Written by Andrew Rossillo
War Brings on a Need for Expansion
Before the Wheeler Shipbuilding Company came into its own, there was the Wheeler Yacht Company. Founded by Howard E. Wheeler in Brooklyn, New York, the Wheeler Yacht Company felt the demands of a world in turmoil during World War I. To help meet those demands, the company began producing vessels for the United States Army and Navy (primarily submarine chasers).
Harbor Tug No. 84, a 215-ton, 88-foot long wooden-hulled tug propelled by a single cylinder steam engine, was built at Brooklyn, New York, as one of 40 sisters (Harbor Tugs Nos. 46-85) ordered by the Navy in May and June 1918 as part of its World War I emergency shipbuilding effort. Her keel was laid down in June 1918. Launched in October 1918, she was commissioned in April 1919. In May 1919 the tug was loaned to the Coast Guard and manned by a Coast Guard crew for duty in support of the collector of customs at New York. In November 1919, after the Coast Guard reverted to the Treasury Department, it returned Harbor Tug No. 84 to the Navy and received instead Harbor Tugs Nos. 59 and 60, which remained on the Coast Guard register until 1934 under the names Chautauqua and Chippewa. In December 1919 the Navy ordered Harbor Tug No. 84 placed in reduced commission at New York. She was classified YT-84 when the Navy implemented its standard hull classification system in July 1920. Harbor Tug No. 84 was decommissioned in March 1922 and, in July 1922, sold to a New York towing firm.
Business continued as usual after the war for the Wheeler Yacht Company, however yet another churning period in history was just on the horizon. World War II erupted in 1939 with the United States officially entering the fray in 1941. Just like they did during World War II, the Wheeler Yacht Company began producing ships for the military. The company manufactured an enormous 230 Coast Guard patrol craft as well as a number of minesweepers.
Demand was great on the companys resources. A second yard was built in Whitestone, New York to increase Wheelers ability to keep up with the demand. This new addition was given the name Wheeler Shipbuilding and immediately went to work constructing military minesweepers. The yard later expanded its resume to include tug boats and coastal freighters. Near the end of this period the company produced yet another Army vessel. This ship would later become the U.S.S. New Bedford, made famous for the hit film Mister Roberts (1955) and its participation in the Texas Towers incident.
The End of the Wheeler Shipbuilding Company
After the end of World War II, the Wheeler Shipbuilding Company returned to the origins of its parent
organization and began producing recreational and fishing vessels for non-military customers. Unfortunately the Brooklyn yard would not see much business following the end of the second war. The Wheeler Shipbuilding Company officially closed in 1948. Despite being gone for over sixty years, many of the ships built by the company are still around today. The U.S.S. New Bedford, currently named the Seabird, may even prove to add another significant chapter to its life and a link back to the company that created it. The Wheeler Shipbuilding Company may no longer exist but one of its last creations, the Seabird, is ready to prove that even an aging, former military vessel can help the world change for the better.
1944: Camano Class Light Cargo Ship was laid down for the US Army as FS-289 at Wheeler Shipbuilding in Whitestone, NY.
1955 - 1963: Used as a cargo supply ship for the Texas Towers, a network of advanced radar stations located off the Eastern Seaboard. In 1957, Capt. Sixto Mangual was commander of the AKL-17 and in 1961 it was rechristened the USNS New Bedford. The New Bedford, sailing out of State Pier, was keeping vigil when Texas Tower No. 4 callapsed off the New Jersey coast during a January 1961 nor'easter.
2006: Design of the Tesla Turbine began on June 11, 2006. The Sea Bird was sold by Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service for commercial service.