The following is the sixth of an eight-part essay about 19th century Greenpoint’s transformation from isolated farmland into a center of shipbuilding and waterborne commerce. In it, Gary E. Eddey interweaves the story of our neighborhood’s earliest industrialization with his own family history, focusing on his great, great-grandfather, Carnes Eddey – a shipwright from Greenpoint.
The first ship built in Greenpoint
Sneden’s was not the first shipyard to launch in Greenpoint. That honor went to Webb and Bell’s shipyard, located at West and Green Streets. Their first vessel was a small steamer called the Honda, built for work on the Magdalena, the principal river of Colombia.
Though the Honda might have brought the Eddey brothers to Greenpoint, I suspect it was the Great Republic, a ship Sneden built, or rather rebuilt, in 1853. It has been written that Sneden even moved his yard from Manhattan to Greenpoint specifically to resurrect the massive clipper.
But what was the Great Republic and why did it need rebuilding?
Three grand ships built in Greenpoint:
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, three of the largest vessels in the world were launched from Greenpoint shipyards, each putting the north Brooklyn neighborhood on the map. Though all shared similar names, each was distinct and important in her own right.
These three grand vessels, the three Republics, are fascinating for a number of reasons and will be reviewed in order of their launchings.
The first Great Republic was a classic clipper ship with a bizarre history.
Built by Donald McKay of East Boston, the father of clipper ships, it was named for a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem. The original ship was launched in October 1853 to such acclaim that the City of Boston essentially declared a holiday. As many as 50,000 people viewed its descent into the water.
So what does all this have to do with Greenpoint?
One month after launching the ship, McKay’s fully rigged, four masted ship was towed to its new owner in New York Harbor. Shortly after arrival at its East River dock, it caught fire during the great Novelty Bakery fire and burned to the water line!
A total ruin, and, as one can imagine, McKay was heartbroken.
But that wasn’t the end, and its maiden voyage took place in February 1855. What has been lost to history is what happened to this clipper ship in the months between October 1853 and January 1855. The answer to that question is all about Greenpoint and how the shipwrights from Brooklyn brought this boat back to life.
After the fire, the boat — or rather its hull and three remaining decks – was towed across the East River to Greenpoint to be brought back to life by Sneden. The shipbuilder may have used this as his impetus to move his yard to Greenpoint and I think it highly probably that that is what brought Carnes and Alfred to Brooklyn. The Great Republic was the largest wooden merchant vessel ever built and took two years to rebuild. It sunk in 1872 in a hurricane near Bermuda (after it was renamed the Denmark).
The second Great Republic was an ocean going paddle wheeled steamer that was also full ship rigged.
Built for the new Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and intended for the run between San Francisco and Hong Kong, this Great Republic was launched from Henry Steers shipyard in Greenpoint in November 1866. It was 380 feet long and a massive ship.
Unfortunately, it capsized off the coast of Oregon in 1879.
The third ship launched from Greenpoint was the steamship the Grand Republic, which spent its entire career around New York City.
The Grand Republic launched from the John Englis and Son yard in 1878. This massive steamship (its deck was the length of a football field), witnessed countless historical NYC events during its lifetime. Although built as an ocean going steamship, it was primarily sailed in and around New York Harbor and on the Hudson River.