On the Horizon


In the dry docks, under the hard light of the arc-lights, sat the hulls of three US Navy minelayers under construction. Firmly settled in their keel blocks, these were big, heavy-duty vessels, SF class, 450-feet long with a 60-foot beam. At night, in the light and shadow of scaffolding that rose high around the hulls, it all had the eerie look of some surrealistic stage set. Workers swarmed over the massive hulls, inside and out.

In the floodlit yards around the dry dock were stacked piles of steel, wiring, pipe, cable and other materials. A narrow-gauge railroad hauling sheets of steel plate threaded its way through the yard, past machine shops, electrical shops, carpentry shops and the loft, on its way to the giant fabrication building. In this cavernous structure, the size of a football field with a roof that soared sixty-five feet, steel plate was prepared for cutting, shaping and welding. Overhead cranes that could lift as much as thirty tons rolled ponderously along high tracks set along each side of the building near the interior line of the roof. In the rarified world of the crane operators, high up in their glass enclosed perches, men controlled enormous, dangling plates of three-and-a-half-inch thick steel with the touch of a finger, the twist of a wrist. A skilled operator would slowly and carefully inch the steel downward into position on to a network of broad workbenches at floor level. Kneeling in the middle of the steel plate or working at waist level along each side, with hammers and points, shipfitters prepared the steel for cutting, shaping and welding.

At the other end of the building in the big welding shop, continuous, white-hot flashes from welding torches punctuated the nightly panorama.


Our job was to clamp large, wood templates onto the steel plates, then go to work on the steel like sculptors attacking a block of granite. Using hammers and sharpened, inch-thick points and following the pattern of the templates, we’d pound deep-set dotted lines and curves for the welders and cutters to follow. It was like pounding out a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Usually we worked in pairs, one man on each side of a plate of steel or one on his knees in the middle. My partner was a stubble-bearded drifter from Mobile, Alabama. Lew was his name. He told me he had worked in shipyards in Mobile, San Diego and Richmond before coming up to Portland.

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