The Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum focuses on Camden’s rich maritime history. Located in south Camden the museum’s goal is to educate the community about Camden’s once thriving shipping building industry. The New York Ship Building Company and Matthew Henson’s expedition to the geographical North Pole are the museum’s main focus for exhibitions and programming.
The Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum is a museum that is still in its conception. Though the building is still under construction but the building itself, Camden’s historical Church of Our Savior, houses Urban Promise that provides nautical themed programming for the underprivileged youth of Camden. According to the museum’s website the museum’s vision is to “educate the world about Camden’s rich maritime heritage and significant contributions to global shipbuilding and seafaring exploration”. The museum’s mission is to “ restore the historic Church of Our Savior situated in South Camden New Jersey’s historic district ( also known as the Waterfront South), and transform it into a small first class, maritime museum that will educate, inspire and engage with children with children and other visitors”. The Shipyard and Maritime museums goals and functions are to: “The museum will collect, conserve, exhibit, and interpret artifacts related to Camden’s maritime heritage.
Specifically, the museum activities will be organized around the rich history of maritime and port related industrial activities that contributed to the development of the City of Camden, its region and the nation.  The museum will celebrate the diverse array of maritime industries and communities that contributed to the fame of Camden, once known as “The Greatest Little City”. The museum will also stress the interrelationship between Camden’s maritime industries and the rich ecological diversity of the rivers and estuaries that supported the development of Camden.
The museum will be established in the Church of Our Savior because it was constructed from ballast stones brought from Greenland by the world famous arctic explorers Robert and Josephine Peary and Matthew Henson and that the many trips by these local mariners were supported by Delaware Valley scientific associations. As a result of these singular historical connections, their exploits will be a central focus of the museum’s exhibits and its programs.
Another focal point for the museum will be organized around materials loaned by local benefactors and the Camden County Historical Society that reflect the long history of the giant New York Shipbuilding Corporation (now the South Jersey Port Corporation) in Camden. A supplementary collection of archival materials on loan from the Fairview Historic Society, related to the development of garden villages for housing shipbuilders, such as Fairview (Yorkship Village) in South Camden, will also be part of the initial collections”(www.camdenshipmuseum.org).
The Shipyard and Maritime Museum is housed in the historic Church of Our Savior located in the historic eighth ward of Camden. The church was chosen because of its relationship with the New York Shipbuilding Company. Many of the company’s employees were parishioners and the church was located in Fairview which was home to many of the employees as well.
Beginning in 1854 Reverend Elvin K. Smith began holding sermons in a small house in the eighth ward of Camden. In September of 1859, steps were taken to organize a parish, to be known as the Church of Our Savior, Stockton. The organization disbanded in 1864. In July of 1867, the parish was reorganized; and, after much effort, in 1873, steps were again taken to reorganize it. In 1867, largely through the efforts of a Mr. Patroni, a brick building situated on Van Hook Street near the West Jersey Railroad, which had formerly been used as a Baptist church, was purchased, and services were held in it a lot of ground, located at the southeast corner of Broadway and Viola Street, was deeded by the Manufacturers’ Land Improvement Company to the rector, wardens and vestry, and a new building erected on the land. It was constructed of stone donated by John Powell, of Camden; the other materials were supplied by members of the congregation and others interested in its welfare. The cornerstone was placed in, November, 1880. In November, 1882, just about two years after the laying of the cornerstone, the building, free from debt, was consecrated by the Right Reverend John Scarborough, Bishop of New Jersey. From the last reorganization, in 1873, until 1879 services were held chiefly by the Reverend Reece Evans, and students from the West Philadelphia Divinity School. In November, 1879, Rev. J. L. McKim, of St. Mary’s Hall, Burlington, assumed charge of the parish and held regular Sunday and special weekday services until 1882 (www.churchofoursavior.com).
The Museum began as a project in 2003 that involved various organizations including Wiggins Marina/Camden City Yacht Club, the Camden County Historical Society, the Fairveiw Historic Society, Fairveiw Main Street program, the Heart of Camden Inc., and the South Jersey Port Corporation. These organizations’ goals was to create a museum highlighting Camden’s rich maritime history and bringing light to Fairview (Yorkship Village) that was built for the ship builders of the New York Shipbuilding Company.
According to the museum’s website: “Another major plan for this area was authored by Professor Tony Nelessen of Rutgers University and sponsored by New Jersey Department of Community Affairs as part of its Housing Scholars Program in the summer of 2003. The City of Camden, N.J. Department of Community Affairs and the Heart of Camden Inc. also commissioned redevelopment plans for both Waterfront South and Fairview that called for the revitalization of the area with a focus on their waterfront access. Recently, waterfront themes in general and the museum project were further developed in a planning studio courses at Rutgers University-Camden in the spring of 2006. Finally, as community support coalesced, the museum became an important part of the new Waterfront South Neighborhood Revitalization Plan developed by the Heart of Camden Inc. in October 2007 (www.camdenshipmuseum.org).
In the Spring of 2006, the Heart of Camden Inc., whose mission is to The Heart of Camden’s mission and central focus is to improve the quality of life for the children of the neighborhood of Waterfront South by providing safe, decent, affordable housing for families; partnered with the newly formed museum board to develop a maritime museum (www.heartofcamden.org). In September of 2006, having searched for a suitable building for the museum, the Heart of Camden was able to purchase the former Church of Our Savior.
At the time of settlement, the roofs were leaking, there was some water damage to the chapel and the building suffered from general neglect. The museum board immediately began to develop a strategic plan for the development of the museum while pursuing funding to improve the buildings.
By December 2006, temporary repairs to the rectory allowed some Heart of Camden staffers and the Museum’s development offices to locate to the site. In the Spring of 2006, in order to further the educational mission of the museum, the board authorized the project director to develop partnerships with a diverse array of local community based organizations.
Partnerships have assisted project staff in raising over $ 600,000 from a wide variety of public and private sources. These funds have been designated to repair the roof, heating and security systems, hire a professional planning firm to design the new museum endow a small boat gallery, a major maritime statue, museum signage, and a strategic plan, as well as other projects (www.camdenshipmuseum.org).
One of the major focuses of the museum is the expeditions of African American explorer Matthew Henson and Admiral Robert Peary’s expedition to the geographical North Pole. Matthew Henson was born on August 8, 1886 in Nanjemoy,Maryland. He is most well known for accompanying Robert Peary in his attempt to reach the North Pole in 1909. Peary selected Henson to be one of the team of six who would make the final run to the Pole. Before the goal was reached, Peary could no longer continue on foot and rode in a dog sled. Various accounts say he was ill, exhausted, or had frozen toes. In any case, he sent Henson on ahead as a scout. In a newspaper interview Henson said: “I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot” (Ferris 37-8).
Henson then placed the American flag into the ice. In 1912 Matthew Henson wrote the book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole about his expedition to the geographical North Pole. In 1947 he wrote a biography called Dark Companion. Although Robert Peary received many honors, Henson was largely ignored due to his African America heritage. Henson spent the next thirty years working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York.
In 1944 Congress awarded him a duplicate of the silver medal given to Peary. Henson died in the Bronx on March 9, 1955, at the age of 88, and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery. After her death in 1968, his wife Lucy was buried with him. In 1988, the Henson’s’ remains were both exhumed and reburied at Arlington National Cemetery, near the grave of Admiral Peary and his wife. In 1961 a plaque was installed to mark his birthplace in Maryland. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored him in a ceremony before he died in 1955 (Hoena).
Robert Peary was born in Cresson, PA in 1856. Robert Edwin Peary, Sr. was an American explorer who claimed to have led the first expedition, on April 6, 1909, to reach the geographic North Pole. Peary’s claim was widely credited for most of the 20th century. Fredrick Cook, who was a physician that accompanied Peary on previous expeditions, claimed to have reached the North Pole a year before Peary and Henson had. Both claims were widely debated in newspapers. Most modern historians generally believe that Cook did not reach the North Pole, and many doubt that Peary and Henson did as well, although they may have been as close as five miles.
While aboard the ship Peary was injured in a freak accident and was forced to halt his mission to the North Pole while he healed. Peary had broken his leg and lived among the Inuit people of Greenland along with Henson.
While in Greenland both men fathered children with Inuit women. Henson never saw his Inuit wife and child again; however Peary had brought back several children with him to the United States. Most of the children died while in the United States due to the children being unable to adjust to the warm climate. Peary expedition was controversial due to the fact his Inuit wife was only fourteen years old at the time of their “marriage”. Also both Peary and Henson were married, and Peary had children with his own American wife. Peary also took several large meteors, which were the source of iron for the Inuit people, and sold them for $50,000 in order to fund his expeditions (Hoena 27-38).
On April 6, 2009 a statue of Henson and his Inuit dog “King” was designed by the renowned artist and sculptor Mr. John Giannotti and installed at the museum a hundred years from the day Henson first reached the North Pole. The statue was commissioned by the Shipyard and Maritime Museum to honor Henson and bring attention to the accomplishments of the African American explorer. The Niobi wheel, which is the wheel from Peary and Henson’s ship the Roosevelt, is housed in the museum itself as a monument to the explorer’s expedition.
The Shipyard and Maritime Museum partner with Urban Promise. Urban Promises’ mission is to: “Equip Camden’s children and young adults with the skills necessary for academic achievement, life management, spiritual growth, and leadership. We strive to fulfill this mission through after-school programs, summer camps, two schools, experiential learning, job training, and a host of other programs that challenge youth to develop and realize their potential” (www.urbanpromise.org). Urban Promise with NJ Boat and Urban Trekkers with the help of AmeriCorp volunteers, provide a program for the children of Camden that teaches youth how to build boats and build confidence.
Another historical Camden industry was the New York Ship building Corperation. New York Ship was founded in 1899 and opened its first building in 1900 located on the east shore of the Delaware River in Camden. New York Ship built more than 500 vessels for the U.S. Navy, the United States Merchant Marine, the United States Coast Guard, and other maritime corporations. It was mostly funded in large part by Pittsburgh‘s Mellon Financial Company and Andrew W. Mellon himself. New York Ship produced aircraft carriers, battleships, luxury liners, barges and car floats. At the company’s peak during World War II, it was the largest and most productive shipyard in the world. Its best known vessels are the cruiser the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), and the nuclear powered cargo ship NS Savannah. The museum houses artifacts from many of the carriers built in Camden. Museum visitors can view wooden models of the ship parts as well as original blue prints (Baisden 77-92).
The NS Savannah, named after the SS Savannah, was the first nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship. Built in the late 1950s at a cost of $46.9 million, the ship included a $28.3 million nuclear reactor and fuel core. The building of the vessels was funded by United States government and its agencies. Savannah was a demonstration project for the potential use of nuclear energy. Launched in July 1959, the Savannah was in service between 1962 and 1972 as one of only four nuclear-powered cargo ships ever built.
The USS Indianapolis was a war vessel for the United States Navy during World War II. The USS Indianapolis served as flagship for Admiral Spruance while he commanded battles in the Pacific. The Indianapolis’s sinking was the greatest loss of life at sea in the history of the United States Navy. On July 30, 1945, shortly after delivering parts for the first atomic bomb, the ship was torpedoed by a submarine from the Japanese Navy.
The USS Indianapolis sank in less than twelve minutes. Of the 1,196 crewmen aboard, approximately 300 went down with the ship when it sank. The remaining 900 men faced exposure, dehydration, and shark attacks as they waited for assistance while floating with few lifeboats and little food and water. The Navy learned of the sinking when survivors were spotted four days later by another United States vessel on patrol. Only 316 sailors had survived by the time of rescue. The USS Indianapolis was the last major U.S. Navy ship sunk by enemy attacks in World War II (Morison 123-9).
The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), was the second naval ship named after Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the site of the Wright brothers‘ first airplane flight. The USS Kitty Hawk was both the first and last active ship of her class, and the last oil fired aircraft carrier in service with the US Navy. The USS Kitty Hawk was built in December of 1956 and launched in May of 1960, sponsored by Mrs. McElroy, wife of the then Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy; and was commissioned on April of 1961 at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard (General Books 12-78).
With the decommissioning of the USS Independence in September of 1998, the Kitty Hawk became the United States warship with the second longest “active” status in the United States Navy. For over ten years the Kitty Hawk was the forward-deployed carrier at a naval base in Japan. The USS Kitty Hawk then returned to the United States where it was decommissioned in a ceremony in January of 2009 after nearly forty-nine years of service in the United States Navy (Morrison 42-97).
The Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum as it stands today is a memorial to the City of Camden’s once thriving shipbuilding and maritime history. The Henson statue as well as its memorabilia from New York ship serves as a monument to the City of Camden. The building that houses the museum itself, The Church of Our Savior, is also a memorial to the people of Fairview who worked for the company and made Camden “the greatest little city”.
Baisden, Cheryl, L. Camden, NJ (Images of America Series) Aracdia Publishing LC. May 2006.
Ferris, Jeri. Artic Explorer Matthew Henson. Lener Publishing Group. February 1990.
General Books LLC. Vietnam War aircraft carriers of the United States: USS Kitty Hawk, USS Enterprise, USS America, Essex class aircraft carrier, USS Yorktown. May 2008.
Hoena, B.A. Matthew Henson. Pebble Books. 2005
Morison, Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. University of Illinois Press. 2001.