Stephen R. Kirby was a Great Lakes ship captain, shipbuilder, and facilities contractor.
Stephen Kirby was born in 1824 at Spring Port (or Springport), New York. He started his Great Lakes sailing career in 1836 (at twelve years of age) as a hand on the Lake Erie schooner A. P. Starkey. In 1842, Kirby joined the American Fur Company? working various ships between Sault Ste. Marie and Detroit. In 1845, Kirby was finally granted his own ship (the schooner Uncle Sam) and during the next year he captained the Chicago, a screw steamship, one of the first three screw propeller steamships on the lakes. Two years later, Stephen Kirby outfitted the Eureka. At the time, the Eureka was the lakes' largest ship and was the first lake boat to travel to California. Kirby outfitted the ship at Cleveland for 59 passengers, and it sailed in 1849.1 After rounding the horn, it arrived in California in five months.2
In 1853, New York & Saginaw financier Jesse Hoyt? started Kirby in the shipbuilding business by financing a shipworks in Saginaw, Michigan. Kirby also invested also in the shipworks, and he also invested in other Saginaw businesses such as a hotel (the Bancroft House), and a mill (Mayflower Mills).3 In 1859, Hoyt and other Saginaw men financed the construction of the East Saginaw Salt Manufacturing Company for the drilling of brine and the manufacture of salt. Being one of the first brining operations in Michigan, they were lacking in knowledge about processes and machinery and so sent Kirby and George W. Merrill? to a salt works in Syracuse, New York. They learned about the operation and purchased machinery to ship back to Saginaw.4
Kirby also designed ships for the U.S. government during the American Civil War. In 1866, Kirby got interested in mining, becoming chief engineer for the Montana Land & Mining Company.5 Kirby returned to Michigan in 1867 and in 1868 built for Hoyt and the Schoolcraft Mining Company? a copper mine at Houghton, Michigan.6
In 1870, Kirby bought into Gordon Campbell?'s Campbell & Owen Shipyard. In 1871, he became general superintendent of the works.7 In 1872, he incorporated the Detroit Dry Dock and capitalized it at $300,000.8
During the 1880s, Kirby engaged himself in the construction of grain elevators, building both the large Erie Railway elevator at Jersey City and the massive C&O elevator at Newport News, VA.9
Kirby's brother constructed the Jay Cooke?. A side-wheel passenger steamer built at Detroit and launched in 1868. Later renamed City of Sandusky, it was the most opulent ship of its day. It remained in service until 1897.11
Kirby retired to New York City and died there on January 29, 1906.12
1. ⇑ James Cooke Mills, History of Saginaw County Michigan: Historical, Commercial, Biographical vol. II (Saginaw, MI: Seeman & Peters, 1918), 165; "Canadiana Architect Frank E. Kirby," A Tribute to the SS Canadiana (Buffalo[?]: Mr. Lee Online, n.d. [but after 2004]). ⇑
6. ⇑ James Cooke Mills, History of Saginaw County Michigan: Historical, Commercial, Biographical vol. II (Saginaw, MI: Seeman & Peters, 1918), 165. ⇑
9. ⇑ Charles Moore, The History of Michigan, vol. III (Chicago: The Lewis publishing Co., 1915), 1471-2; James Cooke Mills, History of Saginaw County Michigan: Historical, Commercial, Biographical vol. II (Saginaw, MI: Seeman & Peters, 1918), 166; Mark St. John Erickson, "Remembering the spectacular Sept. 4-5, 1915 fire that torched a Newport News landmark," Newport News Daily Press, September 4, 2018 (archived). ⇑
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