Wyandotte Shipbuilding Firsts – a few notes and pictures from Keith M. Steffke

It has now been over 100 years since the ringing of the riveting guns, the screech of steam whistles, and the giant splash of a newly launched steel ship have been heard in Wyandotte.  Arguably, the year 2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the pioneer metal shipbuilding industry in our hometown.

The phrase "Wyandotte built" was used with pride to describe those first iron (then steel) vessels to come out of Downriver's most historic and renowned shipyard during the shipbuilding years between 1870 - 1923. 

Many of Wyandotte's shipbuilding innovations were considered radical at the time but would become industry the standard within a generation. The legacy of the city's maritime manufacturing past is still seen among the modern freighters that ply along the Detroit River. Among the many records that helped establish the reputation of “Wyandotte built” ships were:

  • the first successful example of industrial vertical integration in the US (45 years before Henry Ford did it for cars)
  • the first metal ships built in Michigan
  • the first iron bulk freighter on the Great Lakes
  • the first steel ship built in America
  • the largest sidewheel passenger ship ever built
  • the first icebreaking ships
  • the largest composite vessels ever constructed
  • the introduction of pneumatic riveting tools
  • world records established for vessels built and rivets driven during World War One  

And associated with the founding and  operations of the unique pioneering shipbuilding works there were complex personalities, days when school was let out so that all could attend a ship launch, and days that could be spent going up and down the Detroit River on one of the many ships built in Wyandotte!