The Bay City boy who became a major shipbuilder

The Navy’s guided missile destroyer USS Lynde McCormick is launched in July 1959 at the DeFoe shipyards on the Saginaw River.

Harry J. Defoe was born in Bay City Sept. 2, 1875, son of a Great Lakes sailor, Joseph DeFoe, and nephew to a local boat builder, John DeFoe. As a boy Harry liked to whittle toy sail and tug boats and float them in the Saginaw River. As a teenager he built working steamboats from wood and scraps of metal.

Harry became a teacher and even served as a school principal but his heart was focused on the river and its vessels.

In 1905 Harry founded The DeFoe Boat & Motor Works along with his brother, Frederic, a New York lawyer, and his brother-in-law George H. Whitehouse, a fish wholesaler.

Harry designed boats, selling full size patterns similar to women’s dress patterns. He also built the boats in his shipyard on the river at 5th Street. The U.S. military noticed and in 1917 the Navy ordered five torpedo chasers with Winton gasoline engines, followed by an order for eight 98-foot steel harbor mine planters. These were steam vessels with heavy derricks.

DeFoe expanded his yard buying and after the war began to build yachts, including the 90-foot yacht which later became famous as the “Honey Fitz,” so named by President John F. Kennedy after his grandfather, one-time mayor of Boston. Another well-know owner of a Defoe yacht was Ralph Evinrude who made outboard motors.

Tom DeFoe and Mrs. J.P. Hurley christen the first of the Navy's guided missile destroyers built at the DeFoe Yards -- the USS Henry B. Wilson -- in April, 1959.

Tom DeFoe and Mrs. J.P. Hurley christen the first of the Navy’s guided missile destroyers built at the DeFoe Yards — the USS Henry B. Wilson — in April, 1959.

During Prohibition Harry got a contract for 15 wooden, 400-horsepower speed boats used by racers like Detroit’s Gar Wood, not to mention local rumrunner. Charles Kettering wanted his with self-starters. When DeFoe declined, Kettering said, “Give me two men and I’ll make it self-starting tonight.” DeFoe got the message and began making his boats with starters.

When the Depression hit, the government tried to rescue the industry and DeFoe benefited with orders for Coast Guard vessels, a Detroit River mail boat, and a few other projects.

The advent of World War brought and end to the depression and more government contracts.

DeFoe invented the “upside down and rollover” method of shipbuilding. In the “roll over” a big cradle, the exact size and shape of the ship, was built bottom side up. Welders attached the steel to the skeleton eliminating difficult overhead welding and reducing man-hours by 90 percent. Then the vessel was flipped upright for its completion.

The destroyer Wilson hits the water.

Defoe built 58 sub-chasers faster than the Navy could deliver the powerplants. By the end of the war the firm had built in addition to the sub-chasers 47 infantry landing craft, 17 destroyer escorts, 10 freight and ammunition carriers, nine high-speed troop transports, four rescue tugs and three harbor tugs.

The number of employees topped 4,000 during the war, making DeFoe one of Bay City’s largest employers.

Steady work at the 40-acre yard continued after the end of the war. Defoe built six 119-foot luxurious pleasure yachts that sold for $250,000 each. It built two 643-foot bulk ore carriers, the Charles L. Hutchinson, later renamed the Ernest R. Breech, and the Richard M. Marshall, later renamed the Joseph S. Wood. The yard continued to build harbor tugs and other ships. One Defoe ships, the R.V. Knorr, discovered the wreck of the Titanic.

On March 21, 1957, at age 81, Harry DeFoe died while negotiating a deal with the Navy in Washington.

The Wilson upright at Bay City.

The Wilson upright at Bay City.

His sons Thomas and William took over and a grandson, Thomas E Defoe, joined the company in 1966. The yard produced seven 438-foot warships, including the HMAS Perth, the HMAS Hobart and the HMAS Brisbane for the Australian Navy. The yard also built guided missile destroyers, the USS Samuel Robinson, the USS William Hoel, the USS Henry B. Wilson and the USS Lynde McCormick.

The firm remained in family hands and incorporated in 1956, with Thomas, then 47, as president, and William as executive vice-president, later board chairman. At the time Defoe employed about 1,000 workers

But by the mid 1960s the firm’s future was looking bleak. Shipyards on the east and west coasts had deeper water and fewer delivery problems. The Saginaw River suffered dredging, bridge and water level problems.

“Our competitors are on either coast,” said William Defoe. “This makes for sharp competition because of our delivery costs.” The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway did not produce a positive impact. “In fact, it’s had the reverse effect,” Defoe later said. “The Seaway opened U.S. ports to more foreign ships which can be built for less and operate for less than U.S. ships,” he said. “The future for U.S. Great Lakes Carriers is dim,” Defoe said in an 1965 interview. Aging equipment and replacement costs offered more obstacles.

By 1976 the firm employed fewer then 100 workers, down to 20 by December, and it closed by the end of the year.

President Thomas Defoe announced the closing and blamed it on “a lack of business and federal cutbacks in domestic shipbuilding.

But well-built DeFoe vessels continue to sail the lakes and seas as testament to the quality of the Defoe product.

The McCormick sails down the Detroit River.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News Online