In 1905, Harry Defoe established the Defoe Shipbuilding Company. Defoe’s company was based in Bay City, Michigan, where in its formative years the company developed gas powered ships for both hobbyists and businesspeople. After twelve years, the US Navy made a contract with the Defoe Shipbuilding Company, elevating its status considerably.
The company was to develop a handful of torpedo chasers, and after having successfully completed this original contract, Defoe was again selected by the Navy in 1918 to build several mine planters. The company went on to build more ships for the Navy as well as expanding its operation to develop privately owned ships and luxury yachts. Among the best known yachts built by Defoe was the Presidential Yacht which was used by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon.
During the World Wars, the Defoe Shipyard became known for its high quality ships and unique designs. Aside from the Navy, the company also developed ships for the Coast Guard during the years between wars, along with private yachts. Their craftsmanship and ingenuity allowed for continual business, even during times of economic hardship. One of the most notable contributions the Defoe Shipbuilding Company made to the war efforts during the 1940s was a welding method that increased the speed at which the hull of ships could be built. During this time, Defoe employees could build an entire 173-foot patrol ship in only seven days.
After the wars concluded, the Defoe Shipyard continued to produce ships for the US military, the Australian Navy, and of course in the private sector, though military contracts were the company’s primary source of funding. As the years passed, military demand increased for larger and larger ships, which eventually caused Defoe to cease operation, a direct result of the shipyard’s location. The Saginaw River was too shallow to accommodate the need for larger ships. Defoe was unable to accept new Naval contracts and the company permanently closed in 1976.
Similar to most shipbuilding enterprises during the time, the Defoe Shipyard was no stranger to asbestos. The material was commonplace in many facets of the shipyard and building materials. Often when working closely with asbestos, workers would unavoidably inhale dust containing asbestos debris.