Defoe Shipyard

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The Defoe Shipbuilding Company was based in Saginaw River in Bay City, Michigan, and was operational from 1905 until its closing in 1975. Founded as the Defoe Boat and Motor Works, the company assumed the name the Defoe Shipbuilding Company in 1942. It was started and owned by the Defoe brothers, H.J. Defoe, F.W. Defoe and their brother-in-law, G.H. Whitehouse.

In its early years, the company worked primarily on fishing boats. By the early 1900’s, gas engines were becoming more common in boats and the company expanded its operations to include building and working on such boats and then built several larger craft (65 feet in length) that were sold to the US Government. In 1917, the Defoe Shipbuilding Company signed its first government contract, for five 40-foot Torpedo Chasers which were sent to a navy facility in New London, Connecticut. Additional government contracts followed during World War I. After that war and during Prohibition, the company built rum-runner chasers in 1924-25, and then moved into yacht building (including one for John Kennedy in 1931) until the depression era. During World War II, the company built 154 ships, including PC boats, diesel electric tugs, and steam turbine destroyer escorts for both the US and British governments. The company would later build ships for clients including the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the government of Australia. The company employed carpenters, mill workers, steel workers and other skilled tradesmen. In 1975, the Defoe Shipbuilding Company closed its doors due to slowing business. It sold its operations to a shipbuilding company based in Wisconsin.

Shipbuilding facilities are one of most common sites of asbestos exposure. Asbestos is the name given to a group of six naturally occurring minerals. Asbestos can be mined and found in both dirt and soil. Asbestos shares many qualities with cloth, but is also resistant to heat and fire. Characteristics like these contributed to its wide usage in many industrial processes – like shipbuilding – from the late 1800’s through the end of the twentieth century.

Exposure to asbestos occurs when particles or fibers of asbestos become airborne and are inhaled or swallowed. These particles become lodged in the lungs, the chest wall, the abdomen or other parts of the body. Over time, they can lead to the development of cancer. When lodged in the lungs, these particles can develop into a scar-like substance and can impede breathing and blood flow into the lungs.

Asbestos exposure can lead to a number of respiratory conditions which can develop up to fifty years after the first exposure occurred. These conditions include asbestosis, lung cancer, pleural effusions and mesothelioma. Asbestos exposure is commonly regarded as the primary cause of malignant mesothelioma, a form of asbestos cancer that attacks the mesothelium. The mesothelium is a membrane which lines many of the body’s internal organs, including the lungs. This type of cancer can be treated through a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. There are also a number of experimental therapies that are currently being tested. However, the disease is not considered curable. Mesothelioma treatment may be effective in slowing the progress of the disease and in easing symptoms such as shortness of breath.

The risks of asbestos exposure were first documented in the 1920’s, but it was not until the 1970’s and 80’s that industry or government began curbing its use or adequately informing workers of these risks. As a result, generations of workers, and millions of people, were exposed to asbestos. In some cases, employees have sued employers who knowingly exposed them to asbestos for damages related to health conditions such as mesothelioma.