In 1905, Defoe Shipbuilding Company found its start as a small wooden boat business. The company was formed in a partnership between two Defoe brothers, H.J. and F.W., and the start-up operated under the name Defoe Boat and Motor Works.
The company started out building fishing boats, but with the advent of the gasoline engine, Defoe Shipbuilding moved into making cruisers up to 65 feet in length. Two of Defoe’s larger cruisers, one a 57 footer and the other a 65 footer, were sold to the government to be used during WWI.
In 1917, Defoe Shipbuilding, located in Bay City, Michigan earned its first government contract for five 40-foot Spent Torpedo Chasers to be delivered at the New London site. Near the end of WWI, Defoe Shipyard received a contract by the Army Transport Service for eight 98-foot steam mine planters, forcing the company to construct a steel building yard. In the years after WWI, the company assembled fifteen 75-foot wooden rumrunner chasers and twelve 100 foot steel chasers.
With its prominent role in the shipbuilding industry, Defoe Shipyard has drawn attention to the potential use of asbestos materials throughout the ships and ship parts. The dangers of asbestos became well-known while still being used in ship construction, but the risk was often ignored as the company sought to meet tight deadlines for vessel construction and repairs.
Many workers of Defoe Shipbuilding Company came into contact with asbestos products, such as insulation, pipes, pipe coverings, flooring and more. Shipbuilding often placed workers in tight quarters, often below deck with poor insulation. Asbestos fibers then much more concentrated and were more easily inhaled by occupants. As a result, many were at risk of developing asbestos-related conditions, including malignant mesothelioma.