Paul Pritchard: Daniel Island’s Shipwright
Shipbuilding was an important industry in Charleston and especially to Daniel Island. The port was a natural stopping point for repairs along the sailing routes to Europe and to the Caribbean. All types of boats- schooners, sloops, ships of war and merchant vessels – were built or repaired here using local pine, live oak, and cypress wood. Southern Live Oak is one of the best and most durable shipbuilding materials and has a great resistance to rot. Because of this, Southern Live Oak was recommended to be used in building the first U.S. naval ships. South Carolina and Georgia were prime sources for this material. South Carolina providers tended to inflate their prices and because of this most of the timber for the initial U.S. Navy ships would come from Georgia. Starting in 1794, the wood was cut and sent to Northern shipyards.
The fact that wood was being sent North did not mean South Carolina shipbuilding was a nonexistent industry. In the period from 1735-1760, shipyards here would build more 140 sloops and schooners, mostly used in coastal trade. Eventually, the industry evolved into the construction of the larger vessels.
Here on Daniel Island, Paul Pritchard would erect his shipyard on what used to be called Fairbank Plantation. Today this site is behind Governor’s Park along the Wando River. Pritchard, who purchased the land in 1803 for $5000, came from a family of shipbuilders and began his career around 1795. His father Paul, who was from Belfast, owned a famous shipyard on Hobcaw Creek in Mount Pleasant where work was done for the South Carolina Navy during the American Revolution. Hobcaw was so important during the war that a powder magazine and barracks were constructed to protect it.
Hobcaw shipyard would be willed to Paul’s brother William (Hobcaw Bill) when their father passed away. Hobcaw Bill would run that and a shipyard in downtown Charleston that was located off of Pinckney St. The Hobcaw Shipyard closed in 1831.
One of Prichard’s most famous boats, Gunboat #9 was built at his Fairbank shipyard. The history of the gunboats does not begin with Thomas Jefferson but it was his idea to create them into a “fleet” which would be used in a military defensive role. At the time, the nation did not have the resources to build a large fleet. Five different designs were used and the boats were built at various places along the coastal United States. This plan allowed for protection for each seaport harbor. A gunboat can maneuver in shallow coastal waters, rivers or lakes-where larger ships could sail only with difficulty. The boats were called the “Jeffs.”
Gunboat # 9 was launched in March of 1805 and Lieutenant Nathaniel Fanning used the following words to describe her:
“stoutest and best materials in her frame of any vessel I ever knew of her size…. Her timbers are throughout as well as her plank large enough for a sloop of war and has been thus far faithfully built. She is the … very best boat on every account for carrying guns, and for safety, of any one which has hitherto been built in the U.S. She is in fact so large, buoyant, and burthensome that she might with a skilled navigator on board double Cape Horn and proceed around the world with perfect safety.”
Gunboat # 9 would go on to fight in the Mediterranean during the Tripolitan War. She would make it across the Atlantic Ocean in just 27 days.
Later, # 9 would be turned into a “blockship” or a “guardship” for Charleston. She was placed in the channel between Sullivan’s Island and Fort Johnson in 1812. Eventually, she would become a hospital ship and later a floating battery in 1814.
Pritchard operated another shipyard located on the Cooper River called “Shipyard Creek.” Here he would build a frigate named the John Adams for the U. S. Navy and the privateer Decatur.
Frigates were fast naval ships that were heavily armed with guns and as they became more popular, a contest developed between the major seaports to build and donate to the U.S. Naval Service warships that would reflect the pride of these cities. In July 1798, a resolution was passed to construct one here in Charleston. Some $114,000 in funds were raised, leading to the birth of Charleston’s frigate the John Adams.
She would be launched in June of 1799 with a huge fanfare. Governor Rutledge, Major General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and others came out from the city to be part of the festivities. The band played patriotic music and there were numerous toasts. She would sail down the Cooper River with her 28 guns shining in the sunlight to Gadsden’s Wharf where her last finishing touches were applied. As she sailed down the river, all the vessels in the harbor lowered their colors in honor and the citizens cheered. The John Adams would receive her assignment to join the squadron off the coast of Puerto Rico and set sail in November of 1799.
She spent time in service in the Mediterranean during the years of 1802-1805 and at one point would be the escort for several of Jefferson’s Gunboats crossing the Atlantic Ocean. At the end of the War of 1812, she would carry American peace commissioners: Henry Clay, Jonathan Russell and John Quincy Adams to the Netherlands to participate in the Treaty of Ghent.
The John Adams also appeared in Charleston during the Civil War. At that time, she was a training ship at the Naval Academy at Newport, Rhode Island and she was sent to Charleston to be part of the blockade in 1863. She would be in service until 1867.
Today, two of the first frigates are still afloat: the Constitution and the Constellation.
It is believed that Pritchard used the profit he made from constructing the John Adams to purchase his land on Daniel Island.
Within eight days of war being declared against the British in June of 1812, word reached Charleston and so began the commission of the Privateers. Congress had given authority for private armed vessels to attack the enemy and letters of marque were issued. In Charleston, Pritchard began work on a privateer ship called Decatur. She was launched in March of 1813 and had a crew of 140 men. Within seven weeks of setting sail, the Decatur had her first prize. Soon after, she was involved in one of the bloodiest naval actions of the War of 1812; the Decatur-Dominica engagement. Nine Americans were killed and 16 wounded while on the British side 23 were killed and 42 wounded. This was a total of 42 percent of both ships’ crews. The Decatur came out victorious and brought her prize home to Charleston along with the London Trader, which she captured the day after the battle with the Dominica.
Unfortunately, the Decatur’s luck would run out. A week after arriving in Charleston, the city was hit by a powerful hurricane which tore her from the wharf and tossed her until she landed on a different dock. She was repaired though and was made ready to go privateering again. The summer of 1814, proved to be her last cruise and as she went down fighting off the coast of Haiti as she was chasing a prize. The Decatur alluded her capturer for eleven and half hours but she was not able to escape. After being crippled in the battle, she surrendered.
Paul Pritchard passed away in 1814. His will directed that his entire shipbuilding outfit be sold. It was left to his wife, Lydia to decide what to do with the six slaves that helped him over the years in his shipbuilding business. It is believed that Paul did not expect anyone in the family to carry on his endeavors.
Paul left Fairbank Plantation to his wife and she would be the owner for the next seven years at which time it was sold to a George Hazlehurst.
So ends the shipbuilding era on Daniel Island.