The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Miller Shipyard at Oswego
Inland Seas, Summer 1988

Palmer, Richard, Author
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vol. 44, no. 2, Summer 1988 edition
Date of Original:
Summer 1988
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  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 43.4622343552993 Longitude: -76.5145769577026
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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One of the major commercial shipbuilders of 19th century Oswego was Andrew Miller. Not much is known of his personal life other than he was born in Coleraine, Ireland, May 3, 1806 and came to Oswego when he was 25 years old.

Miller had learned the ship carpenter’s trade in Ireland and when he came to Oswego he worked first for Thomas Collins and later for Sylvester Doolittle, both early shipbuilders.

Later he formed a partnership with Thomas Dobbie, another well-known Oswego maritimer, and they built a marine railway and shipyard on the east side oft he Oswego River at the foot of East First street, in an area known as the East Cove. This appears to have been about 1843 as the earliest vessel credited to Miller was the Toledo, built that year for William Lewis and Philo Bundy. The yard could not have existed much earlier than this as Thomas Dobbie came to Oswego in 1839.

Evidence suggests that this may originally have been the first shipyard of George S. Weeks in the 1830’s. Weeks later moved to the west side of the river.

Since most of Oswego’s shipyards were constructed on leased property it is difficult to trace their origins. Also, no city directories for Oswego exist prior to 1852. Most of the property on the lower east side in the vicinity of the shipyard was owned by Gerritt Smith, a prominent land speculator and benefactor of Oswego.

The Oswego Daily Times of April 15, 1852 carried this description of the yard:

“This extensive establishment is situated in the Cove on the East side. It possesses excellent facilities for ship-building, &c. It furnishes employment to about 70 hands on an average the year round. A substantial and beautiful vessel, the Plymouth Rock, was launched from this yard last week; and is a good specimen of the skill and ability of those who have the management of the various departments of the extensive business carried on at this, yard. Connected with this yard is an extensive steam saw mill owned by Messrs. Miller & White, which gives employment to about 15 men daily, and is capable of sawing 1,000 feet of lumber per hour, together with a large quantity, of lath, shingles, heading, &c.”

The Plymouth Rock spoken of was launched on April 10, 1852, at 5:30 p.m. Commenting on this event the Oswego Daily Times of April 12 said the launch went off successfully and “glided into the water most beautifully, displaying from a flag, as she touched her native element, the name Plymouth Rock. A fine modeled vessel we have never seen in our harbor; she sits in the water like a duck, as the sailors say.

"That she is substantially built, we need no other guarantee than that she was built by A. Miller & Co. She is of the largest class of schooners, being 288 tons burthen, Custom House measure. We understand she is owned by her enterprising buildings, and will be sailed the present season by Capt. Joseph Kimball, who is entirely competent to command a noble craft like the Plymouth Rock. Success to both!

“It may be worthy of remark that this launch was effected without the whiskey stimulant, so common on such occasions either before or afterward. Ald. Miller being a Temperance man, is of the opinion no doubt, that such aid is unnecessary and hurtful; and as everything passed off in fine style, it would seem to have that look about it.”

The Oswego Daily Journal of April 13 , 1852, also reported the same event, said the decks “were crowded by a concourse of men and boys who, as she left the ways sent up a long, loud shout which was re-echoed by the spectators on shore.”

Many schooners built at this yard became well known on the lakes in later years. These included the Belle Sheridan, Frontier City, Riverside and Duncan City. The yard also did an extensive business in rebuilding and repairs.

A few years later, Miller was in partnership with Willard A. Kitts and Thomas Moore. By 1858 this shipyard was employing 150 men at peak times. The yard was capable of docking one propeller, two schooners and three canalboats simultaneously. The adjacent steam sawmill employed 10 men and was capable of sawing 12,000 feet of lumber a day. According to advertisements in newspapers and directories, the facility included a dry dock, lifting dock and canal boat marine railway. They advertised “Propellers, Vessels and Canal Boats, Built, Docked and Repaired on short notice.”

An interesting article concerning the shipyard appeared in the Oswego Commercial Times of March 21, 1863. The reporter found this lively scene:

"Kitts’ Shipyard - Yesterday, being in the vicinity of the ship-yard of Mr. Willard A. Kitts, in the Second Ward, we took occasion to pass through the premises and were somewhat surprised on learning the vast amount of business carried on there. It was evident, without being so informed, that the business must be extensive, from the large force of workmen employed. In the ship-yard and boat-yard adjoining there are about two hundred men, all kept constantly engaged in the various branches of the business.

"On the stocks, and nearly ready for launching is a vessel which has been constructed during the past winter and present spring. The hull was recently sold to Mr. A. G. Cook for the sum of $ 1 3 ,000. When ready for sea her total value is estimated at $22,000. This vessel will be quite an acquisition to our mercantile marine. Her dimensions are 138 feet overall, 12 feet 8 inches depth of hold, and 26 feet 3 inches breadth of beam. She is an A No. 1 craft in every respect, being as strongly constructed as wood and iron can accomplish. She is designed to carry 16,000 bushels of wheat through the Welland Canal, or 22,000 bushels if kept on the upper lakes.

"Besides the above vessel, Mr. Kitts recently built a new tug boat for Messrs. Smith & Post. It is now completed in every particular, and is a beautiful specimen of nautical architecture. She is now lying just east of Randall’s Elevator, and sits in the water as gracefully as a gull. Her engine is of great power, and she will doubtless perform efficient service in our harbor in the line of business for which she has been constructed. She is valued at $13,000. Her name is Tornado.

"The tug boat Lady Franklin is also here receiving new machinery throughout, that with which she has been worked heretofore being found too powerful for her.

We are happy to witness such evidence of successful business as is displayed in the above ship-yard. To carry it on necessarily involves the use of a large capital, and the whole city, to a greater or less extent, is benefited thereby.

"Our wishes are that nothing may occur to lessen the receipts or in any way diminish the employment of such a large number of our industrious fellow citizens. Numerous vessels are lying in the vicinity of the yard, awaiting their turn for repairs or are already receiving such attention.

"The boat-yard adjoining the ship-yard is owned by Messrs. Kitts & Miller, and is also doing a large business. Two staunchly built boats are on the stocks and nearly ready for launching. They are of the capacity sufficient to carry 7 ,000 canalboats simultaneously. The adjacent steam sawmill employed 10 men and was capable of sawing 12,000 feet of lumber a day. According to advertisements in newspapers and directories, the facility included a dry dock, lifting dock and canal boat marine railway. They advertised “Propellers, Vessels and Canal Boats, Built, Docked and Repaired on short notice.”

Willard A. Kitts, spoken of in the article, was born in Oswego March 13, 1835. His father, Henry Kitts, built the first tannery and morocco factory in Oswego. Willard Kitts was considered as a great mechanical genius, and patented several inventions that had to do with the cutting and making of shingles. A planer he invented would shave both sides of a shingle at once.

Later, Mr. Kitts was associated for a number of years with Andrew Miller. After the Miller yard was abandoned in the mid l870’s, he manufactured steam boiler appliances. He took out more than 40 patents on these devices. He died July 12, 1917.

Miller retired from the business about 1874. He died on April 4, 1882. The Oswego Palladium noted “Mr. Miller was an excellent mechanic, a good citizen and universally respected for his sterling qualities.”

The Miller yard appears to have been abandoned about 1876, as it thereafter no longer appeared the city directories. In 1880, this area was cleared for railroad coal docks.

Only bits of information have survived over the years concerning this shipyard. The following letter was written to the local newspaper:

Oswego, Aug, 7, 1855

Ed. of Palladium, Sir:- We, the Ship Carpenters, of West Oswego, were politely invited to Mr. Miller’s yard, to witness the launch of the Barbarian, which was to take place this evening. We have to return our thanks to our “chips” of Scriba, for barbarous reception we received on the occasion - having got on board the craft and partaken of the hospitality of Mr. Miller, Capt. Clement and Mate, in the shape of Lager beer, we were very politely hinted ashore, as the live oaks of Mr. Miller, refused taking a slide with us in the same craft.

P.S. - Send us your bill for the beer, and we will send you the pay, and keep mum about where we got our liquor.


[Oswego Palladium, Aug. 8, 1855]

This article alludes to some rivalry that existed between ship carpenters on the east and west side of the harbor. Scriba is the town immediately east of the city of Oswego.

Vessels Built at Miller Shipyard, Oswego

Algerine 2 masted schooner I37’ x 25’9” x 11’7” 381 tons. Launched April 29, 1856. Albert T. Smith and John K. Post, original owners. (US # 1085).

Barbarian 2 masted schooner 136’ x 25’7” x 11’ 357 tons. Launched Aug. 7, 1855. Albert T. Smith and John K. Post, original owners (US #2137) Lost olf Milwaukee, Oct., 1898.

Belle Sheridan 2 masted schooner 123’ x 22’8” x l0’2” 265 tons. 1852. Charles Davis, owner. (US #2379) Foundered, Lake Ontario during great storm of November, 1880.

Carthagenian 2 masted schooner 139’ x 25’l0” x 12’ 1” 405 tons. Lost, Lake Ontario, 1867.

Cattaraugus 2 masted schooner 309 tons. 1857. Foundered, Lake Ontario, 1864.

Coaster propeller 96’ x 70’6” x 4’6” 76 tons. Built for John Sweet.

Coleraine 2 masted schooner 105’3” x 25’3” x 9’6” 212 tons. 1854. Built for A. Miller.

Commodore Foote 2 masted schooner lll’6” x 23’3” x l0’8” 254 tons. 1862. Built for John White on bottom of schooner Coleraine. Sunk, Lake Huron, 1867, by collision.

D. L. Couch 2 masted schooner 85’ x 20’ 8’ 122 tons. 1855. Built on bottom of schooner Acorn which was built in 1842 at Black River. David J. Cross, owner (US #6503)

Dispatch 2 masted schooner 115’ x 24’ x 10’4” 261 tons. 1857. Built for A. Miller (US #6l53)

Duncan City 2 masted schooner 114’6” x 25’ x 9’9”. 1873. Built for John K. Post (US #1084). Lost 1888.

Early Bird propeller 122 tons. 1873. Charles Allison, owner.

Express propeller 20’8” x 14’9” x 5’6” 52 tons. 1857. Benjamin Ripson, Port Ontario, owner.

Frontier City brig 177’5” x 23’ x 1O’8” 267 tons. 1860. Built on bottom of Canton. Miller, Kitts & Moore, owners (US #9150). Lost, Kincardine, Lake Huron, 1871.

Gallatin 2 masted schooner 138’3” x 26’2” x 12’6” 422 tons. 1863 Albert G. Cook, original owner (US #10207). Foundered 1882 off Point Pelee, Lake Erie.

George B. Sloan 3 masted schooner 137’8” x 25’9” x 10’9”. Launched Sept. 20, 1873. A. Miller, original owner (US #85288). Lost off Oswego 1885.

Gilbert Mollison 2 masted schooner l38’ x 25’9” x 10’7” 318 tons. Launched April 28, 1857. Mitchell & Murray, original owners (US #85126). Lost Lake Michigan, 1873.

Havana 2 masted schooner 135” x 25’8” x 1O’8” 306 tons. 1871 (US #951 16). I_.ost, Lake Michigan, Oct., 1887.

John Dunn 3 masted schooner 137’5” x 26’ x l1’2” 320 tons. Launched May 4, 1874. John Dunn, original owner (US #75609) Sunk, Lake Erie, 1874.

John Magee 2 masted schooner 137’ x 26’ x 12’7” 331 tons. 1869 (Original US #75804). Sold Canadian 1905. Gone by 1908.

Norman propeller 137’ x 26’ x 13’ 431 tons. 1863. Built by Willard A. Kitts for Littlejohn, Dane & Co.

O.M Bond 2 masted schooner 137’2” x 25’ x 11’1” 315 tons. 1873. O.M. Bond, owner (US #19383). Foundered, Port Dalhousie, 1886.

Plymouth Rock 2 masted schooner l07’5” x 24’4” x l0’. Launched April 10, 1862. Built for A. Miller & Co. (US #l9768). Bumed, Detroit, 1884.

Potomac 2 masted schooner 388 tons. (Rebuilt) 1852. Built originally at Cape Vincent, 1842, by Goler. (US # 19671 ). Wrecked, Frankfort, Lake Michigan, 1883.

Riverside 2 masted schooner 137’ x 25’8” x ll’ 314 tons. 1870. Built for W.C. Winslow (US #21937). Lost, Lake Erie, Nov., 1893.

Russian 2 masted schooner 138’3” x 26’ x l2’1” 405 tons. Launched May 6, 1862. Albert F. Smith, original owner (US #2 1 476). Cut down to tow barge. Last owned in Alpena, Mich., by Frank Gilchrist.

Thomas Simms 2 masted schooner 102’ x 26’ x 10’7” 309 tons. 1861. Benjamin Hagaman, original owner.

Toledo 2 masted schooner 93’ x 2O’4” x 7’1l” 136 tons. 1843. William Lewis and Philo Bundy, original owners. Lost near Milwaukee, August, 1875.

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Miller Shipyard at Oswego