is a subsidy of 4 Y¿ per cent, of the valuation, which is $5,500,000.
The Croakers Confounded
rT"'HE drydock was begun in 1911 with the usual chorus of “blue ruin,” a phrase common enough down east in the old days to indicate the inevitable pessimism that surrounded any new and extensive development. They said that men would not work there in winter, that there was a catch in it somewhere.
The croakers said that $10,000,000 for the entire development of the Bay, was being thrown in the mud. The site was over a mile and a half from the city proper, almost a mile from the railway. Tracks had to be laid. It was difficult to get materials out to the scene of operations. There were tons of earth to be excavated, huge rocks to be blasted away. In the East Saint John were many shattered windows as each day the giant powder let off its thunder; cranes, steamshovels and drills were constantly at work and slowly a vast pit was dug deep in the rock. There were changes of contractors and the war brought a long cessation of work while the millions of dollars that were being invested in Courtenay Bay found a better use in helping the Empire.
But at three o’clock, October 29, 1923, Baron Byng of Vimy, then GovernorGeneral of Canada, officially opened the largest drydock in the world. The heads of the railways, many parliamentary leaders and men prominent in the business affairs of the Dominion were present. A white streamer stretched across the entrance to the dock was parted, and the Koenigshaven, the first steamer in for repairs, was floated into the dock while the thousands of spectators along the rim awakened the echoes of the Bay as not since the days when the clippers were launched there had they been awakened. While the dock was being constructed, sixteen vessels had to leave Saint John to make repairs elsewhere, and with the constant increase of ocean traffic to Saint John it was clear there would be no dearth of work for the repairmen. Nor has there been. During the five years of operation since 1923, more than a hundred vessels have had as many different sorts of repairs made on them and the annual amount of work has increased steadily.
A Dock With a Future
THE building of a drydock at Southampton twenty years ago was the beginning of that port’s prosperity, for a drydock draws numerous concomitant industries with it—plants for the making of rope and wire hawsers; brass foundries, chandleries, marine engine-shops—so many things enter into the making or repairing of a ship.
In most drydocks a ship has to send its crew ashore to be billeted during the time of making repairs; the Saint John drydock is equipped with a sewerage system that renders this proceeding unnecessary and thus saves the ship-owners a great deal of money. The largest passenger boats, the Majestic for example, carry 2,000 employees.
The future of this splendid dock depends on the future of Saint John and its prosperity on the number of ships that enter here. Five million dollars will shortly be expended on the waterfront of the city, the possibilities for trade expansion are boundless and it is inevitable that those who have put their energy and their money into the building of the Courtenay Bay drydock will reap their due reward.