Almost everyone knows about the Monitor, the ironclad ship built in Greenpoint that saved victory for the union in the Civil War. Of course, the neighborhood has a beautiful sculpture dedicated to the ship in McGolrick Park and Monitor Street. We also have John Ericsson Middle School, which honors the designer of the ship, but we have nothing honoring Thomas F. Rowland, the ship’s builder. It is time we corrected this gross oversight by renaming a street in his honor.
Rowland was a man far ahead of his time. He was a railway engineer and a metallurgist and one of the few men alive at the start of the Civil War who could have built an ironclad ship. John Ericsson, the designer of the ship, knew that he needed a first rate nautical engineer to build his craft and that the prefect place to build it was at Rowland’s Continental Iron Works on Quay Street. Rowland and Ericsson built the ship in an amazing hundred days by working long hours seven days a week.
The Monitor was so revolutionary that few people understood it and many were sure that it would sink the moment it hit water, however Rowland added flotation devices that floated it as soon as it hit the water. When the Monitor fought the Virginia to a draw the Union blockade of the south was preserved and the North went on to win the war. Had Rowland and Ericsson not built the ship history might have turned out very differently.
Most people do not realize that the Monitor was only one of several Monitor type ships built on Quay Street. Rowland employed 1,500 men at his shipyard and the ships built there played a key role in winning the war at sea for the Union.
After the war Rowland began to produce gas mains for municipal gas works around the United States. The gas contract made him a rich man, but Rowland would go down in history not just for building the Monitor. Rowland has another claim to fame. Rowland patented the first ever offshore oil rig. On May 4, 1869, Thomas Fitch Rowland, owner of Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York, received a patent for his “submarine drilling apparatus.” His invention would not be used for another seventy years, but today oil companies around the world use the type of oil drilling platforms he first conceived.
Rowland died a millionaire in 1907, but he was also a charitable man. His architectural legacy in the area survives to this day. He was a generous patron of the beautiful church of the Ascension on Kent Street. A model of the Monitor in the church reminds parishioners of Rowland’s role in building the gothic style gem.
Rowland’s can do spirit and hard work saved a nation and helped build the oil industry. It is time we honored this dynamic Greenpointer with a street.
Geoff Cobb is the author of Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past