by Liam Reilly, C. Dallett Hemphill intern, sponsored by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania
Did you know that for a short period, Philadelphia was the home of the world’s largest and most innovative shipyards? Although the site is long since gone, the extraordinary wartime project of the Hog Island Shipyard was located at the confluence, or point of merging, of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers in Southwest Philadelphia. This is largely at the site of what is now Philadelphia International Airport.
Before World War I, this area served as agricultural land with deposits from the rivers leaving fertile soil but with floods too strong to grow substantial harvests. In the late 1800s, the American Dredging Company purchased the island and began filling the waters surrounding it with dredged soil from the Delaware River ultimately creating the additional land necessary for the construction of the naval production site.
With the growing rise of sea power needed for WWI, America sought out a new way to increase its naval might. Hog Island was chosen to be the site of this rapid and transformative project. An island that was essentially a dredge site was electrified, fitted with a rail line connected to the Pennsylvania Railroad, and outfitted with housing for thousands of workers. From 1917-21, the Hog Island shipyard would produce 122 ships.
This collection of photographs, taken by Philadelphia photographer John Mahoney, highlights this period of transformation and production largely in the first few years of construction and operation of the Hog Island Shipyard. Some show individual hulls of the ships at the site with the equipment and material used to construct them. This factory served more as an assembly point for parts other factories throughout America had produced, and these photos highlight this unique layout and approach to ship construction. The hulls would largely be used for transport and support ships rather than built for direct combat.
Other photographs in the collection highlight the physical changes in the island, such as the direct barracks built or the railroad line that was added to increase ease of access for workers. The photos also depict some of the nearly 50 shipways that were built. Another image showing workers gathering at a canteen illuminates daily life on the island. The collection also includes two political cartoons that illustrate the legacy of the ships built, focusing on the American government’s handling of the Panama Canal.
Though the site served as a working shipbuilding site for only a few short years, it provided tens of thousands of jobs and further cemented Philadelphia’s 20th-century role in the shipbuilding industry. With the 250th anniversary of the United States Navy coming up in 2025, it’s even more important to understand Philly’s connection to the ship industry and the significant, but understudied, history of the Delaware Islands. These photographs serve as a strong visual reminder of how Philadelphia has served this country during wartime efforts and how rapid of a transformation the site underwent.