Richmonder took risk on shipbuilding business
(Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) May 23--When Cerberus Capital Management LP recently announced it will acquire controlling interest in unprofitable automaker Chrysler, business analysts marveled at the risks involved.
"We are not naive," Richmonder John W. Snow, chairman of Cerberus, told The Times-Dispatch. "We know that the company -- the whole industry -- continues to face difficulty."
In the late 19th century, another Richmonder took a similar risk. Like Snow, industrialist William R. Trigg understood that risk-taking is fundamental to any business venture -- whether saving an old business, or starting a new one.
Trigg's venture was something new. "He had founded, as if with the wave of a wand, a great plant and a great and new industry," The Richmond Dispatch said of his attempt to turn Richmond into a major inland shipbuilding center.
The city still was recovering from an economic depression when Trigg surprised everyone in August 1898 by announcing that he had obtained government contracts to build several torpedo boats and destroyers. Trigg already had leased a vacant plant at 17th and Cary streets and secured rights to nearby property with river access. That October, the William R. Trigg Shipbuilding Co. obtained a charter and began work on two torpedo boats for the Navy, the Shubrick and the Stockton. By January, their keels were laid.
"At first, the idea of building warships at this city was received with skepticism, not to say ridicule, especially by the seashore cities," The Dispatch said. But by late 1899, Trigg Shipbuilding Co. had turned ridicule into praise.
Trigg and the Richmond industrial community pulled out all stops for the October 31, 1899, launching of the Shubrick, named in honor of a Navy officer of the early 19th century, William Bradford Shubrick. President William McKinley agreed to deliver an address for the historic occasion.
But launching day turned into a comedy of errors. Torrential rains developed early that morning and lasted through the day. The Richmond Times said rain was so heavy, the Shubrick could have been launched on Broad Street. A 10 a.m. parade showcasing local industries had to be postponed until the next day.
Still, McKinley's presence brought an estimated 30,000 people to the docks for the 3:30 p.m. ceremony. The president valiantly refused the offer of an umbrella while speaking, but his last sentences were lost in clanging and clattering made by shifting the Shubrick from its cradles to slides that would carry it into the river.
Christening honors went to a young Shubrick descendant, Carrie Shubrick. As ropes holding the ship were cut, she shouted, "I christen thee Shubrick," and slammed the champagne bottle against the hull. But the bottle failed to break. "One of the men on board leaned over the side, and seizing the bottle of champagne, broke it against the side of the boat," The Dispatch said.
Once launched, the Shubrick afloat was a memorable sight for Richmonders. But their delight was momentary. A steamboat docked nearby suddenly capsized after about 100 passengers rushed to one side to get better views. The accident spilled dozens into the river, but no one drowned.
Despite its inauspicious debut, Trigg Shipbuilding Co. won a steady stream of contracts after the first launching. Vessels built in Richmond included destroyers, steamers, cruisers, tugboats, dredges, cutters and several more torpedo boats.
But the company's financial health followed Trigg's personal health into a sudden decline. Trigg became ill in January 1902 and was unable to work again. That December, Trigg Shipbuilding Co. entered receivership. Court proceedings revealed that the company had submitted bids too low to support the plant's continuing expansion. Though creditors and investors initially were optimistic that the business could recover its losses, without the direction of Trigg, the company's fate followed his.
Trigg died Feb. 16, 1903, at age 53, and the shipbuilding company he founded soon ceased operation.
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