New Orleans is a major port city that saw nearly 39.5 million tons of cargo and more than one million cruise liner passengers pass through its Mississippi River corridor. New Orleans was intended to be the host of merchant ships from its founding three centuries ago, and it was a natural progression for the city to become a great manufacturer of the vessels that keep its currents flowing. Like the currents of the river it sits on, sometimes the city is pushed forward at a stunning pace, while other times it is pulled under like a snapping turtle caught by an alligator. That is the shipping industry today, pulled underwater and running out of time.
Shipbuilding in New Orleans exploded during WWII thanks to Andrew Higgins who adapted the style of bottom found on boats that traverse the bayou onto a vessel that could land soldiers directly onto beach shores. A quick pass through the WWII Museum will show the significant impact these boats had, saving tens of thousands of soldiers’ lives who otherwise would have had to wade to shore for several hundred feet while under constant fire. There were more than 20,000 of the small Higgins boats built in the New Orleans area, which laid the foundation for New Orleans as a mass producer of commercial ships. There would continue to be an immense manufacturing industry for several decades, producing some of the finest ships from “super jumbo hopper barges” to nearly 700 feet LPD’s (which are used by the navy to support aircraft) to super yachts.
Understanding the full impact of shipbuilding on New Orleans should end where it begins, with the people that made the vessels.
Mr. Paul Mansfield worked for Avondale Shipyards for over forty years. He and his crew prefabricated parts that would later be installed on the intended ships. He doesn’t have the sort of rustic appearance one might would expect of someone who had a laborious job for so many years. Rather, he is someone that would seem more at home on a country farm with a decent sized garden where he walks he and his wife’s short legged yet splendidly round dachshund. It makes sense that one day he and his wife hope to move to his family’s old land in Folsom. It does not at all portray his wonderful accent that would be difficult to phonetically reproduce but can be heard throughout the New Orleans periphery.
“I worked with Avondale over forty years,” Mr. Paul said. “They sent me a plaque,” he said while walking over to get it. It was not on display, and he returned with a laser etched plastic panel on a cheap base. “I came home one day and found it on the door step.” There was no dinner, no ceremony, just a mailed plaque and a lunch break with donuts.
Avondale had been the victim of a corporate takeover by the behemoth Northrop-Grumman that spun the yard off, with other’s it acquired, as Huntington-Ingalls, which operates massive shipyards in Newport News, Virginia and Pascagoula, MS. It had inherited a large workforce of several thousand and did not have any allegiance to its veteran members. It was not all bad since what most workers want is their paycheck, and Ingalls seemed to offer a promising future as an employer. Ingalls secured a huge contract from the Navy to build a variety of ships including one that Mr. Paul worked on during his last years at Avondale.
One of his jobs was to clean the air conditioning vents. “I would take the vent covers to be cleaned but would get lost trying to find the room where I had taken it off,” he said jokingly. The ships that could be built at Avondale were huge, but the port of New Orleans has limitations on the size of ships that can pass under its bridge. Mr. Paul explained that “Sometimes, to get a boat out of New Orleans, they would have to pump in water to sink it low enough to pass under the bridge.”
Ingalls would not be able to manufacture their biggest contracts in their new acquisition in addition to the decayed infrastructure and bouts with hurricanes. The Avondale yard does not appear to be in a good position. Although Pascagoula may be susceptible to natural disaster, the yard there could accommodate even the largest sea vessels, the same goes for their other yard in Virginia. In the end, cuts would have to be made to prevent to company from cannibalizing itself and the New Orleans operation was, in the end, dispensed of.
Avondale was never the only shipyard in the New Orleans area. On the Industrial Canal there were many shipyards where Andrew Higgins had first started mass producing his landing craft, continuing the New Orleans ship manufacturing tradition. Now, there are none.
One of the last yards that still manufactured vessels was Trinity Yachts, and one of its last shipbuilders was a motorcyclist known only as Snake. He had been in the yards since his 20’s from Lafourche to Demopolis, Alabama. He is tough, straightforward, rugged in every manner and incredibly skilled at explaining the intricacies of turning sheet metal into massive hunks of floating steel. He manages all of this through his wild beard yearning to meet winds from on top of a cruiser.
“I was in charge of hull construction, that was me,” Snake said with a distinctly proud demeanor — pride that seemed appropriate after looking at pictures of some of the yachts he constructed with his crew. He showed me a pamphlet from Trinity Yachts and would stop and tell me about each boat, adding issues that he and his crew overcame. “That one was for Wrigley’s Foods, the grandson of old man ‘double your pleasure double your fun.’’ It’s a 191’ five deck yacht that was under construction when Katrina hit. “It was all cut apart and carried to Gulfport where I finished it.”
Snake’s home in Violet was all but ruined during Katrina, and the shipyard was also damaged badly but, in the end, both Snake and Trinity Yachts returned to New Orleans and continued to build yachts.
Trinity, however, did not remain in New Orleans. It sold its yard to a company that ceased producing ships in 2016. Like Ingalls, Trinity Yachts focused its production in Mississippi, cutting ties with the city and estranging its workforce. With the biggest yards gone, many of the smaller mom and pop shipbuilders lost all the business they had supporting the large firms. The ripples of this phenomenon were felt across the city and its outlying communities.
Mr. Paul’s wife, Mrs. Edwina, has both seen and experienced the effects of shipbuilding leaving the port city. She spoke with true interest in the people that were affected by the loss of Avondale, not just the workers themselves but their families and neighbors. Although she did not do any sort of manufacturing, her job at a doctor’s office was compromised by the loss of such a large part of the economy. Mrs. Edwina’s jovial attitude made her departures to a more somber tone even more apparent.
“After the shipyards closed our office went down. We used to get lots of kids in but then it would just be empty,” she said seriously. Eventually she relocated to the East Bank for better work. She went on to say how others in the community struggled. “It wasn’t just the shipyards and their families, many of the smaller restaurants and other business closed down since people had to cut back.”
Bridge City is a town that Mr. Paul specifically mentioned as being a window into the depressed state after the loss of well-paying shipyard jobs. “It’s desolate out there. All the little mom and pop restaurants going out,” he said regrettably. The income statistics tell the same story. From 2012 to 2014, after the Avondale shipyard had slowed down considerably, the percentage of families below the poverty line rose 8% and the median income fell $8,000. Surprisingly, it was not manufacturing and construction industries that fell but entertainment/recreation and food services (mom and pop restaurants for example) that fell more than 7%. The change in manufacturing was 4%. People stayed in their fields but took a big pay cut, except for the restaurants and other recreational businesses that people could no longer afford to consume.
The losses went beyond money to healthcare and businesses. Workers at the shipyards had their own community and culture alongside their jobs. Snake doesn’t miss the work itself; although, he certainly misses the money. Most importantly was the loss of the community of hardworking men that worked together to make something using their own hands and skills. Every chance he could, Snake showed pride in the work he had done and never did so without mentioning how dedicated his fellow men were. The excellent, hard work was because of the people, and the people made up their own community within New Orleans that had its own principles and etiquette. The principle was to work hard, and the etiquette was to come to work early.
Mr. Paul went from building ships for his country’s navy, to working at a machine shop that has its workers divided into a series of monotonous tasks. He’s making less money with little to no benefits.
“I was lucky because my brother owned a business; others weren’t so lucky,” he said. He then added that “Avondale had to hire psychiatrists for the guys that lost their jobs. They were losing their homes, cars, and their minds.”
Snake has a part-time job making the iron handrails seen throughout the city, that is, when there’s work. Even though the result of his work is not a spectacular yacht, he makes sure that his work is quality.
Snake as well as Mr. Paul and Mrs. Edwina all said one thing in their own way, shipyards may have been hard and dirty work, but now that they’re gone, people wish they would come back.
On March 21 (2018) the largest recorded auction of a 77-million-acre offshore oil lease has taken place. Outside of military contracts, oil has driven the shipbuilding industry of the city because of its demand for support vessels and permanent rigs. Perhaps there is hope for this dwindled industry, but it may already be too late as former shipyard workers have either moved to other work or left the workforce.
Written by Christopher Dillon B Gorman, a student at Tulane University studying History and Business with interest in economic and social history.