Shipbuilding had been one of Bay City’s most lucrative industries next to the lumbering business, and local residents certainly have heard the names Davidson, Wheeler, and Defoe.
While these were major local shipbuilding magnates, another name of a pioneer some might not recognize is George F. Williams.
According to an 1893 biographical sketch in a book on the history of Saginaw and Bay Counties, Williams was an accomplished shipbuilder, having worked in all phases of the construction process in the Buffalo, N.Y. area. He was born on Sept. 27, 1835, the son of a cooper in Cazenovia, N.Y., Williams received his education in Rochester.
He first worked as a ship carpenter, hiring on a crew in 1851 in Buffalo. He worked his way up over the following 15 years to assistant superintendent of the Union Dry Docks, a firm that had flourished from the days of the War of 1812.
In 1886, Williams relocated to West Bay City, the local shipbuilding center, and became a partner of F. W. Wheeler who had a large shipbuilding concern northeast of the railroad yards in the West Bay City “Banks” district.
He also convinced Wheeler to expand his business but to gain more contracts capital had to be raised, so he urged a stock company be formed. That occurred in 1888 with Wheeler as president, and Williams as vice-president and superintendent of the yards. Other officers were F. L. Gilbert, secretary, and John R. Goodfellow, treasurer.
The restructuring meant Williams was in charge of actually constructing the ships, ordering materials, hiring construction crews, and overseeing the projects to the finished product, while Wheeler was the lead businessman, meeting with potential customers including government agencies, securing and signing contracts, designing specifications, and arranging the delivery of the ships.
The normal number of men employed in the Wheeler yards was 500 to 600, making it one of the larger employers in the Bay Cities, but during peak construction work, the number doubled to as many as 1,200.
Williams also established the company’s large dry-dock facility, allowing the firm to repair river and Great Lake vessels, large and small, further increasing the company’s bottom line. The firm secured numerous government contracts such as one in 1892 in which four light ships were constructed.
That same year, the company built a large wooden freighter and several steamers.
It was the driving force of Williams prolonging the life of the shipbuilding company for more than decade after joining the partnership.
He was married to Jane Tripp, of Rochester, N.Y. in 1863, and they had one son, George Jr. who later went to work for his father in Wheeler’s steel department.
They resided in a comfortable home at 211 King St. in West Bay City, and were members of the Presbyterian Church. Williams also was a member of the DeMolay Lodge 498, F. & A. M. of Buffalo.
Mrs. Williams died in 1901, while he survived her until 1908. They are buried in Brookside Cemetery in Watertown, N.Y.