Lewis Nixon (naval architect)

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Lewis Nixon I
Lewis Nixon.jpg
Born (1861-04-07)April 7, 1861
Leesburg, Virginia
Died September 23, 1940(1940-09-23) (aged 79)
Long Branch, New Jersey
Occupation Naval architect and political activist
Spouse(s) Sally Lewis Wood (m. 1891–1937) (her death)
Children Stanhope Wood Nixon
Relatives Lewis Nixon III, grandson; Blanche Nixon, granddaughter

Lewis Nixon I (April 7, 1861 — September 23, 1940) was a naval architect, shipbuilding executive, public servant, and political activist. He designed the United States' first modern battleships, and supervised the construction of its first modern submarines, all before his 40th birthday. He was briefly the leader of Tammany Hall. He started an ill-fated effort to run seven major American shipyards under common ownership as the United States Shipbuilding Company, and he was the chair of the New York City commission building the Williamsburg Bridge.

Birth and naval education[edit]

Nixon was born on the eve of the American Civil War, in Leesburg, Virginia, to Colonel Joel Lewis Nixon and Mary Jane Turner.[1] Leesburg, only three miles into the Confederacy, changed hands several times over the course of the War. His brother George H. Nixon fought in the Virginia Cavalry as a member of "Mosby's Raiders."[2]

Nixon graduated first in his class from the United States Naval Academy in 1882 and was sent to study naval architecture at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, where, in 1885, he again graduated first in the class. At the Royal Naval College he was appointed an assistant naval constructor with the rank of lieutenant.

Shipbuilding and other businesses[edit]

On Nixon's return to the United States, he was assigned to the John Roach & Sons shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania, which the United States Navy had commandeered in order to finish three protected cruisers of the new steel navy: USS Atlanta, USS Boston, and USS Chicago. In 1890, with help from assistant naval constructor David W. Taylor, he designed the three Indiana-class battleships - USS Indiana (BB-1), USS Massachusetts (BB-2) and USS Oregon (BB-3). While in Pennsylvania, he earned a Doctor of Science degree from Villanova University.[1]

USS Massachusetts (BB-2) as painted by Antonio Jacobsen

Soon after the contracts for the battleships were awarded, he resigned from the Navy to work as Superintendent of Construction for William Cramp and Sons Shipbuilding Company, the shipyard that won the lead contract.

Nixon married Sally Lewis Wood of Washington, D.C. in 1891. She died June 15, 1937.[3] Mrs. Nixon was a descendant of General Andrew Lewis of Colonial Virginia. Their son was Stanhope Wood Nixon. Adolfo Müller-Ury also painted him full-length in Scottish costume in 1902-1903.

Nixon started his own business in January 1895 by leasing the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He started this business with another former William Cramp and Sons shipbuilder and naval architect, Arthur Leopold Busch, who came from Great Britain to Philadelphia in 1892, and was Nixon's superintendent-in-charge at Crescent during this time. Under Nixon (and Busch) this yard built many vessels, including torpedo boats USS Nicholson (TB-29) and USS O'Brien (TB-30)], cruiser USS Chattanooga (CL-18), monitor USS Florida (BM-9) and gunboat USS Annapolis (PG-10).[2]

Beginning in December 1896, the Crescent Shipyard, under Nixon's oversight, built the United States' first submarines. The USS Holland (SS-1) was one of the creations of that shipyard and is a very significant achievement in naval technology. The submarine's success led to an order for more submarines of the "Holland Type" by the Navy. Those subs, known as the Plunger-class submarines, were built at the Crescent Shipyard and the Union Iron Works, a shipbuilding firm located near Mare Island Naval Shipyard, 20 miles north of San Francisco. These submarines became America's first fleet of underwater fighting vessels, and were operated by the United States Navy on both coasts.

These submarines also gave birth to a new company, founded by John Philip Holland on February 7, 1899. His company was then known as the Holland Torpedo Boat Company and (after 1904) the Electric Boat Company.

Portrait of Lewis Nixon, at Crescent Shipyard.

Nixon was also the founder of the International Smokeless Powder and Dynamite Company of Parlin, New Jersey, and the Standard Motor Construction Company of Jersey City, New Jersey.[1] E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company acquired the smokeless powder company from Nixon in 1904, forming part of what would soon be deemed DuPont's unlawful monopoly of the gunpowder industry.[4]

Nixon was the president of the United States Long Distance Automobile Company.[5] From 1901 to 1903, its Jersey City, New Jersey factory manufactured gasoline-powered cars "to meet the requirements of those who seek simplicity of construction, economy in running and unusual strength and durability."[6] In January 1904, the company became Standard Motor Construction Company, which manufactured a larger car called a "Standard" through 1905.[7] The auto lines were then sold to Hewitt Motor Co. of New York City.[8] Nixon continued to serve as Standard Motor Construction's president into the next decade, when it was a major manufacturer of marine engines.[9]

In 1902, promoter John W. Young persuaded Nixon to preside over the consolidation of Crescent Shipyard with six other shipyards on the East and West Coasts, to form a single shipbuilding trust, under the name United States Shipbuilding Company.[10] Unfortunately, however, "the one thing [the consolidated firms] lacked, individually and collectively, was a realistic prospect of earning sustained profits."[10] As the newly formed company's president, Nixon had personally convinced Charles M. Schwab, U.S. Steel Corporation president and Bethlehem Steel owner, to help underwrite the new business, while Schwab agreed to add Bethlehem Steel to the venture. However, the terms that Nixon and Schwab had negotiated for Schwab's financing were so one-sided in favor of Schwab and Bethlehem Steel that, when United States Shipbuilding failed almost immediately, it damaged the business reputations of both Nixon and Schwab.[10] Within a year of its incorporation, the company's mortgageholders forced it into receivership.[10] It emerged from receivership, without Nixon, as Bethelem Steel and Shipbuilding Company, in 1904.[11] One of its first actions was to close Crescent Shipyard.[12] By then, Nixon had re-entered the shipbuilding business by leasing a yard in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.[13]

From late 1904 to January 1906, Nixon was in Russia supervising the construction of ten torpedo boats for the navy of Czar Nicholas II.[14]

Nixon's shipbuilding expertise was called on in the aftermath of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.[15]

In 1910 the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947) completed a three-quarter length seated portrait of Nixon that was exhibited at Knoedler's that December.

From 1915 until his death, Nixon was president of the Nixon Nitration Works, in what is now Edison, New Jersey. A 1924 explosion and resulting fire destroyed much of the Works, which was then rebuilt and resumed operations.

He died on September 23, 1940 at Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch, New Jersey.[16]

Public service and political activism[edit]

Williamsburg Bridge during construction

In 1895, the New York Legislature authorized the East River Bridge Commission to undertake a second span across the river, ultimately known as the Williamsburg Bridge.[17] In January 1898 New York City Mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck sacked the entire membership of the Commission, complaining of its slow and expensive pace.[18] He appointed Nixon as the Commission's new president.[19] Nixon continued to serve as the Commission's president during the bridge's construction until the Commission's powers were transferred to the Commissioner of Bridges on January 1, 1902.[20]

Nixon was also active in Democratic Party politics. In December 1901, longtime Tammany Hall boss Richard Croker chose Nixon as his successor.[21] Croker's choice of Nixon surprised observers, because Nixon had spoken out against vice and corruption in City government, and seemingly had nothing in common with Croker.[22] Nixon resigned several months later, explaining that "I find that I cannot retain my self-respect and remain the leader of the Tammany organization."[21]

He was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention seven times. A friend and supporter of three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, Nixon played a key role in the 1908 Democratic National Convention, where he chaired the subcommittee on the platform, overcame Tammany's initial hostility to Bryan to deliver New York's delegation for him, and was urged as Bryan's running-mate.[23]

A resident of Staten Island, Nixon served from 1914 to 1915 as the borough's Acting Commissioner of Public Works and its consulting engineer.[24]

In 1919, New York Governor Al Smith appointed Nixon as the State's Superintendent of Public Works, and then as New York City's Regulatory Public Service Commissioner.[25]

Legacy[edit]

Nixon was the grandfather of Lewis Nixon III, an officer in the 101st Airborne Division during WWII, who was made famous by the miniseries Band of Brothers.[26]

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Scannell's New Jersey's First Citizen's and State Guide. 1919–1920. p. 341. "Metuchen — Shipbuilder. Born at Leesburg, Va., on April 7, 1861; son of Col. Lewis and Mary Jane (Turner) Nixon; married at Washington, D. C., in 1891, to Sally Lewis Wood, daughter of Col. Lafayette Bawyer Wood and Margaret Robertson Wood, of Inverness, Scotland. Children: Stanhope Wood, born in 1894, married to Doris Fletcher Ryer, in 1917. Grandson, Lewis Nixon, III, born Sept. 30, 1918. Lewis Nixon has made his name known all over the world by his ship-building activities. At his yards, the Crescent, in Elizabeth, he constructed 100 vessels in five years. The Holland, the first submarine of the United States' Navy, was built there; this was followed by the building of seven more submarines. ..." 
  2. ^ a b "Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography," at p. 1077 (Lyon Tyler ed. 1915).
  3. ^ Obituary, "Mrs. Lewis Nixon; Wife of Former Shipbuilder Who Designed Three Battleships," New York Times, 1937-06-16, at p. 24
  4. ^ Karl Schriftgiesser, Families, p. 362 (1971).
  5. ^ Rossiter Johnson, John Howard Brown, "The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans" (Lewis Nixon entry),(1904).
  6. ^ Advertisement for The U.S. Long Distance Automobile, accessed 2011-01-26.
  7. ^ "U.S. Long Distance History," accessed 2011-01-26.
  8. ^ "United States Long Distance Automobile Company" accessed 2011-01-26.
  9. ^ Walter Hines Page, Andrew Wilson Page, "The World's Work, Vol. 18, p. 12071 (1909).
  10. ^ a b c d Robert Hessen, "Steel Titan: The Life of Charles M. Schwab," 145-62 (1990) ("The U.S. Shipbuilding Company Scandal"), ISBN 0-8229-5906-2.
  11. ^ Robert T. Swaine, "The Cravath firm and its predecessors, 1819-1947," Volume 3 p. 703 (1948).
  12. ^ http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/crescent.htm, accessed 2009-09-12.
  13. ^ "Lewis Nixon Leases Ship Plant," New York Times, 1904-07-30 at p. 1.
  14. ^ "Lewis Nixon in Russia," New York Times, 1904-08-12 at p. 2."Worst Over in Russia, Declares Lewis Nixon," New York Times, 1906-01-18 at p. 4.
  15. ^ Lewis Nixon, The lesson of the “Titanic”, the North American Review, Jan-Jun 1912, Vol CXCV, No. 679, pp 748-753; Sinking of the Titanic - CHAPTER XXIV at www.worldwideschool.org.
  16. ^ "Lewis Nixon Dies; Naval Designer, 79. Oregon, Massachusetts and Indiana Were Built From Plans He Provided. Once Head of Tammany. Successor to Richard Croker. Held Important Positions in This State and City". New York Times. September 24, 1940. Retrieved 2010-03-22. "Lewis Nixon, head of the Nixon Nitration Company and the Raritan Sand Company at Nixon, N.J., a pioneer in naval architecture with the advent of steel construction and former leader of Tammany Hall, died here this afternoon in Monmouth Memorial Hospital, which he..." 
  17. ^ Laws of 1895, ch. 789, act 1.
  18. ^ People ex rel. Baird v. Nixon, 158 N.Y. 221, 52 N.E. 1117, 1117 (1899).
  19. ^ "The East River Bridge," New York Times, 1898-01-20 at p. 5.
  20. ^ "History of the Bridge," New York Times, 1903-12-20 at p. 5; Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, p. 455 (1905).
  21. ^ a b "Nixon Resigns as Tammany's Leader," New York Times, 1902-05-15 at p. 1.
  22. ^ "Who is Nixon? The Mystery of a Clean Man at the Head of the Pirate Crew of Tammany Hall — How it Came About and What it Means," World's Work, pp. 1997-98 (April 1902).
  23. ^ "Nixon Now Boomed for Second Place," New York Times, 1908-07-06 at p. 3; "New York Defeats Hopes of Anti-Bryan Crowd," Oakland Tribune, 1908-07-07 at p. 4; "New Yorkers Dodge Bryan's Doctrines," New York Times, 1908-07-08 at p. 3.
  24. ^ "Job for Lewis Nixon'" New York Times, 1914-01-02 at p. 3.
  25. ^ "Lewis Nixon Named Service Board Head," New York Times, 1919-05-04 at p. 16.
  26. ^ "Katharine Page's Marriage". New York Times. December 21, 1941. Retrieved 2010-03-22. "Miss Katharine Page, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Hickok Page of Phoenix, Ariz., was married yesterday in the Municipal Building to Lewis Nixon 3rd, son of Mr. and Mrs. Stanhope W. Nixon of this city, and grandson of the late Lewis Nixon, naval designer. The bride was attended by her ..." 

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