Before the advent of World War II, the American Shipbuilding Company was the primary shipbuilder on the Great Lakes, beginning as Cleveland Shipbuilding in 1888 and renaming itself the American Ship Building Company at the turn of the 20th century when it acquired three additional ship building facilities in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.
As World War I dawned, the company acquired three more ship building facilities, located in New York, Illinois, and Michigan.
The company’s profitability continued to rise, and by World War II, the headquarters had moved to Lorain, Ohio, which continued to serve as the company’s main facility until closing in 1984 following a series of labor disputes.
The Lorain yard comprised two huge dry docks stretching more than 1000 feet in length, built specifically to handle the special needs of the huge ore carriers that regularly plied the Great Lakes. Several of those great carriers were built in Lorain, including the largest vessel operated on the Great Lakes, the M/V Paul AR. Tregurtha, measuring more than 1000 feet in length.
Today, the Lorain shipyard land is being turned into an upscale housing development.
During its operation, the workers at American Shipbuilding were exposed on a regular basis to asbestos-based products. Like its contemporary shipyards across the United States, the American Shipbuilding Company relied on marine materials which in turn relied on asbestos to meet the unique and demanding needs of the marine environment. Exposed to wide ranges int temperatures and moisture levels, every component in a ship’s construction must be made of a material which is able to adapt to these wide ranging conditions.
In addition, materials like gaskets, marine coatings, and electrical insulation require a certain degree of both strength and flexibility to operate effectively. When seeking to meet all of these varying needs, marine manufacturers thought themselves very fortunate to be able to rely on the readily available and relatively inexpensive silica-based asbestos.
But what they didn’t count on were the health risks associated with the material, which is easily inhaled and can cause potentially deadly conditions, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Those risks did not become clear until the mid 1970s. But by then, thousands of workers had been exposed to the tiny fibers, which can still be found in many boats that were built prior to the mid 1970s.
Symptoms of malignant mesothelioma may not become apparent until decades after exposure. Anyone who worked for American Shipbuilding should ask their doctor to test them for possible exposure as mesothelioma navy cases are most common.