The Harlan & Hollingsworth Company, Titan of Shipbuilding

No American company greater exemplifies the industry, community and the worker’s world of America in both the Reconstruction era and the Gilded Age than the Harlan & Hollingsworth Company.

Every face in the following group portraits tells a story. Stern to serene to smiling, we see in each face what it meant to be a citizen, a worker, and a contributor to the edifice of the United States as Industrial Behemoth. In essence, the stalwart and strikingly candid faces of Harlan & Hollingsworth employees remind us “There is no ‘I’ in “Team”.

It has been said that in proportion to population size, no city in the world turned out more ships than Wilmington, Delaware in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Along the Christina (a.k.a. Christiana) River hundreds if not thousands of iron and steel hulled ships were built and launched. Several companies were involved in Wilmington’s industrious, shipbuilding past. Perhaps the best known of these was the Harlan & Hollingsworth Company, which existed on both the east and west banks of the Christina River just south of the South Market Street bridge.  Today, an entire neighborhood and business hub have sprung up on what was once the Harlan & Hollingsworth Shipyard.
Harlan & Hollingsworth  began in an unusual way.  In 1821, Mahlon Betts, a carpenter,  bought a small foundry along the Christina waterfront at Justison Street.  By 1836, Betts’ business had very much prospered. He and business partner Samuel Pusey, a machinist, hired Samuel Harlan, a cabinetmaker, to join them in their train car building business. Five years later, Elijah Hollingsworth, a foreman with the Baldwin Locomotive Works also joined the firm. Around this time, Captain Whillden, owner of the Steamship “Sun”, arrived at the company’s waterfront yard in need of repairs. Whillden needed someone to fix a cracked cylinder in his ship, which was a tall order even for the best equipped of shops. Mahlon Betts flatly refused the request. Samuel Harlan, however, accepted the challenge against Betts’ wishes. Harlan designed the refurbished cylinder while refinements were added by Elijah Hollingsworth and another new member of the firm, Captain Alexander Kelley.

*This unplanned crossover from train car work to a marine oriented job was the origin of the first iron shipbuilding yard in the United States.

The firm of Harlan & Hollingsworth sat alongside the property of the Wilmington Whaling Company in 1843 on the Christina River, where it bends south after the South Market Street Bridge. Orders for the first iron hulled steamers came to them in 1844. In May of that year, Harlan &  Hollingsworth launched the first iron propeller steamer in the country, the Bangor. The company prospered from its inception through the Civil War. In 1866 however, Elijah Hollingsworth was killed in a shipyard accident. The tragedy had a profound effect on Samuel Harlan who took the loss of his friend and business partner hard. The firm languished for a time, but survived. By the 1870’s, the company was again thriving.  Orders for steamships and ferries were abundant throughout the remainder of the 19th century. In 1902, Harlan & Hollingsworth was absorbed by the U.S. Shipbuilding Company, under business tycoon J.P. Morgan. In late October, 1904 the Harlan & Hollingsworth property was turned over to the Bethlehem Steel Corporation which remained at that location for decades afterwards.  The Harlan & Hollingsworth Company ceased as a separate entity in 1917. Rare photographs, artifacts and publications by the Harlan & Hollingsworth Company can be found in both the library and the museum of the Delaware Historical Society at 5th and Market Streets in downtown Wilmington, Delaware.

Presented here are various excerpts from a very unique publication put out by the company in 1886. The “Semi-Centennial Memoir of the Harlan & Hollingsworth Company, Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.A. 1836 to 1886”  is 490 pages and contains a fascinating array of group portraits, shipbuilding statistics, corporate divisions and officers, stockholders, marine illustrations and historical background not only for the company, but shipbuilding from its very inception millennia ago.




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