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Union Iron Works San Francisco California, Potrero Point

1918, Looking south, Illinois street on right, Twentieth street at large L-shaped Bethlehem office building

Union Iron Works, located in San Francisco, California, on the southeast waterfront, was a central business within the large industrial zone of Potrero Point, for four decades at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.


The Donahue Brothers Peter and James, Irish immigrants, founded Union Iron Works in the south of Market area of San Francisco in 1849. After years as the premiere producer of mining, railroad, agricultural and locomotive[1] machinery in California, Union Iron Works, led by I.M. Scott, entered the ship building business and relocated to Potrero Point where its shipyards still exist, making the site on the north side of the Potrero the longest running privately owned shipyard in the United States. After Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation bought the works in 1905, the consolidated company came to include the Alameda Works Shipyard, located across the San Francisco Bay in Alameda and the Hunter's Point shipyard to the south.

USS Oregon 1896 USN 010331

USS Oregon in 1896 at a Bremerton, Washington state Drydock.

In 1885, the Union Iron Works launched the first steel hulled ship on the west coast, the Arago, built with steel from the Pacific Rolling Mills. In 1886, UIW was awarded a $1,000,000 contract to build a Naval cruiser, the Charleston, which they completed in eighteen months. From the completion of the Arago in 1884 to 1902, UIW built seventy-five marine vessels, including two of the most famous vessels of the Spanish American war, the Olympia and the Oregon.

An 1892 description of the yards stated that between 1200 and 1500 men were employed and the yearly gross revenue was between $2,000,000 and $4,000,000. By the turn of the century, the shipyard had expanded in area and employment had more than doubled to 3,500. These industrial facilities used five types of power, distributed throughout; electricity, compressed air, steam, hydraulic and coal or gas fire. Union Iron works built a number of ships for the United States Navy. These ships include the USS Oregon laid down in 1891, and Adder-class submarines Grampus and Pike which were launched in 1902 and 1903, respectively.

In 1902, the Union Iron Works was absorbed into a combine called the United States Shipbuilding Company and was mired in three years of litigation. In 1905, the entire 40-acre (160,000 m2) shipyard was purchased by Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation for one million dollars. Charles M. Schwab stood on the steps of the UIW office building on twentieth street during the auction. At this point, he was the only bidder. Schwab was widely believed to have engineered the demise of the U.S. Shipbuilding Corporation in order to gain control of the industry. Whether or not that was true, he certainly benefited from the collapse of the US Shipbuilding combine.

At the time of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the coastal passenger liner Columbia of the San Francisco and Portland Steamship Company had been undergoing a refit at the yard's hydraulic drydock. The earthquake caused the iron hulled Columbia to shift off her supports and roll onto the drydock on her starboard side. This rendered the drydock, a key feature of the yard, damaged beyond economic repair. The Columbia on the other hand, despite being partially flooded and damaged, was repaired and returned to service in January 1907.[2][3] In 1908, Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation bought the Hunters Point, San Francisco, California drydocks. In the pre-World War I era, Union Iron Works built several navy ships that became internationally famous due to the Spanish-American war; Commodore Dewey's flagship the Olympia. After 1905, the shipyard operated as part of Bethlehem Steel, and produced both warships and merchant ships.


Bethlehem shipbuilding offices 1913

Locomotives builtEdit

The named locomotives built by Union Iron Works were:[1]

Ships builtEdit

Some of the ships built by Union Iron Works include:

Ships reconstructed by the Union Iron Works include:

  • SS Columbia - Refitted unsuccessfully due to heavy damage caused by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Refit and repairs completed elsewhere.[3]

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gilbert H. Kneiss, Locomotives of The Union Iron Works, Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin No. 68, November, 1946.
  2. "Pier 70: History". Pier 70 San Francisco - Historic Shipyard at Potrero Point ( Retrieved 21 August 2013. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Belyk, Robert C. Great Shipwrecks of the Pacific Coast. New York: Wiley, 2001. Print.ISBN 0-471-38420-8
  • Bethlehem Steel Company Shipbuilding Division. A century of progress, 1849-1949: San Francisco Yard. San Francisco, 1949

Coordinates: 37°45′38.68″N 122°23′4.01″W / 37.7607444°N 122.3844472°W / 37.7607444; -122.3844472

External linksEdit

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