Henry Eckford was born at Kilwinning, near Irvine, Scotland, in March 1775, another of the remarkable Scots who emerged from their craggy homeland to illuminate the 18th and early 19th centuries. According to a local historian, Eckford's family eventually moved into town, to a home on Irvine's High Street between the tollbooth and Templeton's Bookstore, reportedly then a favorite haunt of the poet Robert Burns, today—less glamorously—near a Kwik Save supermarket.
Henry was the youngest of five sons. Three—John, James, and Peter—spent their lives in Scotland. The fourth, William, emigrated to Australia. It is likely but not certain that while a boy Henry trained as a ship's carpenter, or "mechanic," in the Irvine shipyard on the Firth of Clyde before he left home for the New World in 1791 at age 16.
Eckford arrived in New York City from Quebec in 1796, fresh from a five-year shipbuilding apprenticeship on the St. Lawrence River with a maternal uncle. He promptly started working as a journeyman in a boatyard at the foot of Dover Street on the East River. Three years later in April he married 20-year-old Marion Bedell. Around the same time he opened his own yard on the river, one among the many shipyards—eventually 33 of them by one count—that were clustered along the riverbank from 13th Street all the way south to Pike Street. Both ventures flourished.
The fecund Eckfords produced nine children—five sons and four daughters. (Sadly, in early 1828 two children, Henrietta and John, died in a freak fire at home. Another son, a U.S. Navy midshipman, barely escaped death 18 months later at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when the steam battery Fulton's powder magazine exploded at the pier. The blast shredded the odd, center paddlewheel catamaran, killing her captain and 32 others and seriously injuring young Eckford and many more.)
For its part, the Eckford yard launched a succession of well-built vessels. New York's easy access to high-quality stands of oak and other suitable hardwoods and Eckford's talents as a naval architect, industrial engineer, and dynamic entrepreneur came together in the handy, seaworthy vessels that made his reputation. He managed a commercial shipyard for most of the next 30 years, often in parallel with other business interests. Twice during those same decades he was in charge of a government yard, an experience that persuaded him naval shipyards should be organized according to commercial practices and civilian management principles.
Shipbuilding for War
It was, however, the War of 1812 that gave Eckford a national reputation. Compared to Army campaigns on land, the reconstituted Navy turned in an unexpectedly admirable performance at sea against the Royal Navy, at least until redeployments from Europe gave its foe enough ships to blockade the coast. Before then, a sequence of improbable American triumphs in frigate duels between August 1812 and March 1813 raised morale to something like euphoria—blunting the pain of incessant bungling ashore (excepting Major General Andrew Jackson's stunning, belated victory at New Orleans).
American Sailors did well on fresh water, too. Lake Ontario and Lake Erie—spanning the porous international border—formed a natural theater of conflict. For Americans, control of the Great Lakes was the precondition for logistical support of offensive operations in Canada. For Britons, their control was essential to successful defense of the dominion's frontier. The opening of hostilities quickly triggered a shipbuilding race on both lakes.
From his headquarters at Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario's northeastern shore, U.S. Commodore Isaac Chauncy warily imagined the enemy arming in Kingston, just over the horizon. Meanwhile, his friend, Henry Eckford, summoned from the city, turned the sleepy village into a naval base and built a fresh-water squadron—all the while investing in local real estate. (The two knew each other well, a relationship dating at least to 1806-7 when Chauncy had sailed as master in the Eckford-built Beaver, owned by John Jacob Astor.)
Eckford's construction effort was prodigious and hugely successful. In roughly two years' time his carpenters, encamped uncomfortably in the tiny and sickly hamlet, managed to build and launch eight fighting ships, while modifying a handful of civilian "lakers" to carry guns and also constructing the shoreside workshops and personnel facilities that made the harbor a principal American base of the war. More remarkable, much of this was done while suffering through the Great Lakes' abominable winter weather.
Construction at Breakneck Speed
The new vessels coming down the ways at Sackets Harbor ranged in size from the 89-ton pilot-boat schooner Lady of the Lake to the large but never completed 3,200-ton ship-of-the-line New Orleans. In November 1812 the fast schooner USS Madison was rushed practically from trees in the forest to a hull afloat in not much more than six weeks. Exactly two years later, any idlers on the Ontario lakefront would have been amazed to see the 42-gun frigate USS Mohawk shave a full week from the Madison's short schedule—five weeks total from keel-laying to launch. Chauncy described Eckford to new Secretary of the Navy William Jones as perhaps the best ship's carpenter in the world.
Eckford's secret to maximum speed appears to have been the prefabrication of a complete set of frames in modern shops on the New York City waterfront, after which assembly could proceed on site almost by the numbers. He would use this clever technique again years later, half a world away.
With the war over and trade resumed, Eckford spent 1817-20 as the chief naval constructor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. His resignation on 6 June 1820 after an exchange of letters with the Board of Navy Commissioners was seemingly of his own volition.
The week before Eckford left Brooklyn, the Navy yard launched the USS Ohio, a festive event the contemporary New York Evening Post estimated drew perhaps 25,000 spectators, many of whom "crowded the surrounding hills and house-tops in the neighborhood" to see her slide into Wallabout Bay. The trim, stylish frigate, largely Eckford's own design, had been on the building ways in Brooklyn for three years. Had she completed fitting out then, the Ohio—rated a 74 but pierced for 110 guns, nearly 200 feet long, drawing 22 feet, and with a planned complement of 840 officers and men—would have been a powerful addition to the U.S. Navy. But the 1820s and '30s were quiet, and economy prevailed.
Or perhaps it was not economy at all, but animus that kept the Ohio tied up for years. As Henry Howe told the story in Memoirs of the Most Eminent American Mechanics, Eckford and the Board of Navy Commissioners, led by war hero Commodore John Rodgers, fought bitterly over the ship, a fight triggered by the sullen board's view that Eckford had unilaterally changed the design it had previously approved. "The consequence, however," Howe explained, "of these collisions between [Rodgers'] presuming ignorance and [Eckford's] modest worth were soon obvious. Mr. Eckford resigned his commission on the day the Ohio was launched; and shortly after received an intimation that he would never see her put in commission as long as the members of that board held their seats." So says Howe. Nothing in Eckford's correspondence with the board about his resignation substantiates this reading.
When the 1820s began, the Eckfords were living elegantly on a small estate between 7th and 8th avenues at 24th Street. Period engravings show that the property was pretty, open country. On it stood the family's handsome manor house—two connected, identical boxy wings, surrounded on all sides by deep porches and a two-story colonnade, with four tall chimneys. While Eckford expanded his interests into shipping, banking, insurance, publishing, and politics, his daughters attracted suitors from the station in society this influential and prosperous man and his family were now filling. The plucky immigrant of 1796 had truly made it.
Once back full time at his own yard on the Manhattan side of the East River, Eckford continued to build for the federal government. In May 1823, for example, he contracted with the superintendent of lighthouses to deliver three "vessels to be used as Floating Lights," fully fitted out before the end of the year for a price of $43,000.
Eckford's expertise made him an ideal choice to run any shipyard, but it was his untidy private life in the late 1820s that made him available, perhaps even eager, for foreign employment just when the Ottoman Empire was seeking special talent like his.
Scandal, Ruin, and Flight
Eckford's personal connections spanned from Washington to Albany, with close ties to the local Democratic Party. In this growing pond, Eckford had become an industrialist (in that pre-industrial age) with a national reputation, a sometime company director, bank president, state legislator, candidate for the House of Representatives, and would-be presidential elector. He was also a member of Tammany Hall's elite leadership cadre, its 13-man "Council of Sachems." All this began to unravel on 15 September 1826, when Eckford and several other senior Tammany politicos were indicted by a grand jury in New York's Court of Oyer and Terminer for fraud amounting to several million dollars. Charges had been brought against the group by District Attorney Hugh Maxwell.
Eckford descendant and apologist Phyllis Dekay Wheelock suggested 50 years ago that her kinsman's legal problems sprang more or less innocently from 1826's sharp economic recession and his loyalty to friends. In this story line, Eckford charitably spent $500,000 of his own money in an attempt to shore up collapsing companies. Maybe, but it's possible that the truth is less flattering.
The case quickly became a notorious scandal, with Eckford and his codefendants (a trio of other Tammany sachems and a handful of "braves") charged with having defrauded seven banks, two insurance companies, and several private citizens of shares of stock and cash. The trial began on 27 September. A month later the jury was excused, having failed to agree on a verdict. Charles Haswell, a meticulous diarist of the period who in 1896 published his notes as Reminiscences of New York by an Octogenarian, reported that the vote was eight to four for conviction of three principal codefendants, but Eckford apparently managed to persuade one additional juror of his innocence, and the jury in his case voted seven to five for a guilty verdict.
A retrial promptly followed, but this second time around Eckford and two others were not at the dock. All the others tried were convicted. Gustav Myers, Tammany Hall's first serious student, described the result this way in his The History of Tammany Hall:
Tammany Hall was unwilling to see any of its leaders go to prison. As soon as the storm of popular indignation blew over, a new trial was had for [Matthew] Davis, and owing to strong political influence his acquittal was the outcome. [Jacob] Barker was again convicted, but, thanks to the discreet use of his money, never saw a cell. He went South and lived on till over ninety years of age. Eckford fled to the Orient and died in Syria. The severity of the law fell on the minor offenders. . . .
Myers might have been unfair. In fact, Maxwell never brought Eckford to trial for the second time, despite expectations he was going to do so. Contemporary newspaper accounts hinted that the New York State Senate acted to obstruct another trial of the man. Spared in this way, Eckford then asked Maxwell publicly to confirm his innocence of fraud. Instead, the district attorney agreed to say only that Eckford had been "the dupe of designing and more criminal men." Far short of exoneration, it was rather a condemnation as a fool as well as a cheat.
Having failed several times to obtain a suitable apology from Maxwell, in December 1827 Eckford challenged his tormentor to a duel. Maxwell ignored the dare, and Eckford and his seconds were enjoined to keep the peace. Denied a chance to recover his honor (and perhaps to die in the attempt), Eckford turned instead to replenishing his fortune. So it was that America's premier shipbuilder became available for foreign hire.
The Ottoman Navy
Although their polyglot empire had been carved out of Europe and Asia by mounted archers from the Anatolian interior, Ottoman sultans understood that the great state assembled by their horsemen paradoxically was as much oceanic as terrestrial. A vast holding constructed around a salt-water center that encompassed the southern Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, linked to each other by the busy marine crossroads—the Dardanelles—fronted the imperial capital (and remained strategically important through the era of the Cold War). Naval power on "the inmost sea" was essential to keep the whole together. Victory at sea, however, didn't come naturally to the Turks.
In late October 1827, almost exactly 256 years after the Battle of Lepanto, the Ottoman Navy again met shattering defeat at Western hands. On the 20th, after a fruitless attempt at diplomatic bullying, a combined British-French-Russian fleet under Royal Navy Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, commander of the British Mediterranean Squadron, sailed provocatively into Navarino Bay, near modern Pylos, Greece, and anchored close alongside a mixed Turkish-Egyptian fleet already at anchor in a large semicircular formation. Gunports were open, guns shotted and run out, and gun crews stood by with matches lit. With both sides edgy and poised to fight, inevitably the incident quickly exploded into a murderous exchange of broadsides at point-blank range. The smaller European force significantly outgunned the Turks and Egyptians, and in a few bloody hours the Ottoman Empire lost 1 of 7 ships-of-the-line and 34 of 41 frigates and corvettes, as well as 4,000 men. Not quite Lepanto redux, but dreadful nevertheless.
After Navarino the Ottomans set about once again to revitalize their navy following disaster, laying keels for new hulls at four shipyards in Istanbul and along the Anatolian coast. Building a navy to early 19th-century standards, however, was nothing the Ottomans' old works and native workforce could do alone, a conclusion forced by the scale of the humiliating 1827 defeat. The round-hulled, broadside gunships of the North Atlantic that were the archetypes of the early 19th-century ship-of-the-line were of a design not native to the Mediterranean. Neither were the sailing rigs, an acre and often much more of artfully cut cotton canvas held in place on masts and spars by complex rigging, much less the technology of steam propulsion just then beginning to make its appearance at sea. This time the Ottoman emperor needed help to reconstruct his fleet.
Eckford in Istanbul
Diminished by scandal and financial loss but still in business, Eckford left New York during the first few days of June 1831 and arrived in Istanbul some two months later, near mid-August. He stepped ashore at Galata from the deck of a new, 1,000-ton corvette named the United States, sailed there from his shipyard under the command of one kinsman by marriage, George DeKay, and with another also on board, son-in-law Dr. James DeKay, George's older brother who served as Eckford's personal physician on the trip.
Although the United States' departure from New York seems to have been conducted quietly and attracted little attention, Eckford's intention to sell her abroad was no secret. Before he left for the Levant, he was canny enough to solicit an endorsement from President Andrew Jackson, and notable enough to get it by return mail: "Sir," Jackson wrote him on 20 April 1831:
I have received your letter of the 19th instant . . . asking my opinion as to your standing as a naval architect, and whether from your experience [illegible] enterprise, and faithful performance of your engagements in the way of your profession you can be relied upon.
It gives me pleasure to state in reply, that you sustain the reputation in this country, and I have no doubt deservedly, of being a naval architect of great skill and enterprise, and that I should count with confidence on a faithful performance of any engagement in the way of your profession in which you might think it proper to embark.
You have before I came into it been extensively employed by the government in that [illegible] and have, as I have always understood, done it full justice.
I am very respectfully
your obedient servant
For a ship commonly credited with great speed, the United States' passage was not an especially swift one: 10 days to the Azores, 20 days in all to Gibraltar—good time so far—but six weeks more in calm air or into adverse winds across the Mediterranean to the Dardanelles, and then another week waiting with many others for a favorable wind to push her up the narrow strait to Istanbul. Still, she was quick. Sailing across the Mediterranean, the United States apparently overhauled and outran a Royal Navy sloop-of-war and once in the Ionian Sea easily beat the USS Constellation, then the Mediterranean squadron's flagship, in a more formal race. The ship managed these successes with an international crew that included only a dozen able seamen.
Ships for the Sultan
After some initial confusion, the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II, who at first assumed the American ship in his harbor was a generous gift from the government of the United States, bought the pretty 26-gun corvette for a reported $150,000. Renamed Mesir-i Ferah, she became the first of the empire's new American-built fighting ships and remained in Ottoman service at least through the early 1850s.
Eckford's first commercial success in Istanbul drew on a long history. The sultan's turn toward Americans, and away from Britons (whose antipathy to both France and Russia had made—and would again make—them the usual protectors of Ottoman influence in the Eastern Mediterranean), reflected some recent trends in relations between the old empire and the young republic. These had to do with American interest in trade with the Levant and with Washington's disinterest in getting entangled in the Greek war for independence from the Turks.
New England's merchants were eager to expand trade with the empire, in foodstuffs (Turkish raisins and figs chief among them, common sweeteners in the days before affordable sugar) and in Turkish opium (selling in Istanbul for about $1.80 per pound and important in the China trade). The American goal was a bilateral treaty establishing the basis for an expanded trade relationship and granting access to the Black Sea and whatever commercial opportunities that opening might offer. Between 1830 and 1843, when he died at his post, Commodore David Porter, father of the better-known Civil War Union Admiral David Dixon Porter, was the senior U.S. diplomat in Istanbul, and on arrival for duty it fell to him to finish the long and frustrating pas de deux that Ottoman-American treaty negotiations had become. He succeeded.
The sultan's agreement to open Turkish ports to further American trade under the terms of a treaty of commerce and navigation encompassed a quid pro quo: access to Ottoman markets in exchange for technical shipbuilding assistance and favorable pricing on ships purchased—the remedy for the losses of Navarino. The former was embedded amid the boilerplate of the treaty's eight public articles; the latter was in the treaty's ninth, "secret" article, a secret quickly blown. During its debate, the Senate rejected the article, threatening the treaty, but private assurances to the Turks carried the day after all. Both parties finally ratified the treaty, minus Article 9, in October 1831, the culmination of a decades-long process.
So it was that Sultan Mahmud II placed his confidence and his new navy in the hands of Americans. With sale and delivery of the Mesir-i Ferah accomplished, the sultan hired Henry Eckford, who promptly started work on a small schooner, a frigate, and a 74-gun ship (almost certainly following the lines of his luckless USS Ohio) to be built on a frame of southern live oak imported in pieces to Turkey from New York. That shipping these prefabricated timbers some 6,000 miles was a reasonable thing to do suggests that skilled craftsmen and good wood were in very short supply.
Eckford's new vessels were built on shipways in an isolated American reservation set off from the rest of the huge Turkish yard. In a status report mailed to Secretary of State Edward Livingston in mid-December 1832 Ambassador David Porter described the works in Istanbul this way:
The American part of the establishment, entirely under American control and American regulations, and over which the Turks exercise no authority, occupies a space as large as the Navy Yard at Washington, with work shops, mould lofts, forges, etc., etc., nearly all put up since we have been here.
Cholera in Istanbul
Eckford's service as manager of the Istanbul yard's American cantonment turned out to be unexpectedly brief. He clearly expected to be there longer, and so had the sultan, who reportedly was preparing to elevate the American to august imperial rank. But Eckford died suddenly on 12 November, almost certainly a victim of cholera, the 19th century's signature epidemic disease. Porter's report was dated six weeks after the shipbuilder's death.
By 1832 the second of the century's six cholera pandemics from India had already reached into the Americas, but the disease was virulent still in the crowded neighborhoods of the Ottoman capital. (So was the plague. Months earlier the crew of the Constellation had disclosed the presence of both diseases.) It was Eckford's misfortune to have arrived in the imperial capital in good time to be afflicted.
His body was shipped home in a barrel of "spirits of wine" (ethanol), the usual final ocean voyage for the cadavers of important men before the invention of refrigeration. Unusually, this body traveled in an eponymous ship, the bark Henry Eckford, the second ship to have been so named. Eckford was buried in the old St. Georges Church cemetery, in Hempstead, Long Island, at wife Marion's home church. His widow joined him there eight years later.
Eckford's death left two senior American shipyard managers in the empire: Charles Ross, who had been running the relatively modern Aynalikavak Yards since his arrival in the country, and Foster Rhodes, Eckford's longtime assistant, who had come to the empire together with his chief on board the United States. Porter, overbearing as usual, would have identified himself as the true executive managing this important effort, but it was left to Rhodes to make the greatest contribution. He remained in Istanbul until 1840, the whole time in charge of the shipyard.
Not long after the trials of 1826 had played out, friends tried to comfort Eckford, some—in the great tradition of Tammany solace—with tax dollars. In February 1829 Congressman Michael Hoffman, the upstate New Yorker who then chaired the House's Committee on Naval Affairs but would later move to the Senate, reported sympathetically on an Eckford appeal for reimbursement for real-estate costs at Sackets Harbor. Hoffman then submitted a bill (No. 444) for Eckford's private relief. Such efforts continued for years. Start to finish, five different Congresses considered a number of private bills drafted to offer relief to Eckford or later to his heirs and executors.
Eckford was also remembered fondly by the shipbuilders of the East River yards in the decades to come. In the 1850s one of Brooklyn's great baseball teams was the "Eckfords," a club named in his honor and manned largely by shipwrights from the waterfront. Playing alongside the "Excelsiors" and "Atlantics" in intercity competition against rivals from across the river or against nines representing cities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York State, the Eckfords kept their namesake's name in memory long after his death.
Another well-intentioned memorial wasn't nearly so spontaneous or so enduring. The United States Naval Ship (USNS) Henry Eckford, a 40,100-ton displacement oiler, was laid down in January 1987 at the Pennsylvania Shipbuilding Company. Like Henry's career, however, the ship's construction eventually went badly awry, and she came to a sad and early end. After bouncing from Philadelphia to Tampa (and swallowing millions of dollars), the ship's contract was finally cancelled outright in 1993, and the largely completed ship was ignominiously towed up Virginia's James River to join the Reserve Fleet at anchor.
Author's Note: For research assistance, I am grateful to Elizabeth Bell, a local history librarian of the North Ayrshire Libraries, Scotland. Also lending valuable assistance were Bob Boley of the Loudoun County Public Library in northern Virginia; Jennifer Brathovde of the Library of Congress; Charles Brodine of the Naval Historical Center; August Imholtz; the late Gary LaValley, former archivist at the U.S. Naval Academy's Nimitz Library; Rebecca Livingston of the National Archives and Records Administration (now retired); and Osman Soysalan, who translated some Turkish texts.
Materials on Henry Eckford can be found in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) among the "Captains' Letters" series covering the period of the War of 1812, and also in NARA records of "Letters Received from Naval Constructors and Engineers (1815-1842)," and of "Board of Navy Commissioners Letters Sent and Received." Eckford's indictment and trial are described in the Minutes of the Court of Oyer and Terminer (1805-1896), Supreme Court of New York, Volume 6 of 15, and in much more accessible contemporary newspaper accounts available in the Early American Newspapers, Series I, data base at http://infoweb.newsbank.com. David Porter's voluminous diplomatic correspondence for the relevant period is held in the College Park, Maryland, annex of NARA on microfilm T194. Three letters between Eckford and President Andrew Jackson, all written in April 1831, are on microfilm at the Library of Congress in Series 1 of the president's papers, "General Correspondence," on M124-123 and DLC-39.
Walter Barrett, The Old Merchants of New York City, Vols. 1-5 (New York: Carleton, 1863).
Charles Henry Haswell, Reminiscences of New York by an Octogenarian (1816-1860) (New York: Harper, 1896). Available on line at http://earlyrepublic.net/octo/index.html.
Henry Howe, Memoirs of the Most Eminent American Mechanics (New York: Alexander V. Blake, 1844).
Bernd Langensiepen, Ahmet Guleryuz, and James Cooper, The Ottoman Steam Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995).
Robert Malcomson, Lords of the Lake, the Naval War on Lake Ontario 1812-1814 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998).
Cedric Ridgley Nevett, "Henry Eckford's United States of 1831," The American Neptune Vol. 3 (January 1948), 7-10.
"A Light-vessel of 1823 built by Henry Eckford," The American Neptune Vol. 2 (April 1945), 115-120.
Phyllis Dekay Wheelock, "Henry Eckford (1775-1832) an American Shipbuilder," The American Neptune, 8 (July 1947), 177-195.
Sketches of Turkey in 1831 and 1832 by an American (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833). Published anonymously by James Ellsworth DeKay.