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Political Crusade to Keep 300-Year-Old Shipyard Alive

CONGRESS appears set to approve some subsidies for battered shipyards. But as the experience of the Quincy yard here in Massachusetts shows, rescuing shipyards from oblivion may be tougher than navigating the choppy waters of the North Atlantic in wintertime.

The Quincy yard, located south of Boston on the Fore River, built its first ship in 1696. The last one was completed in 1986 when the owner of the shipyard, the General Dynamics Corporation, decided to pull out. Today, the 188-acre facility is virtually deserted.

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The Goliath Crane, which the shipyard boasts is the biggest in the Western Hemisphere, stands perfectly still. Most of the dry docks, which launched a large chunk of the Navy's fleet in both World War I and II, are vacant.

There is one haunting reminder of the yard's former glory - four World War II-vintage destroyers waiting to be cut up for scrap.

Work around the yard is scarce. The facility is now run by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), which uses it as a jumping-off point for supplying a sewage-treatment facility under construction on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. The MWRA also leases the grounds to a small shipbuilder that is repairing a Coast Guard cutter - the only active project at the yard.

The Coast Guard work employs less than 100 people - a far cry from a few decades ago when 15,000 people labored here in three shifts around the clock.

In its peak year of 1942, the Quincy yard buzzed with 32,000 workers.

``Shipbuilding is becoming a lost art around here,'' laments MWRA administrator Joe Valle, as he shows a reporter and photographer around the sprawling yard in a pickup truck.

Indeed, a shipbuilding museum is planned for a corner of the facility.

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Saving the yard has been a virtual crusade for local Rep. Gerry Studds.

As the chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, the Massachusetts Democrat won a nice windfall for the yard late last year: $30 million to modernize the facility and up to $200 million in loan guarantees for shipping companies to buy Quincy-built vessels.

While critics might call it pork-barreling, Mr. Studds insists that the Quincy money is a ``pilot project'' that, if successful, would be replicated in other yards.

There's only one hitch: To realize the benefits, the state must lure a private company interested in building ships at Quincy.

A number of interested shipbuilding executives have toured the yard; some South Korean and Japanese firms, especially, have expressed interest in the one-of-a-kind Goliath Crane.

No one knows whether the economics of shipbuilding in the US is sufficiently encouraging for a corporate knight in shining armor to ride in to save the rusting facility.

On the plus side, the Quincy workers can compete with their Asian and European counterparts in both salary and quality of work.

But Quincy and other former Navy suppliers are hobbled by never having been in the commercial shipbuilding business.

Foreign competitors have been mass-producing tankers and freighters for years; with some help from government subsidies, they have amortized their engineering and start-up costs over many vessels.

The US commercial shipbuilding industry, by contrast, has been moribund since the 1980s. Thus, the Quincy yard's best hopes would seem to be attracting an Asian or European firm that can apply its existing designs to produce vessels here.

``The prospects [for a buyer] are hard to gauge,'' says Studds aide Gerard Dhooge, ``but we're well-positioned, and most industry analysts see an impending boom in shipbuilding, both nationally and internationally.''

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