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Delaware Public Archives

A Brief History Of The Jackson & Sharp Company, Car And Ship Builders, 1863-1950

A 1975 interview with Mr. Howard Potts reveals something of life at Jackson & Sharp between the wars. Mr. Potts was 77 at the time of the interview. He remembered starting work at Jackson & Sharp as a laborer at the age of fourteen. Except for time spent at Pusey & Jones during the First World War, Mr. Potts worked in the Jackson & Sharp shipyard until 1949. Potts spoke of carrying logs with a gang of ten to twelve men of varying ethnicities and nationalities. When a log was too heavy, horses or mules chained to the lumber would drag it. 19

He was soon apprenticed to learn a trade. This merely meant a pay raise at first, but Potts soon learned the tools used in ship carving. Spending six months with the laboring gang, six with the carpenters, then working with the rigging crew and finally the ship joiners, Potts learned the details of the shipbuilding business. In less than four years, Potts worked on his own, and supervised other apprentices. Potts said that apprenticeships were phased out after the First World War. During the Depression, Potts and three supervisors were the shipyard’s only employees. Potts worked three days a week, often engaged in busy work such as examining fences.20

Potts emphasized the varying backgrounds of shipyard employees. Describing his early days of transporting logs, he said, “Italians, Polish, Blacks, Irish, name it—we all worked together.” He noted that blacks and whites often worked together on projects, and that African Americans supervised apprentices or journeymen. At the same time, however, he recalled African Americans being clustered in certain crafts, stating that African Americans made up the majority of caulkers in the shipyard. This seems to fit with general patterns of racial hiring in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Wilmington. 21

“Shipyards were dangerous places. They didn’t know what safety was until ‘round about [1925],” Potts recalled. A lack of scaffolding resulted in numerous falls. Other dangers included men dropping lumber, on themselves or on co-workers, and the ever-present rats. Jokes and humor compensated for workplace hazards and long days. Potts told of being sent out to fetch a “bucket of steam,” and of greasing tool handles with a grease made from fish oil. Shakedown cruises of newly-built ships were called “breakdowns,” because as Potts said, “there would always be something that would break down on them. Always.” 22 Despite the perils and lean times of shipbuilding, Potts looked back on his days at Jackson & Sharp with pride.

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