A History of Greenpoint in 25 Buildings: 85 Calyer Street

Thomas Fitch Rowland, illustration by Aubrey Nolan
Thomas Fitch Rowland, illustration by Aubrey Nolan

85 Calyer Street looks like many other frame houses in Greenpoint, but it was the home of the greatest mechanical genius to ever live in Greenpoint, Thomas Fitch Rowland, and one of the most important short conversations in American history took place in the parlor there. First, though, lets get a little background on the owner of the house, Thomas Fitch Rowland.

Rowland was born in Connecticut in 1831 and became a railroad engineer, quickly becoming one of the leading experts in the design and construction of steam engines. However, he decided to leave railroad engineering, switching to the construction of steam engines for sailing ships and also developing an expertise in metallurgy. He was soon invited to come to Greenpoint to build ships because of his twin areas of expertise. By 1859 he founded his own company, the legendary Continental Iron Works on Quay Street. Two years later, he would help make history when visionary Swedish naval engineer John Ericsson approached him about building a revolutionary ship in Greenpoint, the ironclad Monitor, which would revolutionize warfare making wooden ships obsolete.

Painting of USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Image: Library of Congress
Painting of USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Image: Library of Congress

In October of 1862 Ericsson visited Rowland at 85 Calyer and showed him a model of the futuristic battleship the Swede intended to build saying, “You want money; I want fame. You can do the mechanical work on this vessel in your shipyard, but it is my conception.” Ericsson explained that the ship had to be completed in an incredibly short time frame—a hundred days. On October 25, an agreement between Ericsson and Rowland was signed. Work started on the same day the contract was signed, October 25, 1861.

85 Calyer Street, via Google Maps
85 Calyer Street today, via Google Maps

Ericsson made daily visits to the house on Calyer Street over the hundred and one days it took to build the revolutionary ship. Both men worked furiously, sleeping little, but meeting the short deadline. Many believed that the heavy iron ship would sink when it was launched into the East River on January 30, 1862, but it floated and joined the Union Blockade of Hampton Roads, Virginia just in the nick of time. On the day before the Monitor arrived, a Confederate ship, the Virginia, had sunk many Union wooden ships, threatening to break the Northern blockade and end the war. The Monitor made history the next day on March 9, 1862 when it fought the rebel ironclad ship to a standstill. The era of wooden warships had ended.

The Monitor was not the only ship built by Rowland who built several other Monitor type ships here in Greenpoint. The Continental Iron Works employed fifteen hundred men during the war, making Rowland a very rich man in the process and helping the North to win the Civil War. Rowland’s plant also produced the seven and a half foot thick cast iron piping that made the Croton Reservoir possible. However, Rowland made history in another way that even the biggest Greenpoint history buffs probably do not know.

On May 4, 1869, Rowland received a patent for his “submarine drilling apparatus.” Rowland’s patent (No. 89,794) for a fixed, working platform for drilling offshore to a depth of almost 50 feet pioneered modern offshore drilling technology. The offshore drilling rigs that produce much of the world’s oil were first envisioned by the amazing mechanical genius from Calyer Street. Rowland died in 1907. His work on the Monitor and his pioneering design of the offshore oil rig changed history.

Thomas Fitch Rowland was also a patron of the Church of the Ascension—read more here.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over twenty years and is the author of a history of the area Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past.