America's shipbuilding began at the mouths of rivers and bays. It was concentrated on the broad large rivers with deep channels and unobstructed access to open water. This was the era of the wooden ship. Early shipbuilding was crude - - planking was sawn by hand, then shaped and fitted with broadaxe and plane. The work was slow and arduous. American ships were noted for their cost: they were inexpensive to build. And New Jersey's shore communities had all the pre-requisites for successful shipbuilding:
Whale boats were being built by the early eighteenth century. Then fishing boats were produced. Sloop-rigged craft with two, three or four masts became popular. Gradually, construction shifted from the sloop to the small schooner fitted for lumber and charcoal trade. American ships were now known for their modeling and durability.
The size of vessels was gradually increased from three hundred to eight hundred tons, costing from $3,000 to $7,000. Ships left Mays Landing filled with charcoal and cordwood for calls in New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, the West Indies and South America.
South Jersey shipyards were plentiful and busy. A good portion of Atlantic County residents depended upon shipbuilding for their livelihood. By the first half of the 19th Century, there were shipyards in Absecon, Bargaintown, Port Republic and Mays Landing. Shipyards were also in Bakersville (known today as Northfield), and Leedsville (now known as Linwood).
Absecon Creek was a major center with its small stream and deep channel. Over twenty-three ships were built at Absecon Creek and registered at Great Egg Harbor between 1858 and 1879. Seven of them were 3-masted schooners over 100 feet long.
George Wheaton, also a shipbuilder, turned out two dozen schooners at his yard where the mouth of Babcock’s Creek empties into the Great Egg Harbor River. Israel Smith’s shipyard in English Creek produced schooners and smaller craft. Shipyards dotted the landscape at Green Bank, Port Republic and Batsto. Sloops and schooners were turned out at shipyards in Somers Point.
In the Census of 1840, Atlantic County shipyards produced more than all the coastal counties in New Jersey. The value of ships and vessels produced in Atlantic County that year was $104,000 as compared to Cape May County ($39,000), Cumberland County ($44.000), and Burlington County ($15,000).
Mays Landing became the center of shipbuilding in Atlantic County. George May, the founder of Mays Landing, was a blacksmith and shipbuilder. In the mid-18th century, he had opened a store supplying vessels putting into Great Egg Harbor. Other Mays Landing shipwrights were Samuel Gaskill, James and John Clark and Nicholas Lane.
It was then that Mays Landing reached the height of its shipbuilding. From 1830 to 1880, more than two hundred vessels were built along the Great Egg Harbor River with lumber from native forests and iron from Weymouth foundries. Half of them were produced at Mays Landing.
But as time passed, wood shipbuilding began to disappear due to the lack of suitable timber. Iron was then substituted for hull construction. By 1890, there were only twelve shipyards in South Jersey employing about five hundred men, where once a great industry had flourished along its riverbanks. The era of the great sailing ships in American commerce had passed.
The schooner "License" was built for Capt. John Pennington and carried sugar up the Great Egg Harbor River where it was then stored near Babcock’s Creek at the foot of a hill. This favored storage spot later became known as "Sugar Hill".
Fisher, Leonard Everett. The Shipbuilders. New York, NY : Franklin Watts, Inc., 1971.
Chapelle, Howard I. The History of American Sailing Ships. New York, NY : Bonanza Books, 1935.
Wilson, Harold F. The Jersey Shore : a social and economic history of the counties of Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth and Ocean. New York, NY : Lewis Historical Publishing, 1953.
Koedel, R. Craig. South Jersey Heritage : a social, economic and cultural history. Washington, D.C. : University Press of America, 1979.
The New Jersey Coast in three centuries, edited by William Nelson. New York, NY : Lewis Publishing Co., 1902.
Rosecraus, Kae Scull, Shipbuilding in and around Mays Landing, NJ. [Atlantic County, NJ : Atlantic Heritage Center], November 4, 1924.