Structural Material Considerations for the First Graving Dock in St. John ’s, Newfoundland Harbour


  • Gary Caul


The graving dock in St. John’s, Newfoundland is located at the south western end of the harbour at “River Head”. Its placement is ideal because it is more or less dry during low tide and occupies an area with little traffic. The first graving dock was of wood construction and the original contract dates back to 1882. In 1882 the advantages of having an upgraded dry dock were known for almost forty years. The earliest reference found was in 1856, when an American entrepreneur, Cyrus Field, published a pamphlet. It showed the advantages of the location of St. John’s along Atlantic shipping routes and he predicted a great future for St. John’s if the dock facilities could be improved. Up to 1882 a floating dry dock was employed, but this was not sustainable as the floating dock began to deteriorate and become unsafe for lifting purposes. Also, enlarging the floating dock would be superfluous. This put pressure on government, along with economic demands, to build a permanent graving dock in St. John’s. The government entered into a contract with J.E. Simpson and Sons of New York at a cost of $550,000, in 1882, for the construction of a wooden graving dock. Before work could commence, thorough research was conducted to ensure the most suitable structural material was selected for the graving dock in St. John’s. The Honourable J. J. Little and St. John’s Harbour Master, Commander G. Robinson, were sent to Boston, Charleston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington City to survey American dry docks for the government of Newfoundland. Little submitted his report on January 2nd, 1883, a bill to construct the graving dock was passed on April 21, 1883, work commenced in May of 1883 and the graving dock opened on December 10th, 1884. The following paper will give a brief history of the graving dock and discuss Little’s survey of the American dry docks through his correspondence with Engineers and those with vested interested in the ship industry. It will highlight the engineering challenges and advantages of both wooden and stone dry docks and it should become apparent why the wooden design was chosen.






Coastal and Ocean Engineering (ENGI.8751)