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Shipbuilding on Alameda’s North Shore

In 1874, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under the able command of Col. George Mendell, greatly facilitated the development of a shipbuilding industry on today’s Oakland Estuary. The Corps built “training walls” from San Francisco Bay through “San Antonio Creek,” as the old-timers called the western end of the Oakland Estuary, and into Brooklyn Basin, home to the Grand Marina and Coast Guard Island.

Alameda Post - launch of four freighters on July 4, 1918
In 1918, the Alameda Works celebrated the Fourth of July by launching four freighters: Defiance, Independence, Victorious, and Challenger. Photo California State Library.

These walls guided (trained) the waters of the Estuary to prevent the formation of the sandbars that all too often plagued shipping.

By 1887, deep-sea vessels were anchoring on the Alameda side of the estuary. By 1914, Hay and Wright, United Engineering Works, James Dickie, and Barnes and Tibbetts had established shipyards on the Alameda shore of the Estuary.



By 1902, the Corps had extended the Estuary’s reach into San Leandro Bay with a tidal canal. Shipbuilders W.F. Sloan & Son set up shop on the shores of the tidal canal, where they built, among other vessels, minesweepers, submarine chasers, and tugboats for the U.S. Navy. The company is gone but their name remains on a building on Blanding Avenue, where they once did business.

Alameda’s Northern Waterfront

Join the Alameda Post’s Historian, Dennis Evanosky, for a stroll along the City’s northern waterfront, home to major shipbuilding sites for most of the first half of the 20th Century. As we walk, Dennis will untangle a complicated story that involves United Engineering Works in 1900, James Dickie in 1901, Union Iron Works in 1905, and the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company in 1916. We’ll see the sites where these massive ships were built and launched and discuss what has become of the area since the shipbuilding industry waned, and how Measure A played a role in the destruction of a City Monument.

Meet at 10 a.m on Saturday, August 19, or Sunday, September 10, at the foot of Mariner Square Drive just east of Pasta Pelican, and join us for a stroll along the waterfront to Wind River Park. Advance tickets are $20.

Shipbuilding comes to Alameda

Our story begins in San Francisco in 1897, with shipbuilders Harry P. Gray and J. R. Christy. The pair established United Engineering Works along the waterfront south of Market Street at Spear Street. These men were taking advantage of the Klondike Gold Rush by producing mining equipment and marine engines.

In 1900, the partners had used some of their profits to purchase marshland along the Oakland Estuary that stretched east of the Webster Street Bridge to property east of the Harrison Street Bridge. A new United Engineering Works shipyard arose from that marshland. The following year, Gray and Christy leased land east of the Harrison Street bridge to John Dickie, who built ferries for Francis Marion “Borax” Smith’s Key System.

Alameda Post - General Engineering advertisement
United Engineering Company began life in San Francisco as General Engineering Works. The enterprise changed its name in 1917 but held onto its origins on Spear Street in 1897. Photo Library of Congress.

In 1916, Union Iron Works—a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel since 1906—purchased Gray and Christy’s shipyard. The following year, Gray moved out of our picture. He first purchased both the Risdon Iron Works and T.J. Moynihan and Company, and then founded Union Engineering Company. His enterprise would flourish and later set up a new shipyard at the site of today’s Bay Ship and Yacht.

Backed by its wealthier parent company, Bethlehem Shipyards, Union Iron Works expanded Gray and Christy’s former property from seven acres to 75 acres. They built facilities that allowed them to construct six large vessels all at once. The Alameda Works, as the company named this expanded shipyard, grew into the largest shipbuilding plant on the Pacific Coast.

They needed more than just a bit of extra power to run everything smoothly. Although Alameda had its own Bureau of Electricity, the shipyard contracted with Pacific Gas & Electric Company to run the powerhouse it built in 1917. This Classical Revival building stands today as a landmark.

When World War I wound down, the demand for ships dried up. To survive the downturn, the Alameda Works largely relied on repairing and dry-docking ships. At the beginning of World War II, the Alameda Works was re-established as the Bethlehem Alameda Shipyard. Bethlehem modernized and expanded the yard to include new shipways and on-site worker housing.

Alameda Post - Union Iron Works' main generating plant.
Constructed in 1917, architect Frederick H. Meyer designed this powerhouse to serve as the main electrical generating plant for the Union Iron Works’ Alameda shipyard. Photo National Register of Historic Places.

The Red Brick Building

This new war brought new projects to Alameda and to the shop that most had dubbed the “Red Brick Building.” In 1942, the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation built four large concrete shipways on the shore north of this 90,000-square-foot “shop.” These shipways jut from the Alameda shoreline into the Oakland Estuary even today.

Between 1942 and 1945, some 6,200 men and women worked on these shipways, turning out ten 23,000-ton troop ships—each named for an admiral. Workers also repaired hundreds of ships and set wartime records for speed of construction.

In 1948, the shipyard closed its doors, although structural steel fabricating work continued in the Red Brick Building. That work ceased in 1956, and Bethlehem Steel sold the entire property that once housed its shipyards to Calpak, Del Monte’s parent company. The sale included the Red Brick Building. Calpak planned to demolish the building and replace it with high-rise apartments.

Then came Measure A, which forbade the construction of residential units larger than a duplex. The measure passed and a City Charter amendment prohibited Calpak from going ahead with its project.

Del Monte’s parent company sold the property to Vintage Properties in 1976. Vintage drew up plans that included 272 units, a mix of condominiums and apartments on the Red Brick Building’s top three floors, along with an indoor shopping mall on the ground and second floor.

Alameda Post - Shipways and the Red Brick Building.
Two of the ten 23,000-ton troop ships built in Alameda during World War II dominate the shipways that still stand on Alameda’s North Shore. The “Red Brick Building” seen behind the ships became hotly contested projects until voters approved demolishing the landmark. Photo Alameda Museum.

While work was going on at the site, the Red Brick Building became a State of California Historical Resource. On April 10, 1980, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On October 10, 1980, the City saw fit to list the Red Brick Building as a City Monument.

Joseph Seiger and Michael Humphreys built the Marina Village complex on land Bethlehem Steel had occupied from 1916 to 1948. Tynan Avenue on the site references Joseph T. Tynan, Bethlehem Steel’s shipbuilding general manager.

Seiger and Humphreys had hopes to renovate the Red Brick Building, but in order to accomplish this, voters would have to waive the Measure A prohibition of construction of dwellings with more than two units. The City placed the waiver on the June 5, 1984, ballot as Measure C. Supporters of the 11-year-old Measure A feared that allowing construction to move forward at the Red Brick Building would jeopardize Measure A’s ban on multiple dwellings.

When the voters went to the polls, they defeated Measure C, with 8,500 voting against the waiver and 6,500 in favor. When Measure C lost, City Council had little choice but to approve the demolition of the City Monument. Wrecking crews arrived in 1985. Instead of preserving a historic landmark, the 1973 Measure A played a role in destroying one.

All that’s left today to remind us of the shipbuilding at this massive yard are Frederick Meyers’ powerhouse and the World War II shipways.

Dennis Evanosky is the award-winning Historian of the Alameda Post. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Dennis-Evanosky.

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