Divine Burtis Shipyard, 1840-1905

Divine Burtis, Jr, born in 1802 near Huntington Long Island and died in Brooklyn on October 7, 1896 a respected ship builder.  He is buried in Greeenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn.

In the historical record, there a bit of inconsistency as to whether Burtis spelled his first name as "Divine" or "Devine." Several Brooklyn directories list his name as "Devine" but his gravemarker has it etched in stone that he was "Divine."

Burtis learned the trade of shipbuilder at Northport, working along side his grandfather, according to some accounts.  He then moved to New York City's Greenwhich Village to start his own yard.  He was only briefly there before moving his operation across the river, where in 1840 he established himself at the foot of Bridge Street in what is now DUMBO. 

Sometime between 1851 and 1856 (according to the Brooklyn Directories of the time), Burtis made his final move to the foot of Conover Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 26, 1910, reported that he aquired his first stretch of Red Hook property in December of 1851 from Cornelius H. Sheehan and wife, and an adjoining property the following year from John Dikeman and wife. The property had once been part of the farm of Nicholas Van Dyke.

Divine Burtis was married four times, his six children all born to his first wife. His oldest son, George, was a soldier in the Civil War and died in the Andersonville prison pen.  He retired in 1870 and his son Divine Burtis Jr. took over the business. Burtis Jr. died in 1896, leaving the shipyard to his son, Divine Burtis, 3d, who ran it until 1904.

Around that time, Schuyler & Caddell took over operation of the yard. For many years prior, Caddell had been foreman of the yard.

Between 1840 and 1901, Burtis built ferries for New York ferry companies, the Central and Pennsylvania Rail Road companies, and the New Jersey Railroad and Transportation Co.

Among the boats Burtis built in Red Hook were several for the New Jersey Railroad and T. including the ferry JERSEY CITY (1862), weighing in at 982 ton, 207 feet long, 63 feet wide with a 625 hp condensing beam engine; and the NEW BRUNSWICK (1866), a 909 ton 206 foot long, 65 foot wide ferry with a similar engine to the JERSEY CITY.

Unfortunately, the most famous boat that Burtis built (in the era that Divine Burtis, Jr. managed the yard)  was the ill-fated GENERAL SLOCUM.  She was launched in 1891 for the Knickerbocker Steam Ship Company as a tour boat for excursions along the river. 

The GENERAL SLOCUM tragically caught fire and sank on June 15, 1904, killing 1,021 people in horrific fashion with a highly visible fireball at the aptly named Hell Gate of the East River. Captain Van Schaick ran the ship into the shallows to reduce casualties, but hundreds of passengers who could not swim had jumped overboard, and many bodies washed up on the beach, most of them women and children. The trip was the annual end-of-school excursion for Kleindeutschland, aka "Germantown," a neighborhood of German immigrants on Manhattan's Lower East Side.  The SLOCUM was the deadliest fire with the most casualties in New York City until 9/11. It devastated Germantown and led to its demise.

The reasons for the large loss of life included the lack of maintenance of the fire hoses and life preservers to the extent that they were useless when needed, the lack of fire drills and established safety procedures, and  the failure of the inspection service to catch these issues.  

See the recent art project by Cindy Vojnovic memorializing the SLOCUM fire.

A nostalgic article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 1909, described the Burtis Shipyard as the last surviving yard in Brooklyn that still had the flavor of the days of wooden ship building.  The yard, behind warehouses and lumber piles, had two old marine railways (used to bring ships in and out of the water), a small floating dock and ship carpenters at work making repairs

The Divine Burtis ship yard, according to a 1910 edition of The Nautical Gazette, was sold at auction to T. B. Johnson of 59 Pearl street in Manhattan, for $94,000. 

A list of ships built in the shipyard of Divine Burtis  can be found at the