Detroit’s first dry dock

While the history of the Detroit Dry Dock Company, and to a lesser degree, Clark’s dry dock are reasonably well documented, the first dry dock on the Detroit River is rather more obscure.  Most historical accounts do little more than acknowledge that at some point in the early 1850s (the date is rarely clear), Lewis Ives (or the Ives brothers or someone named Ives) had established a drydock in Springwells. The location, it turns out, was immediately downstream from the modern Ambassador Bridge.

While most of Abner Ives’ sons were born in New York state, around 1817 he moved the family to Kingston, Upper Canada (Ontario) where before 1850 they would be actively involved in operating ferries, schooners, steamboats; in shipbuilding and  salvage; as inn-keepers, wharfingers, forwarders and ship chandlers. Abner Ives, patriarch of the clan, was once accused of being the most notorious smuggler on the Kingston waterfront. While he and his sons had not yet been in the ship repair business, their operations had been located next to the Kingston Marine Railway for a number of years. At mid-century, a few short years after the passing of Abner, the family sold their Kingston properties and moved to the Detroit River frontier.

The immediate attraction appears to have been the management of the Malden Marine Railway Company in Amherstburg. Although dry docks were still rare, marine railways were beginning to appear around the Lakes. With the growing traffic into Lake Michigan passing right by the wharves at Amherstburg, an opportunity clearly presented itself. Who else was involved is unclear. An 1851 gazetteer noted that in Amherstburg “A marine railway has lately been started here by a gentleman from Kingston, capable of hauling out any vessel that can pass the Welland Canal. This employs a number of men, and is likely to add considerably to the business of the place.” [1a]

An October 1850 advertisement was signed “John Ives, Manager” while an 1851 directory listing, said “John Ives & Co., Marine Railway.”[1] The 1850 ad referred specifically to the hiring of John McDermott, who was characterized as a “well known ship-builder.” How long he remained associated with the Ives is uncertain as he was credited with the building of the Ploughboy, launched at Chatham in June 1851.[2] The adding of McDermott to the roster made sense because Lewis Ives, the shipbuilder in the family, may not have moved up from Kingston yet.

Lewis was probably involved in the salvage of the propeller Ireland on Lake Ontario. The propeller had sunk off Port Nelson (modern Burlington) in the fall of 1850. Most of her cargo of barley was lightered in December, but just as it was being pulled off, a second gale had pushed the Ireland further on shore.[3] In early March 1851, the Ives raised her and the Chief Justice Robinson towed her into Burlington Bay. According to one observer:

The operation of raising the vessel was undertaken and performed by the Messrs. Ives, who own a marine railway at Amherstburg, and are so well known on Lake Ontario, as experienced sailors and ingenious mechanics. They resided for many years in Kingston where they built and sailed a number of schooners, but latterly their attention has been directed to the railway business and the simple fact that, although distant a couple of hundred miles, they were engaged to raise the Ireland while so many competent men reside conveniently to the scene of the disaster, affords evidence of their ability and energy which requires no comment.   … But Lake Erie gains what Ontario loses, and wherever the Messrs. Ives go, they will be found a valuable acquisition, and will carry with them the best wishes of all who know them.”[4]

The Ives connection to Amherstburg was quite brief. In the spring of 1852, George Wilson of Amherstburg claimed that he had erected a marine railway there the previous year at considerable expense.  The work done there, he asserted, was mostly on American hulls and most of the supplies were coming from the US. So, could he please get a discount on the customs fees?  Whether this was the railway John Ives was managing is unclear, but the business was largely American and it made sense to set up on the American side.  Despite over 30 years business in Canada, the three older surviving brothers were American-born and appear to have had no qualms taking their business across the border.

The 1852-53 Detroit Directory listed Eunice Ives, widow, as a householder on the north side of Woodbridge between Sixth and Seventh.[5] The 1853 Detroit directory listed “Mrs. Ives, boarding house, s[outh] s[ide] Congress bet[ween] Wayne and Shelby.” [about a block from the modern Cobo Center] Among those listed as “b[oarding] Mrs. Ives” were “Lewis, proprietor of dry dock, Springwells” and “Hiram (captain).” The two remaining unmarried daughters, Cordelia and Caroline, were probably here as well. Notably neither George nor John are accounted for. John may have been still involved with the marine railway across the river and George may have been sailing. When  a new directory was compiled two years later, “Mrs. A. Ives” was at 14 Fort, while John and George were listed as resident with her along with Capt. Lewis Ives, “ship builder and naval architect, and proprietor Detroit Dry Dock, Springwells.”[6]


The drydock with which Lewis was involved has been the source of some confusion in the histories of the Detroit waterfront. Among the better accounts was published in 1896:

“Knagg’s Creek, lined with cattails, bulrushes, water lilies, and muskrat houses, emptied into the river just below [the fishing grounds of James Harper]. Some years later Lewis Ives dammed up the stream, excavated its channel, built a pier and converted the bed of Knagg’s Creek into a drydock, the first on the great lakes. The remains of Ives’ dock are still to be seen.”[7]

Interestingly, the Marine Review that same year was not sure if Ives dry dock was distinct from Clark’s that had been built down the river.[8] It was.


The negotiations began in 1851. Knagg’s Creek was not yet within the boundaries of the city of Detroit, being in the neighbouring township of Springwells. Crossing the creek was the “old river road” running from Detroit to Monroe [modern West Jefferson at this point]. Unfortunately, the line of the road intersected the point that Lewis and his brothers wanted to use for the dry dock. They promised the Springwells town meeting in 1851 that they would build a drawbridge over the entrance to the dry dock to be used when the dock was cleared, and a road around the margin of the dry dock that could be used any time the drawbridge was raised. After the unanimous approval of the town board, construction was “commenced … at a very large expense.”[9] It would take well into the following year.

Lewis proudly advertised on 9 October 1852 that: “The Detroit Dry Dock will be ready for occupation next week.”[10]  In December, they serviced the Northern Indiana. At 300’ long, she was one of the largest steamboats on the Great Lakes. The Northern Indiana had had a rough first season including collisions with the Golden Gate, Lewis Cass, and Plymouth along with some storm damage. She came in for repairs before being laid up for the winter.[11] The following March there was a note that the propeller Hercules and the schooner Julia Smith had been in the dock together, but would leave to make room for others. [12] At the end of its first full year of operation, Lewis added two new engines to speed pumping out the dock.[13]

The new dry dock triggered perhaps the last reference to the Ives family in the Kingston newspapers. The Daily British Whig quoted this description of the dry dock from a Detroit newspaper:

“There are few improvements or constructions that have proved more beneficial to the city and its working men, in proportion to the outlay, than the establishment of a dry dock at this point on the lakes by the Messrs. Ives. The fine harbor which the river makes here, so perfectly land-locked and so well sheltered, renders it a basin in which vessels may lie at all seasons with perfect safety. The current of the river keeps it free of ice during the winter, and with the exception of a very few days, when there may be rather more floating ice than usual, vessels may be moved and handled with every facility. The construction of dry docks admitting vessels and steamers of the largest capacity now on the lakes, without the removal of so much as a float from their paddles, has made Detroit one of the most convenient places on the lakes to lie up and undertake repairs during the suspension of navigation. This is the first winter that the city has begun to reap the full advantage of this improvement. Since the close of navigation the dock has been full; ship carpenters and caulkers in large numbers have been kept busy; ship stores have been consumed to a large amount, and the benefits which have accrued to the community we have not space to enumerate. There is nearly double the amount of tonnage lying here this winter than there was last. These remarks were elicited by the fact that a short sleigh-ride gave the spectacle of two steamers – the Detroit and the Despatch – being in the dry dock at once, with a large number of men engaged on their hulls, and even then the dock is of such size that it appears as if a small schooner or two might be squeezed in if business was so pressing as to render it necessary. When the Sault Ste. Marie Canal gets into operation this dry dock will prove of incalculable benefit to the shipping that may be employed on Lake Superior, as this dock will afford it every facility to repair during the long and hard winter season of that region.”[14]

Perhaps the most challenging of the dockings performed by the Ives’ Dry Dock was the steamboat Buckeye State in the fall of 1854. She had been sold as recently as October 9 and under new ownership and with a new captain had gotten aground on the St. Clair Flats on a trip down from the Sault. The report in the Buffalo papers called it a “slight injury” and promised she would be back out “in a day or two.”[15] John P. Philips, the new owner, had predicted three or four days. It took longer.  In fact, the steamboat was in the dock from Oct. 20 to Nov. 1. Philips baulked at a bill for $955.50. Seventeen days after the steamer was released from the dock, Philips sold her to Solomon Gardner of Detroit and began legal proceedings against the Ives.[16] Amongst the owner’s claims was that the repairs had taken longer than promised, had not been done well and that he had lost $1500 over and above expenses that the Buckeye State would have earned had she been promptly back on the line. The court eventually concluded that Philips’s profits were not lost because of negligence by the Ives and that the repairs were done to a reasonable standard. The court did rule that the Ives could not charge more for their men’s time than the men were actually paid. The judge went on to write: “Why should [Ives] be allowed to charge more than the market price for the articles used in the repairs?” Further tinkering with the bill followed. Most importantly, the Ives had a printed tariff of charges, that included 50 cents per ton for the first four days, and a “half dockage” if the dock was occupied for a longer time. The judge ruled that the Ives were only allowed to charge for the first four days ($637) despite the fact that the Buckeye State stood between them and other work for an additional week. These were days for which Lewis could derive no income beyond expenses, except that of his own labour. One might wonder if that was ever held as a precedent.

In 1854 the Detroit Evening Tribune had boasted:

“We have here in Detroit the best facilities for the thorough repair and improvement of vessels of every size and kind, in two Dry Docks, plenty of materials, and the most skilful mechanics of the country. Ives’ Dry dock can receive the largest craft now, or likely to float here, or several smaller ones at once, and with its double engines and other facilities, perform its service with the greatest dispatch. Hyde’s Floating Dock will, doubtless, also perform its part, when perfected, to satisfaction.”[17]

The reference, however sneering, to Hyde’s Floating Dock, launched in 1852, reveals that the Ives were not without competition.

By the spring of 1854, Lewis was being sued by the town “at the instigation of some person who was the owner of a rival Dock, now in process of construction on the Detroit River, a short distance below the dock of the memorialist.” Ives went back to the township meeting where resolutions were passed instructing the township officers to discontinue the lawsuit. The meeting went further and positively declared that the drawbridge over the drydock was “no injury or inconvenience to the public.” A further suit “upon the complaint and at the relation of John P. Clark,” the owner of the rival dock, had been filed in the Circuit Court of Wayne County, Michigan by the state’s Attorney General. According to the Attorney General the suit named John and George Ives “and others” and involved “an alleged obstruction from the highway, below Detroit, occasioned by the construction and use of a swing bridge, over a narrow channel, leading to a dry dock, belonging to those individuals … ” and was still pending at the end of the year.[18]

When the state legislature convened that fall a committee was struck to deal with a host of petitions on the subject of the bridge, one from Lewis, an another fourteen featuring some 823 signatures including prominent Detroit men like Charles C. Trowbridge, Oliver Newberry, William Woodbridge.[19] It is not clear that all the petitions were in favour of helping out the Ives, but none was recorded as being opposed in the journals or committee report. The resulting statute, passed on 10 Feb. 1855 and effective the following April 20, authorized Lewis Ives and any succeeding owners to maintain a floating, swing or draw bridge across the entrance to the dry dock, required that the maximum time it could be kept open was half an hour, and instructed the owners to maintain a eight-foot wide plank road around the dock for those occasions when the bridge was open.[20]


Detroit Directory, 1855 Note that this is almost the only reference to Lewis’ name spelled this way.  Maybe he didn’t get a chance to proof-read the ad.

With the bridge challenges behind them the Ives brothers settled into the business of running the dry dock again. By the fall they had become more interested in salvage than the repairs that followed. A story that ran in the early fall alluded to an interest in the work of “floating camels” for raising sunken vessels. One class of these had been used on the Lakes as early as 1813 when they had been used to get Perry’s fleet out of Presque Isle Bay. The latest development involved airtight india rubber or canvas bags which could be inflated underwater by means of an air pump. Shortly afterwards Lewis Ives advertised that the Detroit Dry Dock was available for a lease of from 10 to 15 years.[21] Instead of leasing the dry dock, that fall Ives sold it to Sylvester Larned of Detroit, taking in exchange a mortgage for $3,156 and title to the steam tug T. Whitney.[22]

Unfortunately, Larned’s experience with the dry dock was not a positive one. While he had dabbled in steamboat ownership in the 1850s, Larned was by trade an attorney.[23] He inherited two mortgages that Lewis Ives had taken out on the property: one for $5,000 to David Moore on 17 Jan. 1853, and another to George F. Turner for $3,000. In the following year, Larned executed two more mortgages on the property. In October 1856, the foreclosures began and the lawyers began to dance.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, 10 April 1857, p. 2

Cleveland Plain Dealer, 10 April 1857, p. 2

In the spring of 1857, Larned was publicly looking for new owners, … or maybe partners, … or maybe tenants.  Anyone doing due diligence on the title would have become aware of the foreclosures and the problems they would make.  It took another two years for the proceedings to wind through the courts. In the meantime, on 21 Nov. 1857, the courts sold the property to William C. Baker for $6372.76.[24]

To what extent the “formerly Ives” dry dock at Springwells was operated over the following years is unclear.  Most of the news accounts in the Detroit Free Press refer to vessels getting repairs “in dry dock” without specifying which one.  Clark’s dry dock, just down the river in Springwells, was still in business while what would become the better known dock, unfortunately also marketed as the Detroit Dry Dock, was operating upstream. Gradually memory faded of the original dry dock and the Ives brothers.



[1a] W. H. Smith, Canada: past, present and future [electronic resource] : being a historical, geographical, geological and statistical account of Canada West, (Toronto: T. Maclear, 1851), p. 25 [online]

[1] Sandusky Register, 11 Oct. 1850, p 3. Robert W. S. Mackay, Canada Directory, (Montreal: John Lovell, 1851), p. 19 [online]


[3] Daily British Whig, 13 Dec. 1850, p. 2.[online]

[4] Hamilton Spectator, 6 March 1851, p. 3. Part of this was quoted in the Daily British Whig, 14 March 1851. [online]

[5] Shove’s Business Advertiser and Detroit Directory for 1852/53, (Detroit: Free Press Book ad Job Office, 1852), p. 151.[online]

[6] James Dale Johnston, comp., The Detroit City Directory and Advertising Gazetter of Michigan for 1855-6 (Detroit: Printed for the compiler by R. F. Johnstone & Co., 1855), p. 103. [online]

[7] The Centennial Celebration of the Evacuation of Detroit by the British (Detroit: Printed for the Committee, 1896), pp. 162-63. [online] Friend Palmer’s account was more succinct: “Knaggs creek later on was obliterated by the Ives brothers, who turned the place into a drydock.” Early Days in Detroit, (Detroit, MI: Hunt & June, 1906) p. 24.[online]

[8] Marine Review, 23 Apr. 1896, p. 9. [online]

[9] Documents Accompanying the Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Michigan, at the annual session of 1855 (Lansing, MI: Hosmer & Fitch, 1855), No. 26 “Report of the committee on Roads and Bridges, on memorial of Lewis Ives, for authority to maintain a bridge in Springwells. [online]

[10] Detroit Free Press, 9 Oct. 1852, p. 2.

[11] Detroit Free Press, 1 Dec. 1852, p. 3; 17 Dec. 1852, p. 3.

[12] Detroit Free Press, 26 Mar. 1853, p. 2.

[13] Detroit Free Press, 23 Sept. 1853, p. 2.

[14] Daily British Whig, 21 Jan. 1854, p. 2. [online]

[15] NARA, RG **, Enrolments, Port of Detroit, no. 123 of 1854, 9 Oct. 1854. [onlineThe Democracy (Buffalo), 23 Oct. 1854 [online]

[16] John S. Newberry, Reports of Admiralty Cases, argued and adjudged in the District Courts of the United States for the District of Michigan, Northern District of Ohio, Southern District of Ohio, Western District of Pennsylvania, Northern District of Illinois, District of Missouri, and Eastern District of Louisiana, from 1842 to 1857 (New York, Banks, Gould & co., 1857) I: 69, Lewis Ives v. The Steamboat Buckeye State. (District of Michigan, 1856) [online]

[17] “Detroit – Her Interests and Prospects,” Detroit Evening Tribune, March 1854 quoted in Transactions of the State Agricultural Society: with Reports of County Agricultural Societies for 1853 (Lansing, MI: G. W. Peck, 1854), p. 254. [online]

[18] Michigan, Attorney General, Annual Report of the Attorney General, (1854) p. 2.

[19] Documents Accompanying the Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Michigan, at the annual session of 1855 (Lansing, MI: Hosmer & Fitch, 1855), No. 26 “Report of the committee on Roads and Bridges, on memorial of Lewis Ives, for authority to maintain a bridge in Springwells. The committee report was presented on 27 Jan. 1855 along with a bill that was given first and second reading. “Sundry” additional petitions arrived on 29 Jan. Four more on 31 Jan. with another 156 signatures. Another set of four petitions with 128 signatures was presented to the house on 2 Feb. 1855. When it came up for third reading on 7 Feb., a series of amendments were added, and the bill sent back to the committee on Roads and Bridges. The state senate passed the bill on 9 February. Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Michigan, 1855 (Lansing, MI: Hosmer & Fitch, 1855) [online]

[20] Acts of the Legislature of the State of Michigan … 1855 (Lansing, MI: Geo. W. Peck, 1855, pp. 138-39) no. 66, An Act for the maintenance and regulation of a bridge at Ives’ Dock in the town of Springwells. [online]

[21] Detroit Daily Advertiser, 9 Sept. 1855, p. 2; 19 Sept. 1855, p. 2.

[22] Port of Detroit, no. 46 of 1855, 11 May 1855; no. 147 of 1855, 26 Nov. 1855.

[23] Vessels owned included the Telegraph (Port of Detroit, no. 61 of 1851, 17 Nov. 1851 [online]), Dart (one third, Port of Detroit, no. 13 of 1853, 16 March 1853 [online]) and Minnesota (Port of Detroit, no. 45 of 1855, 11 May 1855 [online]).

[24] 5 Michigan Reports 456, William C. Baker vs. Henry L. Pierson. [online] 6 Michigan Reports 522, William C. Baker vs. Henry L. Pierson and Henry L. Pierson vs. William C. Baker. [online]

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