American Ship Building Company and Predecessors Records

Identifier: GLMS-0075

Collection Overview


The primary component of this collection is naval architectural drawings produced by the company, its predecessors, and subsidiaries. Post-1900 sets tend to be more complete than earlier sets of drawings. Nearly all types of wooden and steel vessels built on the Great Lakes between 1870 and 1981 are represented. The Center for Archival Collections holds many of the original drawings extending up to 1981. Other corporate records such as minutes, correspondence, specifications, reports, and financials are present.


  • 1867-1989


60 Reels (60 reels of 35mm microfilm)

27 Cubic Feet (48 legal manuscript boxes, 3 letter manuscript boxes, 1 flat box, 1 card storage box, and 13 volumes)

555.21 Cubic Feet (2,050 roll storage boxes)


Scope and Contents

This collection documents the history of American Shipbuilding Company (AmShip), the largest shipbuilding enterprise to exist on the Great Lakes, and its subsidiaries and predecessors. The majority of the records in this collection consist of naval architectural drawings created by company and represent over a century of Great Lakes vessel design. While there are a handful of pre-1880 drawings present in the collection, the bulk fall after that date and run up to 1981. Vessels constructed include steamers, bulk carriers, tugs, sailing ships, warships, Coast Guard cutters, research vessels, passenger liners, and others. The HCGL possesses over 2,100 tubes of original drawings of vessels, with several tubes depicting the layout of various shipyards under the AmShip umbrella. Additionally, a standardized set up of drawings for each vessels built 1880-1920 was microfilmed in the late 1980s in order to facilitate access. Te filming project included not only HCGL drawings, but also some held in other collections, such as those of the Great Lakes Historical Society. The microfilm of the drawings has been digitized. Contact the HCGL Archivist for more information on the microfilm project and a list of vessels included.

The rest of the collection contains separate series for reports, financials, proceedings, publications and speeches, specifications and contracts, and subject files. The Reports series has a complete run of the annual reports for AmShip from 1899-1982. Financials include small runs of quarterly reports for American Ship Building Company, annual reports for Toledo Shipbuilding Company, tax data, receipts, and stock information.

The Proceedings series contains microfilmed minutes of AmShip's Board of Directors from the company's founding to 1961, and Detroit City Council meeting minutes for 1917-1918.

Legal and Land Documents consists mainly of deed and lease paperwork for properties used for the Detroit Shipbuilding facilities in Detroit and Wyandotte. Another significant portion of this series is made up of agreements between AmShip and labor unions. The balance of the series contains several court cases (including personal injury cases), the Articles of Association for Detroit Shipbuilding Company and American Ship Building Company, and bankruptcy documentation from when AmShip went out of business in 1994.

Most of the content making up the Publications ans Speeches series is articles and presentations created for meetings of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME). A range of brochures, articles, and serials make up the balance of the series.

The Specifications and Contracts series contains contracts for vessel construction, renovation, repairs, and components (such as boilers). Specifications were created by AmShip in response to requests from proposals from various shipping interests. These documents can be for new construction or refitting/reconstruction of existing vessels.

The final series, Subject Files, contains the greatest range of records. The majority are sets of trip expenses for the Mary H. Boyce, a steamer owned and operated by American Ship Building Company from 1910-1916. The Boyce was used to transport components and company officials to Amship's different facilities aound the Great Lakes. Most famously, it was used to carry the engines for the passenger liner Noronic to Port Arthur, Ontario, in 1914. Other materials include shipping lists, damage reports, hull test data, and . Of special interest are correpsondence and cost estimates for the repair and rebuilding of the passenger steamer Eastland after its capsizing in 1915.

Company History

By the late 1890s, the Great Lakes was saturated with shipyards. Competition was plentliful and fierce, causing ever-decreasing prices by different shipbuilding interests in order to gain market share. By 1899, the low prices resulted in consistent losses and razor-thin profit margins. In order to combat this, representatives from Cleveland Shipbuilding Company, Ship Owners' Dry Dock Company, Detroit Shipbuilding Company (created by the merger of Dry Dock Engine Works, the Detroit Dry Dock Company, and the Detroit Sheet Metal and Brass Works), and Globe Iron Works met in New York City to discuss a merger of their companies. The incorporation of the new consolidated entity, American Shipbuilding Company (AmShip), was made official on March 16, 1899. In 1900, three more companies were merged into AmShip: Superior Shipbuilding Company of Superior, Wisconsin; Toledo Shipbuilding Company of Toledo; and West Bay City Shipbuilding Company of Bay City, Michigan. AmShip also expanded through the leasing of other yards. In 1900, AmShip began leasing the facilities of Union Dry Dock Company of Buffalo, renaming it Buffalo Dry Dock Company. The Buffalo yard was purchased outright in 1914.

World War I brought great prosperity and profits to the company, as well as many other shipyards across the country. However, this was shortlived as the demand for new vessels dropped precipitously after the armistice. AmShip was able to make do with vessel repairs and a reduced number of orders for new vessels. This persisted through the Great Depression, as well, which caused lean years in most sectors of the world economy. With the onset of World War II, AmShip's construction contracts skyrocketed, producing military and civilian vessels for the war effort. Demand was so high that AmShip was asked to manage the newly-created Delta Shipbuilding Company in New Orleans, one of eight emergency yards commissioned by the United States Shipping Board to produce Liberty ships. The Delta yard was closed at the end of the war. AmShip reach number 21 on the list of most lucrative government contracts during World War II.

The American Shipbuilding Company reached its peak in the postwar economic boom. Gradually, business waned as production of steel overseas increased and undercut the U.S. market. With steel plants being the primary customers of the Great Lakes bulk carrier fleet, the number of vessels gradually dwindled in the 1960s and 1970s. Even so, AmShip built five of the so-called "thousand footers" that are currently still in service. AmShip's last hull, the William J. De Lancey (currently named the Paul R. Tregurtha), was launched in 1981. The Steinbrenner family, who had obtained a controlling interest in AmShip in the 1960s following its merger with Kinsman Marine Transit Company, sparred with the unions staffing the shipyards in an effort to reduce costs. The most notable figure from the Steinbrenner family who was involved was Henry, who would go on to own the New York Yankees. After strikes at the Chicago, Toledo, and Lorain yards in the early 1980s, AmShip closed all remaining Great Lakes facilities and moved operations to Tampa, Florida. AmShip went into bankruptcy proceedings in 1993, and was sold off in 1995.

The disposition of AmShip's subsidiaries is as follows:

The Bay City yard was closed in 1908 after the construction of the W. R. Woodford.

After performing mainly repair work in the decades after World War I, AmShip Buffalo was closed in 1962.

The Chicago yard was shutdown in the late 1970s.

Detroit Shipbuilding Company performed its last fitting-out work in 1924 and was closed in 1929. Some of the original buildings are still standing at the foot of Orleans Street in Detroit.

AmShip Superior was sold off in 1955 after performing mainly vessel repairs. It still exists today as Fraser Shipyards.

AmShip Toledo was closed in the 1980s. The yard today is operated by Ironhead Marine.

Conditions Governing Access

Naval architectural drawings are located in offsite storage. Please provide 72 hours for in-person access.

Conditions Governing Use

Researchers using this collection assume full responsibility for conforming to the laws of libel, privacy, and copyright, and are responsible for securing permissions necessary for publication or reproduction.

Language of Materials



This collection is arranged into the following series:

  1. Reports, 1900-1982
  2. Financial Records, 1890-1964
  3. Proceedings, 1899-1961
  4. Legal and Land Documents, 1886-1979
  5. Specifications and Contracts, 1914-1979
  6. Naval Architectural Drawings, 1867-1981
  7. Subject Files, 1871-1989

Separated Materials

All photographs in this collection were separated out and interfiled into GLMS 120 - Main Photograph Collection. Most of these images depict the construction, launching, and fitting out process of vessels built at the primary AmShip shipyard in Lorain. Official American Shipbuilding Company photographs can be identified by the use of a company stamp on the back of each image. The largest set of photographs for a single vessel is for the Wilfred Sykes, launched in 1949.

A substantial number of naval architectural drawings from AmShip and its subsidiaries are held by the Great Lakes Historical Society (GLHS). In some cases, both the HCGL and GLHS hold portions of the same set of drawings for a vessel. In other cases, one institution has a set of drawings for a particular vessel, while the other has none. Researchers can contact the HCGL Archivist for clarification.

When AmShip's chief competitor, Great Lakes Engineering Works (GLEW), closed in 1962, AmShip purchased the latter's plans morgue. Many of those drawings came to the HCGL when AmShip donated their records here in 1987. Those drawings have been formed into their own collection, GLMS 133.

Related Materials

For an extensive history of the American Shipbuilding Company and its predecessor companies, see the book Freshwater Whales: A History of American Ship Building Company and its Predecessors by Richard J. Wright.

A number of pamphlets, reports, and other materials relating to the company have been individually cataloged and are available via a search of the library catalog.

For photographs and biographical information for the Craig Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, see GLMS 95 - Craig Shipbuilding Company Records.

A large number of originals plans for vessels built by the American Shipbuilding Company are held by the Great Lakes Historical Society. These will be transferred to the HCGL at a future date.

Complete lists of vessels built by the various yards of the American Shipbuilding Company can be found on the website U.S. Shipbuilding History.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Additional AmShip materials were transferred from GLMS 113-Wright Marine Collection, in November 2021.

Processing Information

Initial processing performed by Archivist Bob Graham. Processing completed by student assistant Kasandra Fager and graduate assistant Haley Hoffman in 2021.

Guide to the American Shipbuilding Company and Predecessors Records
Mark Sprang, Haley Hoffman
April-September 2021
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