One hundred years ago the United States celebrated a major engineering and political accomplishment – the completion of the Panama Canal. The feat was the centerpiece of two giant expositions in California; the Panama-California Exposition (January 1, 1915-January 1, 1917) in San Diego and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (February 20, 1915-December 4, 1915) in San Francisco. Vestiges of those events still remain in their respective cities, and historical societies have mounted centennial retrospectives.
One little-known fact is that the first ship to formally steam through those locks from ocean to ocean was the S.S. Ancon – later to become the S.S. Permanente, part of the beginning of Henry J. Kaiser’s utilitarian cargo fleet.
Built in 1901 as the S.S. Shawmut in Maryland, the steamer (along with a sister ship, the S.S. Tremont) was bought to carry cement for the construction of the canal under the Panama Railroad Company’s Panama Railroad Steamship Line. They were renamed for the two ocean termini. The Shawmut became the S.S. Ancon, a township in Panama City where the canal opens to the Pacific Ocean. The Tremont became the S.S. Cristobal, named for the Atlantic port city.
The Ancon wasn’t the first vessel to navigate the canal from ocean to ocean, but it was designated as the first honorary official ship to complete the transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which it did on August 15, 1914 with some 200 dignitaries aboard. However, the elaborate, festive plans – which originally included major U.S. warships and even the U.S. president – fell through when the First World War broke out on July 28.
During the war, the Ancon was commissioned into the Navy as the U.S.S. Ancon and ferried troops home from Europe before returning to canal service. In 1939 Henry J. Kaiser bought the Ancon and the Cristobal for his nascent Permanente Steamship Company.
The Ancon was renamed the S.S. Permanente, fitted to deliver bulk dry cement rather than cement loaded in sacks (a Henry Kaiser innovation), and went into service in March, 1941, under contract with the U.S. Navy delivering cement to Hawaii. She survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and her cargo was vital to the rebuilding of that devastated facility. She was eventually scrapped at the end of the war, replaced by the more modern S.S. Permanente Silverbow and the S.S. Permanente Cement.
Thanks to Steve Gilford for help on this article.
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Some pictures may tell a thousand words, but others are mute until prompted to their stories.
Recently I’ve had the pleasure of working with a remarkable collection of vintage photographs taken by Emmanuel Francis Joseph. Born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, E.F. Joseph was among the first professional African American photographers in the San Francisco Bay Area. He documented personal and public events, mostly within the local black community, from 1930 until his death in 1979.
His life’s work almost went to the recycler, but social services organizer and family friend Careth Reid stepped in and saved it. Since 1980 she has been the caretaker of the approximately 10,000 large-format film negatives which will eventually go to the Special Collections Library at San Francisco State University for full processing and cataloging. (Reid earned her master’s degree in social science from SFSU in 1970.)
The World War II Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, Calif., were the crucible for shaping what today we know as Kaiser Permanente, and during the war Joseph worked in the shipyards as a photographer for the Office of War Information. Many of the best known photos of black employees in those yards were taken by Joseph, including iconic black women welders and launchings of ships named for famous African Americans.But research using the negatives under Reid’s care is expanding the documented history of the black shipyard workers beyond the shipyards. These photos collectively compose a treasure trove for amplifying the historical record.
Joseph filed his negatives in small annotated paper envelopes, which Ms. Reid has sorted into scores of subjects; one set of negatives under “Unions” was labeled “Boiler Maker Baseball Team” dated June 18, 1942.
We know that the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America was the largest and most powerful union in the shipyards, and that it refused to hire black workers (and, at first, women as well). But wartime pressure to expand the workforce resulted in the use of the shameful separate-and-unequal “auxiliary unions.” There were three such auxiliaries in the Bay Area: A-26 (Oakland), A-36 (Richmond), and A-33 (San Francisco).
The snappy jerseys in these photos tell us that this team was from A-26, composed largely of workers at the Moore Dry Dock Company. During the war Moore built over 100 ships for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Maritime Commission; it ceased operations in 1961.
Joseph did not record the location of this shoot, but one photo offers a clue. A large sign is visible across the street on the side of the Herrick Iron Works, which at that time was at 1734 Campbell Street in Oakland. So, this field was on the site of the present Raimondi Park, a City of Oakland recreational field named after Ernest “Ernie” Raimondi, a white Moore Dry Dock worker and former professional baseball player on a Moore-sponsored company team. Raimondi was killed in combat while serving in the U.S. Army in France on Jan. 26, 1945, and the park was dedicated in 1947. Moore Dry Dock was located less than a mile away at the foot of Adeline Street on the Oakland Estuary.
In one dynamic photo of a bunt, the setting summer sun casts a long shadow of E.F. Joseph and his camera tripod. More than 70 years later, my white-gloved hands are carefully loading that 4×5-inch silver-based film negative into a digital scanner.
Who were these men? Did any of them move up into the postwar Negro League? Are there any E.F. Joseph photos to be found about a Kaiser Richmond A-36 team? These are just some of the questions that are opened up by these remarkable photographs. History never sleeps, and research finds new paths. Batter up.
Photographs courtesy Careth Reid / E.F. Joseph Collection. All rights reserved.
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The Mississippi River flood of 1927 has been called “the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States,” and major efforts were launched in the following years to rebuild levees. The Warren Brothers contracting firm invited Henry J. Kaiser’s company to share in a minor portion of the extensive levee repair and maintenance work between Tennessee and Mississippi.
At first Kaiser hoped to use his powerful LeTourneau earthmoving machinery, but the Mississippi mud stuck to the equipment in a most uncooperative manner. The project ended using human and animal labor, which frustrated Henry Kaiser’s “get things done quickly” style. But accepting the forces of nature and people would be a good lesson for his road-building projects in Cuba from 1928 to 1930.
Working in the South was uncomfortable for Henry Kaiser for ethical reasons as well. He was an unconventional employer who believed that “labor relations were nothing more than human relations” and was one of the most progressive industrial leaders of his time regarding equal treatment of women and people of color. Those values were challenged during this contract.
Leonard Blaikie, labor writer for the Oakland Tribune, wrote this vignette for a special insert on the opening of the Ordway Building (currently the main headquarters of Kaiser Permanente) on Feb. 28, 1971. Alonzo Benton (“A.B.”) Ordway was Henry J. Kaiser’s first employee and longtime and trusted operations manager.
Kaiser and Ordway ran into another practice which went against their grain while building small levees along the Mississippi River, between Memphis and Natchez, in the late 1920s. In addition to lacking the right equipment for the job, Ordway said they found they were at a disadvantage because they believed in paying their laborers their hourly wages in cash.
“Most of the Southern contractors, to all intents and purposes, held the colored laborers in bondage,” he explained.
“By this I mean the workers had to purchase all food and supplies on credit from the contractors at prices higher than the going rates. Therefore, the labor costs for the Southern contractor were nowhere near ours.
“None of us liked the area and we were glad to get out in 1929.”
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The very word screams “futuristic design,” and rightly so. It was industrial designer R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller’s term for his exotic road vehicle, so unusual it hardly seems fair to call it a “car.”
Dymaxion, a term Fuller used for describing his geodesic domes as well, was shorthand for Dynamic Maximum Tension. It was aerodynamically shaped like a zeppelin, with a strong and lightweight trussed frame. It had three wheels, two in the front and one in the back. The full-blown version would be nearly 20 feet long, fuel-efficient, and designed to carry up to 11 people. In partnership with design polymath Starling Burgess, Fuller produced a working prototype in their Bridgeport, Connecticut workshop and debuted it at the Chicago World’s Fair (formally known as the “A Century of Progress International Exposition”) in 1933-1934. National columnist Howard Vincent O’Brien described it on August 15, 1934:
[The Dymaxion car] is on exhibit…in the Crystal House, and is well worth a look if you are interested in knowing what sort of vehicle may soon be taking you about.
It’s a three-wheeled affair, driven from the front wheels, and with the engine in the rear. It turns on its own base, and, using a standard Ford engine as a power plant, it will go – says Mr. Fuller – 125 miles an hour, doing 30 miles to the gallon of gasoline.
I haven’t ridden in it yet, but those who have say it floats like an airplane.
Unfortunately, the vehicle never went into production. An accident in October, 1933 killed the test driver and injured several bystander investors, which dampened prospects for further commercial development. The design occupies the fringe area of “good ideas that weren’t practical.”
But visionary industrialist Henry J. Kaiser gave it a shot.
Kaiser made history when he entered the automobile market in 1945, applying his industrial mass production skills to a postwar world hungry for vehicles. He partnered with veteran automobile executive Joseph Frazer to establish the new Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, from the remnants of Graham-Paige, of which Frazer had been president. Kaiser’s name would grace the affordable and practical end of the line, and Frazer would be the nameplate on the upscale side of the lot.
It’s not commonly known that years earlier, at the end of 1942, Henry J. Kaiser paid Bucky Fuller to engineer and produce a ¼ scale model Dymaxion, to be completed in early 1943. At that time Henry Kaiser was committed to various wartime vehicle projects under federal support, including building cargo ships and “baby flat top” aircraft carriers, prototyping lightweight jeeps, and even experimenting with giant flying wings. So it should come as no surprise that, with the support of the Board of Economic Warfare (on which Fuller served as staffmember), he explored the advantages of Fuller’s Dymaxion.
According to Fuller scholar J. Baldwin, the updated design would include several of these features:
- Powered by three separate air-cooled “outboard” type (opposed cylinder) engines, each coupled to its own wheel by a variable fluid drive. Each of the engine-drivewheel assemblies was detachable. The engines themselves were run always at the same speed; the speed of the car was controlled by varying the quantity of fluid in the coupling;
Low-horsepower engines – 15 to 25 hp, cut down to one engine at cruising speed, for 40-50 mpg;
Steered at cruising speeds by the front wheels, rear-wheel steering was used only as an auxiliary for tight turns, or to move sideways;
High speed stability enhanced by extending the rear wheel on a boom to lengthen the wheelbase.
Alas, the prototype results were not impressive.
In August, 1946, author Lester Velie wrote this in a three-part series on Henry J. Kaiser for Collier’s magazine:
Kaiser had dabbled with cars since 1942. In that year he commissioned Buckminster Fuller, the industrial designer, to design a car. Fuller came up with what he called a dymaxion car, a three-wheel job, with a motor that could be hitched to front or rear, or to any of the three wheels. He made a mock-up of the car’s tear-drop body in plywood. This and engineering drawings he submitted to Kaiser, expecting Kaiser to commission him to do the further necessary engineering toward a completed prototype.
Kaiser shipped the plywood mock-up of the dymaxion car to his cement plant at Permanente, Calif. There, without waiting for such refinements as a specially designed motor, he slung a secondhand Willys-Knight engine on the three-wheel job and started riding.
The dymaxion turned over.
Undaunted, Kaiser brushed himself off and went to New York where he announced belligerently before a National Association of Manufacturers audience that if the automobile industry lacked the courage to plan postwar automobiles now, he would have to do it himself.
Despite Henry Kaiser’s enthusiastic and reckless test drive, the Dymaxion’s road stability was not an insurmountable design flaw (it did have a few, including poor rear visibility and an unfortunate tendency for the rear to lift off the ground at speed). But the project ended there, and it never saw mass production.
In 1957 Henry J. Kaiser and Bucky Fuller would again collaborate on another project, the commercialization of aluminum geodesic domes.
Jeff Lane, director of the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, has been faithfully recreating a working model of the first Dymaxion prototype, and Noel Murphy is directing a documentary film on this magnificent, though flawed, vehicle. Recently a set of original blueprints turned up, and an excellent set of Dymaxion photos can be seen here.
On the broader subject of the vision of Henry J. Kaiser and his role in the automotive industry, listen to the stirring podcast by Hemmings Motor News’ Jim Donnelly and read his companion article “Master of the West: The Towering Accomplishments of Henry J. Kaiser” in the Hemmings Classic Car March, 2015 issue.
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