The Bay City boy who became a major shipbuilder
By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News Online
Harry J. Defoe was born in Bay City Sept. 2, 1875, son of a Great Lakes sailor, Joseph DeFoe, and nephew to a local boat builder, John DeFoe. As a boy Harry liked to whittle toy sail and tug boats and float them in the Saginaw River. As a teenager he built working steamboats from wood and scraps of metal.
Harry became a teacher and even served as a school principal but his heart was focused on the river and its vessels.
In 1905 Harry founded The DeFoe Boat & Motor Works along with his brother, Frederic, a New York lawyer, and his brother-in-law George H. Whitehouse, a fish wholesaler.
Harry designed boats, selling full size patterns similiar to women's dress patterns. He also built the boats in his shipyard on the river at 5th Street. The U.S. military noticed and in 1917 the Navy ordered five torpedo chasers with Winton gasoline engines, followed by an order for eight 98-foot steel harbor mine planters. These were steam vessels with heavy derricks.
DeFoe expanded his yard buying and after the war began to build yachts, including the 90-foot yacht which later became famous as the "Honey Fitz," so named by President John F. Kennedy after his grandfather, one-time mayor of Boston. Another well-know owner of a Defoe yacht was Ralph Evinrude who made outboard motors.
During Prohibition Harry got a contract for 15 wooden, 400-horsepower speed boats used by racers like Detroit's Gar Wood, not to mention local rumrunner. Charles Kettering wanted his with self-starters. When DeFoe declined, Kettering said, "Give me two men and I'll make it self-starting tonight." DeFoe got the message and began making his boats with starters.
When the Depression hit, the government tried to rescue the industry and DeFoe benefited with orders for Coast Guard vessels, a Detroit River mail boat, and a few other projects.
The advent of World War brought and end to the depression and more government contracts.
DeFoe invented the "upside down and rollover" method of shipbuilding. In the "roll over" a big cradle, the exact size and shape of the ship, was built bottom side up. Welders attached the steel to the skeleton eliminating difficult overhead welding and reducing man-hours by 90 percent. Then the vessel was flipped upright for its completion.
Defoe built 58 sub-chasers faster than the Navy could deliver the powerplants. By the end of the war the firm had built in addition to the sub-chasers 47 infantry landing craft, 17 destroyer escorts, 10 freight and ammunition carriers, nine high-speed troop transports, four rescue tugs and three harbor tugs.
Tags: Harry Defoe, Defoe Shipbuilding, Bay City, Saginaw River
Powered by Qumana