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Peterson Building, Inc. Minesweepers

A Ship Being Launched from PBI Docks (PBI Continuing Excellence, 1983-1993.)

Peterson Builders, Inc. was considered “the builders of minesweepers of the world.” Being a shipyard that was able to build a ship out of many materials, Peterson Builders, Inc. (PBI) was known as one of the most versatile shipyards in the world. Their versatility is what grabbed the attention of the United States Navy after WWII which awarded the company contracts to construct minesweepers.

Located in Sturgeon Bay, WI, PBI goes back to 1908 when Fred Peterson started his career in his father’s boatyard as a company known as Peterson Boat Works. In 1918, Peterson Boat Works burned down, though it wasn’t until 1933 when Fred rebuild Peterson Boat Works. The company was know for building vessels for their private clients. They were especially known for building a reliable wooden ship. During World War II, the company did business with the United States Navy and Army, building sub chasers and rescue boats that were used during the war. However, PBI was most famous in the shipbuilding world for building state-of-the-art minesweepers after World War 2.

Ellsworth Peterson, son of Fred and Irene, began his maritime career in 1941 when he served on tankers in World War II. Fred came back to the family business after World War II and worked under his father for 20 years until he became president in 1965. Under Ellsworth’s leadership, PBI emerged as an international shipbuilder, constructing over 800 different ships for 13 countries. The biggest contract that Fred landed was the naval contract for building the Avenger mine countermeasure ships to replenish the navy with new minesweepers.

The Ship That Gets Other Ships To Work

Most people are familiar with the game Battleship and the ships in that game as the main ships of the U.S. Navy, but minesweepers are some of the most important ships the navy needs. Minesweepers are used by the United States Navy to map out and clear mine fields so that other ships are able to pass through the mine fields safely through the water. Mines are cheap and easy to set so many poorer countries can afford them, so the United States needs minesweepers wherever their ships go.

There are two types of mines that these ships search to destroy. One mine is a buoyant contact mine and the other type of mine sits at the bottom of the sea and detonates due to noise, water pressure, or magnetic influence. Since a lot of these mines could be triggered by a magnetic influence, the hulls of the PBI minesweepers were built from laminatedwood and non-ferrous materials. Even the equipment installed was non-magnetic which made the boats very expensive to build since so much had to be special ordered. PBI’s reputation as a company who built reliable wooden ships is what really propelled them into the minesweeper business.

A lot went in to building minesweeper at PBI, and it  took a 3-shift workforce with over 1,000 workers to build these ships. A lot of people who worked on the ships were local people that were either born and raised in Door County or people that moved to the area for a job in shipbuilding. A lot of people who worked for these companies had military experience as well.

The Tale of an Employee

Bill Graf, a native of Door County, was one of thousands of people who worked for the shipbuilding giant. Bill was native to Door County because, like him, his parents also worked for PBI. Bill’s father was a carpenter while his mother worked in material control, maintaining records and ordering parts. Bill graduated from Sturgeon Bay High School in 1961 and joined the Navy in January 1963 after working through high school to join the nuclear submarine program. He went to boot camp and electrician mate school in San Diego where he learned his trade for the navy and later in life at Peterson Builders Inc.

During his time in the Navy, Bill served aboard the USS Bashaw, a World War II submarine which is the sister ship to the USS Cobia which is currently moored at the Manitowoc Maritime Museum. Bill continued his schooling in the military by attending the Nuclear Power School and Reactor training. Bill served on subs until 1970 when he was discharged and came back to work in Wisconsin.

During Bill’s time at Peterson Builder Inc, he was in cable pulling and lighting crews on the ship. In Bill’s words, this was one of the jobs he was in charge of on the ships:

The 1st electrical cables to be installed were the degaussing cables, a series of multi-conductor cables run for to aft around the sides and top to bottom and port to stbd. the length and width of the hull.  These cables were connected to form coils which were utilized to neutralize the magnetic signature of the ship.  This was a MAJOR task since some of the cables were 2 inches in diameter and did not bend easily. Holes had to be bored through frames that were 10 to 12                    inches thick.  The paths for these cables were laid out by the design engineers and no deviation was allowed.  These cables were always run in one piece-no junction boxes permitted.

This was just one of the many jobs that Bill was in charge of working. With his lighting crews, Bill and his crew installed the 120 volt AC and DC electrical system on the ship. Bill was just one example of what the employees did at PBI while building the minesweepers. Other people performed other tasks such as office workers, engineers, salesmen, and many more occupations at Peterson Builders Inc.

PBI Minesweepers Built for the Navy

The location of the shipyard was prime when it came to getting materials to the yard. Sturgeon Bay is located in Northern Lake Michigan and has a harbor that allowed ships to come in easily and deliver materials to the shipyard. Also, rail lines came into the ship yard which allowed other materials to be shipped by rail into town.

The building of minesweepers first started in 1954 when contracted by the U.S. Navy to build 5 minesweepers each 57 feet in length. Other countries started taking notice at the quality of minesweepers being built at PBI and contracted PBI to build them minesweepers as well. The Netherlands, France, Belgium, and even South Korea are just a few countries that contracted PBI to build minesweepers.

The PBI Shipyard (Door County Pulse)

From 1958-1982, PBI hadn’t built a Minesweeper for the United States Navy, although it had plenty of other contracts from the US military building various ships of different uses and sizes. In 1982, the company was contracted to build a new fleet of minesweepers for the US Navy.

When the minesweepers were first being built in the mid 1980s, the workers were rushing to build the first Avenger-class ships because they were behind schedule. The first ship was supposed to be completed by September 1985, the the ship was delayed because of its complexity. The main problem with the first few ships was an engineering problem. The engine and the main gears on the first and second ships being built did not match. The vessels were also much more expensive than expected. The original costs for the ships were around $100 million but were $53 million over their estimated price.

Even though the first minesweepers took longer than expected and cost more than originally thought, it proves how thorough Peterson Shipbuilding Inc was when it came to putting out a finished product. The company was not willing to meet the costs or deadline if that meant that the product was not going to be perfect. Even though there were hiccups in the first projects, this went to further prove why the shipbuilding company was an elite company when it came to building quality ships.

The hold ups on the project were necessary, but they were not viewed upon favorably by either the Navy or PBI. Both Ellsworth Peterson and Everett Pyatt, the assistant secretary of the Navy for shipbuilding at the time, called it “embarrassing” about the delays. However, neither placed blame on each other, rather, they put a collective blame on all involved because the prototype was unrealistic to build and modifications had to be made.

The moment of truth for one of the ships would be the sea trials. The Navy would take the ships out into either Green Bay or Lake Michigan and test the ships for their designed use. These were some of the most stressful times according to President Ellsworth Peterson because if the ships were to work, there would not be much else to do on the ships. However, if the Navy discovered a glaring problem with the ship, they would have to fix it and if they could not fix it, it was back to the drawing board for the Navy and Peterson Builders Inc.

As the project was delayed, the curiosity of the ships heightened, so the security heightened as well. The Navy inspectors would be all over the shipyard watching the carpenters, electricians, and other workers at the shipyard. It was tough to get clearance on to the sight, as even a troop of local Gril Scouts needed naval clearance to tour PBI.

Many workers for the company took pride in their work. With matters in the Persian Gulf flaring up, the employees knew that getting the ships out the fastest and as best as possible was a priority. From a New York Times article, some of the employees expressed how important their work felt to them. ”You bet we’re proud to be part of this,” said Steve Gevrts, a 29-year-old pipefitter. ”This isn’t just another job.” Other people felt like their work was felt all over the world, especially in the Persian Gulf. ”Usually those places like Iran -and all their trouble – seems so far away, but this really brings it all home,” said Carol Overbeck, a 43-year-old secretary at Peterson. ”Even though I’m not actually working on the boats themselves, I feel like I’m helping the country. They need these. And they need them quick.”

As construction on the fleet continued, the workers stuck the course and completed the Avenger class of minesweepers. Even with the delays, there was pride among Peterson supervisors and naval officers. The following was a quote from a Chicago Tribune article talking about the ships themselves. “We think it’s the best ship in the world for our purposes,” said Cmdr. Robert Rawls, the Avenger`s captain, who has been in Sturgeon Bay for two years. “It’s designed to lead ships out of any area of the world.”

After the fleets completion in 1994, no more minesweepers were ever built at PBI. In fact, the Avenger class was the last United States military contract that PBI received. Once the Avenger class was built and delivered, PBI took a huge hit and had to lay off much of its workforce. In September of 1995, Larry Maples, a former officer of Peterson Builders Inc bought the company’s marine and industrial division, marking the first time that a Peterson did not own PBI as Ellsworth Peterson was set to retire.

Under new ownership, PBI was set to get its workforce from 150 to 300 people. During 1992, PBI employed around 1,000 people at the time. Also, Maples changed the name of the compan to Poseidon Shipbuilding LLC. Maples motivation behind buying the company was to keep manufacturing jobs in Sturgeon Bay. Poseidon Shipbuilding LLC did not last long in Sturgeon Bay and by 1997, the shipyard and the companies that called it home were no more.

Ellsworth knew after the Avenger class of minesweepers the he and his company were in trouble. Due to a declining U.S. defense budget and subsidies to foreign shipbuilders, there was not going to be work like there was for PBI anymore, and within a few years of the Avenger class being finished, PBI became a part of the history books in shipbuilding on the Great Lakes.


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