Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company

South Brooklyn isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of perq-filled employment in the early parts of the last century. If you happened to be working for the Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company, however, it would be a whole different story. Beyond the regular, often brutal work at the shipyard there would have been a constant whir of activities: dancing, games of tug of war, concerts, and team sports to name just a few.  The four albums in the City Museum’s collection from the Morse Dry Dock’s Employee Association paint a (probably highly idealized) picture of what it was like to be an employee of one of the largest ship repair/dry docks in the country at that time.

Founded in the 1880’s by Edward P. Morse, the company soon became known as the leader in steamship construction and the go-to company for maintaining the luxurious yachts of the fabulously wealthy. It also was the largest floating dry dock in the world in the World War I era (a dry dock raises the hulls of boats above water so they can be repaired, as seen below).

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Fire hose drill.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York.  F2013.130.2

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Fire hose drill.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.2.

Located in what is now considered Sunset Park, but then was considered Bay Ridge, the shipyard was between 55th and 57th Streets from First Avenue to the water. The complex had nearly 4,000 employees, ranging from welders to office clerks, who kept the whole shipyard sailing smoothly along.

The Morse Dry Dock was a pioneer in company culture and offered progressive benefits to their employees, including health insurance (good perq in a place where fingers routinely got separated from hands), paid sick time, and night classes so employees could improve their job skills.

The Employee Association was the main instigator for all these benefits. Comprised of annually elected employees, its aim was to make the shipyard the best possible place to work.  The Employee Association formed committees devoted to everything from putting on regular concerts and other entertainments  to the Conference Board, which dealt with solving employee complaints. The elections for positions within the Employee Association were shipyard-wide, hotly contested, and included fiery rhetoric and even parades.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Smith's parade of Employees' Association election.]. 1919. museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.4

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Smith’s parade of Employees’ Association election.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.4.

(And just in case you were wondering, Smith sadly did not win a place on the Employee Association.)

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company.  Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Voting in the Machine Shop Employees' Association election.] 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.7

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Voting in the Machine Shop Employees’ Association election.] 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.130.7.

On another progressive note, women were allowed to vote in these elections, a whole year before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Morse Dry Dock & Repair Co. Photographs [Women voting in the Main Office.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.132.10.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Morse Dry Dock & Repair Co. Photographs [Women voting in the Main Office.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.132.10.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Morse Dry Dock soccer team.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.11.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Morse Dry Dock soccer team.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.11.

But the most loved, or at least most documented, aspect of the Employee Association was sports. Above is the semi-pro, championship-winning soccer team, the Brooklyn Morse Dry Dock.  Members of the dry dock staff f0rmed a baseball team, multiple bowling teams, and participated in really just about every team sport out there.  The photographs reveal  the company’s deep investment in these teams: in 1919 the baseball team hired Bill Dahlen, a well-known baseball player for the Brooklyn Superbas (a precursor to the Dodgers), as the manager. He can be seen at the far left of the group shot of the 1919 baseball team.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Morse Dry Dock baseball team at Morse Oval.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.9.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Morse Dry Dock baseball team at Morse Oval.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.9.

By far the most amusing sport represented in these albums are the tug o’ war competitions staged between departments. (If anyone could tell me why they’re sitting on wooden boards, I’ll be eternally grateful.)

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Tug of war - Boiler makers versus farm gang.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.19.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Tug of war – Boiler makers versus farm gang.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.19.

The Morse Dry Dock employees also enjoyed boating excursions.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Employees Association excursion.]. 1919. Museum of the city of New York. F2013.133.16

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Employees Association excursion.]. 1919. Museum of the city of New York. F2013.133.16.

And women-only noontime dancing.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Women dancing at noon hour.]. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.30.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Women dancing at noon hour.]. 1920. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.133.30.

However, it wasn’t all fun and games. Morse Dry Dock played an important part in World War I. They were the head contractor for the Navy and were considered  a temporary government site; a company of soldiers was stationed there to protect the shipyard from any possible attack. Thankfully none came.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Flag being raised at the Pipe Fitting Shop.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.131.31.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co. [Flag being raised at the Pipe Fitting Shop.]. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.131.31.

But like most interesting tales, there was a subplot–all of these benefits and perqs were part of a fight against  the postwar influence of organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World and other unions. The Morse Dry Dock was highly successful at this:  in a 1919 walk-out only 600 men, about 15% of the workforce, left, the lowest percentage of any other local shipbuilding company. This loyalty to the company wouldn’t have happened without the Morse Dry Dock Dial, a publication the New York Times called one of the best “internal house organ” publications and one that helped curb the flow of “Bolshevist propaganda.”

As a companion to the photo albums held in the City Museum’s collection, the Morse Dry Dock Dial (digitized issues are found at the Hagley Digital Archives here) is an interesting, and actually quite amusing, look inside the company. Headed by Bert E. Barnes, formerly of the New York Sun, with other reporters from papers like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Philadelphia Record, and covers occasionally drawn by Edward Hopper,  the monthly newspaper furthered the idea that the Dry Dock community was a family. As Barnes wrote in the January 1919 issue, “If any reader has taken a vacation, married, returned an umbrella, paid back a borrowed dollar, bought a horse, automobile or baby carriage, planted a war garden, built a chicken house, robbed a baby’s bank, made a speech, been reduced, promoted, received a raise, won anything, done anything, been in a fight, we’re glad of it, because that’s news.” And the paper followed that edict literally–the detailed gossip raised the collective eyebrows of the Museum’s entire digital team even in this age of online over-sharing. Celebrations of shipyard goals and sports victories, shared baby pictures,  and a small but obvious thread of propaganda run throughout the publication’s pages.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Morse Dry Dock Dial Staff [Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co.]. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.134.8.

Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. Morse Dry Dock Dial Staff [Employees Association of Morse Dry Dock and Repair Co.]. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.134.8.

 World War I was the highpoint for the Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company. It went out of business in 1963 after merging with other shipyards and changing its name a few times.  While Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company itself may be slowly fading into distant memory, the company culture they championed has taken on new life in this century in companies like Google and Pixar.

8 responses to “Morse Dry Dock and Repair Company

  1. Never knew that. Was there maybe a hundred times. It was an old dock. Then abandoned. Then some meat company moved in. Then a barge company went in and didn’t like it because heroin addicts were all over the place. Bad guys used to go there to hide, and somebody went in and dragged them out, bodily.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morse_Dry_Dock_and_Repair_Company

  2. Props to you ! Fascinating post :)

  3. They are sitting on wooden boards with a small ledge at the foot in the tug of war contest because it allows you to have more leverage when able to get low and pull. It will also allow for a true test of strength, as participants will not have the ability to walk backwards when pulling, they must simply keep pulling the rope. There cannot be any excuses of loose footing, or going through the hands, as well as putting all the participants on level ground- this helps in considering it a ‘fair match’. I’ve also seen tug of war played where each participant is inside a small hole in the ground. When played from the ground, games last much longer, and are usually much more intense.

  4. They are sitting on wooden boards with a small ledge at the foot in tug of war because it allows for a true test of strength, as participants cannot simply walk backwards and pull the rope. There are no excuses of uneven ground, loose footing, or slippery hands. Games often played from the ground last longer and are much more intense- also making it a contest of endurance. I’ve also seen it played where participants play from individual holes in the ground.

  5. Excellent photos! My great-uncle worked (and played baseball and bowled) for Morse Dry Dock (Cyrus MacLaurin), starting about 1914. His father supervised the construction of the dry dock in 1918 (George MacLaurin). George came from Nova Scotia, like Morse. Is there any information on the identities of the men in the photo of the team or the men reading the Dry Dock Dial? Thanks!

    • Hi Christopher!
      The captions in the Morse Dry Dock Dial for the photos you mentioned are:
      [Baseball team] Photograph appeared on page 17 of the June 1919 issue of Morse Dry Dock Dial with the caption: “Dahlen, manager; Dwyer, c.f. and capt.; Braun, s.s; Maloney, trainer; Crist, r.f.; Mundhenk, 1b; Tee, c.; McGarry, p.; Troy, 2b; Bauer, 3b; Hickey, c. ; Brant, l.f.; Martin, p.; Bornhoeft, p; Tom Plunkett financial secretary.”
      [Dry Dock Dial Staff] Photograph appeared on page 4 of the January 1919 issue of Morse Dry Dock Dial with the caption, “Roger Moran and Miss Marion Hayes, Contributing Editors; C. Stewart Wark, Assistant Editor; Bert E. Barnes, Editor; William Roth and Thomas Plunkett, Contributing Editors, and Miss. Joan C. Sharp, Office Assistant.”

      Also the entirety of the Morse Dry Dock Dial is fully searchable if you want to further research your family.

      • Bart McGarry

        Susannah,

        Do you have any more information, or know where i might find more information about the Baseball Pitcher “McGarry” in the photograph?

      • Susannah, Thanks for your post. One more question: Where is the original artwork for the covers of the Morse Dry Dock Dial? Certainly the Hoppers would have survived.

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