John H. Dialogue – Shipbuilding Pioneer on the Delaware River

By Kenneth Kogan

SKELETONS OF STEEL ARE ALL THAT REMAIN OF Camden’s shipbuilding industry, at one time a center of American maritime ingenuity, innovation, and design. A moving force in this industrial revolution on the Delaware River was John H. Dialogue, who was born in Philadelphia on May 13, 1828. His father, Adam, had invented and manufactured the riveted leather fire hose found in pictures of horsedrawn firewagons racing through city streets. By the age of twelve young Dialogue was an orphan living with his uncle, a machinist. After graduating from Central High School in 1846 he was apprenticed to his uncle and became a self-taught draftsman in his spare time.

A forty-eight-year career on the Delaware River commenced in 1850 as Dialogue, at just twenty-two years of age, began his first enterprise at Second Street and Bridge Avenue in Camden. Here, at the southern terminus of the thriving Camden and Amboy Railroad Company, he employed approximately 100 men in the repair of locomotives and Delaware River ferry boats. The company prospered and in 1859 moved to the thirty-four-acre riverfront site at Kaighn’s Point that would house the Dialogue works until its demise. While marine and railroad repair work continued as the company’s mainstay, Dialogue entered the vanguard of industrial innovation via a licensing agreement to manufacture the Corliss stationary steam engine. George Corliss, a largely self-taught engineer, had patented two important innovations — a special engine governor and a new valve design, both of which greatly increased a steam engine’s efficiency. His most famous creation was the huge engine that powered the machinery displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Its flywheel was thirty feet in diameter.

In 1862 Dialogue became associated with the newly formed National Armor and Shipbuilding Company, also in Camden. The first vessel built by National was the thirty-five-ton Lookout which, after a 1942 diesel engine installation, was still operating in 1973.5 National’s history is obscure but the company failed within two years of its founding. The firm of Wilcox and Whiting took over their works with Dialogue possibly continuing as a subcontractor. As no records attribute ship launchings to the Dialogue works during the period from 1865 to 1870, the yard presumably continued to rely on general repair and engine building. This approach may well have reflected a sound business judgment as the immediate post-Civil War shipbuilding industry was buffeted by inflation and experienced an almost complete lack of military orders. During this lean period other yards went so far afield as to produce paper-making machinery and railroad cars to ride out the shipbuilding doldrums.

In 1870 the Dialogue works expanded in size and importance when Randolph Wood combined his adjoining land with Dialogue’s and became a partner in the firm of Wood, Dialogue and Co. (The various names used by the Dialogue yard are a source of confusion. The 1870 Camden County Census of Industry listed “Wood and Dialogue” as the owners but gave “National Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company” as the name of the business. See figure 1 for a reconstruction of the various names used.) As of June 1870 the partners employed 100 “males above 16 years” and 15 “children and youth.” Their business capital was given as $200,000 but under the heading “Production” the census stated, “In operation only a few weeks. Cannot give a correct estimate.” The first iron vessel launched by Wood and Dialogue was probably the cutter Colfax for the United States Revenue Cutter Service.’ (The United States Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Lifesaving Service were combined to form the United States Coast Guard in 1915.) This was followed by the forty-eight-ton iron tug Frank G. Fowler and the icebreaker City Ice Boat No.3 for the city of Philadelphia. In 1874 they built one of the first compound engine tugboats, the George W. Childs. The compound engine was a more compact and economical design than previous engine types and this early marine installation preceded those of many larger, more established yards. Another first of a sort was the March 14, 1876, delivery of the venerated, and neglected, USS Constitution from the League Island Navy Yard. After years of on-again, off-again repairs Wood and Dialogue was selected to restore “Old Ironsides” for exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. There is no record of the exact work performed in Camden. In any event the ship missed the Centennial, remaining in Camden until December 31, 1876, and was placed back in active commission a month later. 7

A few years after the partnership’s formation, Wood’s suicide in April 1874 left Dialogue in sole control of the company, although Wood’s widow retained ownership of her husband’s portion of the shipyard real estate. Business was further complicated by a serious fire in 1877. If past performance is any measure it may be inferred that Dialogue surmounted the setback with his usual aplomb. The yard’s founder apparently decided to concentrate on the building of tugboats rather than larger commercial and military vessels, while the general repair business continued as before. Perhaps Dialogue felt this an ideal niche, preferring to remain on the sidelines as Philadelphia’s William Cramp and Chester’s John Roach fought for the large vessel orders.

Specialization, whether intended or not, bore fruit as the yard’s reputation for first-class tugboats spread throughout the industry. Dialogue-built tugs, or “towboats” as they were popularly known (the term “towboat” deriving from their early use in towing sailing vessels and canal boats), did yeoman service in major United States and South American ports. From about 1880 onwards the proportion of iron-hulled versus steel-hulled vessels rapidly reversed with the Dialogue works completing its own conversion to the latter by about 1890. The year 1890 also saw the Dialogue firm included in an area fire insurance survey undertaken by E. Hexamer & Son of Philadelphia. It noted the employment of “500 men and a few boys” in the manufacture of “Ship Building, Engines and Boilers, Machinery in general.” By the time of the survey twenty-eight year-old John H. Dialogue, Jr. had become his father’s partner after serving apprenticeships in nearly every department of the yard. The firm was now renamed for the last time as John H. Dialogue & Son.

The senior Dialogue passed away on October 23, 1898, at age seventy. During his forty-year Camden residence he had served three terms on the board of education, presided over the Camden City Council, and been elected president of the New Jersey Electoral College. His obituary was front-page news in the Camden Daily Courier. Eight foremen of the shipyard’s various departments served as his pallbearers. 8

Dialogue’s son subsequently assumed proprietorship of the yard and under his supervision fifty-three ships, mostly tugs, were launched. Anxious creditors forced the younger Dialogue into bankruptcy in late 1913. An auctioneer’s brochure describing the yard’s real estate and equipment ran fifty pages and is a unique record of the variety of tools and machinery that a modern yard required. 9 The property’s buyer was the Reading Railroad which, through hidden buyers, obtained the real estate for little more than half its appraised value. In short order the yard’s buildings were demolished to make way for an extension of the Reading’s Camden terminal. The shipbuilding business has traditionally been one of boom and bust cycles, a relatively modest capital return, and an uncertain future. Perhaps these factors, combined with the absence of the man who had begun the enterprise, caused his son to lose the mettle that had carried the yard through its first thirty-eight years.

Dialogue found employment as a consulting engineer for one of the yard’s old customers, the Luckenbach Steamship Company of New York City, and oversaw the construction of ten of that company’s vessels. to He died on April 19, 1924, bringing to an end the Dialogues’ fifty-five-year association with the shipbuilding industry of the Delaware River. In its years of active operation the Dialogue yard had pioneered in the adaptation of new materials and technology to shipbuilding-the first marine compound engine, the first steel-hulled steamer with twin screws and rudder posts, and the construction of one of the earliest of the federal government’s all-iron ships. The firm’s displaced work force took their skills to the six yards still operating on the Delaware River’s New Jersey waterfront. Of these, the burgeoning New York Shipbuilding Company would become the shipbuilding equivalent of Henry Ford’s River Rouge Works-a self-contained industrial empire of almost limitless capacity. It was also the last to die, existing at least in name through the 1970s.


NameYearsPrimary Business
John H. Dialogue1850-62Railroad repairs, manufacture of Corliss stationary steam engines under license.
John H. Dialogue1862-64Associated with short-lived National Iron Armor and Shipbuilding Co., subsequently a subcontractor to their successors, Wilcox & Whiting.
John H. Dialogue1865-70Activities unclear. Presumably general marine and railroad repair work and engine manufacture continued.
River Iron Works 11870-75(?)Partnership with Randolph Wood, expansion of the yard, design and building of ships becomes main focus.
John H. Dialogue Shipyard1875(?)-85(?)Shipbuilding, boiler and steam engine manufacture
John H. Dialogue & Son 21885(?)-1914Shipbuilding, boiler and steam engine manufacture
Business Names of John H. Dialogue’s Ship Yard

1 – The firm name was listed as “National Iron & Shipbuilding Company” in the 1870 Camden County Census, but this name seems never to have been used. During the partnership’s duration the company is also referred to as “Wood, Dialogue & Co.” and “Dialogue, Wood & Co.”

2- The date of the name change to include John H. Dialogue, Jr., is presumed.

In 1885 the younger Dialogue, at twenty-three years of age is assumed to have completed his shipyard apprenticeship and become a principal of the firm.

While the exact accuracy of this date sequence cannot be verified, it represents the most complete listing of validated names and dates available. The published obituary of John H. Dialogue, Sr., the Scientific American supplement of 1945 Iron and Steel Hull Vessels of the United States 1825-1906, by John Harrison Morrison, and the article “Two Hundred Years of Naval Shipbuilding in the Delaware Valley,” by Robert S. Egan, Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Spring Meeting Papers, June 2-5, 1976, state dates that conflict with the above listing. It is felt that as the History of Camden County, published in 1886 in Camden, was a contemporary work, its dates for Dialogue’s early history are most likely to be correct.


1 – George Prowell, History of Camden County (Camden, N.]., 1886),383.

2 – A. Storer, A Simple History of the Steam Engine (London, 1969), 111-12.

3 – Robert S. Egan, “Two Hundred Years of Naval Shipbuilding in the Delaware Valley,” Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Spring Meeting Papers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 2-5, 1976, 1-22.

4 – David B. Tyler, The American Clyde (New York, 1958),26-27.

5 – Census Office, County of Camden, Products of Industry for Year Ending June 1, 1870, 1.

6 – Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (Washington, D.C., 1959), 2: 141. Colfax was loaned to the U.S. Navy for World War I and was returned to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1919.

7 – Log of correspondence between League Island Navy Yard and Navy Department, correspondence entry for December 31, 1876, “Completed by agreement at R. Wood & Dialogue,” Office of Naval Records and Library, National Archives and Records Service.

8 – Philadelphia Inquirer, October 27, 1898

9 – Valuable Ship Building Plant of John H. Dialogue, an auction brochure of the Samuel T. Freeman & Company, pages 46 and 49, listed a total of 146 hull models in two lots. This figure might represent an estimate of the Dialogue shipyard’s total output.

10 – Dialogue had constructed several steamships for Luckenbach in his own yard, among them the 3,905-ton Lewis Luckenbach, the largest vessel launched at the Dialogue works.

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