In 1942, the US military re-purposed the Cargill shipyard at Savage to produce ships to serve in World War II. By the end of the war, the Savage shipyard had produced twenty-two ships. In 1975, many of these were scrapped, but some eventually saw service overseas.
The Navy’s decision to build ships at Savage was a consequence of the skill of local shipbuilders. Shipbuilding in northern Minnesota was a tradition that dated back to the early 1870s. Prior to World War II, Cargill, Inc. had become known for building large barges to haul grain. This reputation, combined with the large local labor pool, prompted the Navy to select Savage as the site for a new military shipyard in 1942. The shipyard was also chosen for its strategic location, which protected it from foreign attack. Even so, there was a constant military presence at Savage, including FBI agents to monitor security.
In order to handle the new, larger ships that would be constructed at the shipyard, the Minnesota River had to be dredged. The river was normally only 3.5 feet deep, but it was dredged for fourteen miles to a minimum depth of nine feet. This work cost $250,000.
The shipyard’s original contract stipulated that just six ships would be built at the site. However, by 1945, Savage employed 3,500 people during peak times, and workers had built eighteen ships and four tugboats. Most of the ships built at the yard were Patapsco-class auxiliary oil and gas carriers (AOGs). These large ships had crews of 131. They were 310 feet long and forty-eight feet wide, with a draft of fifteen feet. They could carry a large amount of fuel and ammunition—up to 1,880 tons—and cruise at 15.5 knots.
The yard’s first ship, named the USS Agawam, was laid down in 1942 and launched the next year. Once the ships left Savage, they sailed down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where they were fitted with their final equipment. Then they sailed out to the South Pacific. The type of aluminium (6061-T6) used for welding rivets on the tankers was later used to repair corrosion on F-16 airplanes and build receivers for contemporary rifles like the AR-15.
The wartime labor shortage led to women being allowed to work in shipyards for the first time, and they made up a quarter of the workforce at Savage. The ships were launched publicly, to increase morale. At one such event, five identical sisters launched five boats simultaneously. The internationally famous young women were the world’s first surviving quintuplets, and the event drew some 15,000 people.
Savage was one of several plants set up by the military during World War II. There were six yards in the area, and together they produced more than 230 ships for service. The most notable yards were Marine Iron and Shipbuilding, Inland Waterways, Zenith Dredge Company, Scott-Graff Lumber Company, and Industrial Construction Company.
After the war, with military contracts drying up, the yards were converted to build civilian ships. Even so, many closed, and the Savage yard was used for the shipping of grain. Hundreds of trucks now visit the site every day to haul away the corn, wheat, and soybeans grown in Minnesota.
The ships made at Savage had long and colorful careers. Many served in the US Navy for years, supplying fuel and ammunition during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The USS Kishwaukee had a particularly long military life, supporting other ships in Okinawa and then delivering fuel for Navy planes in Vietnam. In 1975, with the ships showing signs of their age, most were scrapped. However, a handful were transferred to other navies around the world, and some saw service in the Greek, Colombian, and Taiwanese Navies. The USS Nemasket was the last to be scrapped by the US Navy, in 2006. The USS Pecatonica and the USS Elkorn served the Taiwanese Navy until 2008.
In the 2010s, the Savage yard is the subject of much historical interest. Emma Weisner, a student at St. Louis Park High School, represented Minnesota in 2013 at the opening of a new pavilion at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans by presenting her historical work on the Savage shipyard and others near it.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.