Henry Eckford (1775 – 1832), shipbuilder, naval architect, politician and businessman from Irvine.

Henry Eckford

On the 12th of March 1775, the shipbuilder, naval architect, politician and businessman Henry Eckford was born. 

His parents were Henry Eckford and Janet Black and he was the youngest of 5 boys. Although born in Irvine, Henry’s birth was registered in Kilwinning. The family lived in Irvine’s High Street between the Tolbooth and Templeton’s Bookshop. He attended the Kirkgate grammar school with the novelist John Galt before training as a ship’s carpenter in the shipyard in Irvine.  

When he was 16, Henry left Scotland and joined his uncle John Black in Canada. John was a noted shipwright working at a shipyard on the St. Lawrence River in Lower Canada. Henry worked there for 5 years as an apprentice, developing a flair for shipbuilding and design. By the time he was 21 he was in New York City, working as a journeyman in a boatyard on the East River. 

In 1800 Eckford opened his own shipyard in Brooklyn and designed and built his first ship, “The Sportsman”. His yard prospered, producing many vessels including “Fox” in 1809. The ship was noted for its speed thanks to the streamlined hull that Eckford designed for her. The revolutionary hull design gained Eckford great fame and he now had a reputation as a master shipbuilder and naval architect.  

Eckford’s impressive designs soon had him working for the United States Navy. His ability to build fast, effective ships in a short period of time had Captain Isaac Chauncey – commandant of the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard – tasking him with building an armada to counter the British during the war of 1812. Eckford established a shipyard in Sackets Harbour, New York and had a workforce of more than 1,000 shipbuilders. He was able to deliver his first ship in just 9 weeks and his continuous ship building prevented the British from gaining control and mounting an invasion of New York. 

Eckford resigned from the Navy and returned to private ship building as a national hero due to his ship building efforts. He expanded his business interests into banking, insurance, publishing and politics. It was during his political career as a Democratic-Republican that he was involved in a financial scandal. He, along with others from his party, were indicted for committing acts of fraud against banks and insurance companies. The case was brought to trial but ended with a hung jury and Eckford was not brought to trial again. He demanded a public apology from the District Attorney, who made a statement acknowledging that Eckford had been duped by others into illegal acts. 

Henry was married to Marion Bedell and they had 9 children together, but their family life was beset by tragedy. In 1828, 3 of his adult children died tragically. His eldest daughter Sarah had fallen ill and whilst caring for her, Henry’s 19-year-old daughter Henrietta, was badly burned when a fireplace set her dress on fire. Her 22-year-old brother John tried to beat out the flames and was also badly burned. Within days both Henrietta and John had died from their injuries. Sarah died later that same year aged 28 years old. 

He sought to regain his fortune and reputation by constructing vessels for foreign clients.  He sailed one such ship to Turkey and so impressed the Sultan that he was hired by the Turkish Navy. His career ended abruptly though when he died suddenly in Constantinople in November 1832 aged 57. It is probable that he died of cholera. His body was shipped home on the barque “Henry Eckford” and he is buried in Hempstead, New York. 

His legacy lives on with the first steamboat with a compound engine being named after him, the “PS Henry Eckford.” He also gives his name to a street in Brooklyn and a chain of lakes in the Adirondack Mountains. The Eckford of Brooklyn baseball team – composed mainly of shipwrights – was also named after him. There is also a Maritime Heritage Marker for him at Sackets Harbour in New York where it describes him as “a shipbuilding genius.”