By Larry Pearson
The year was 1895. Grover Cleveland was in the second of his two nonconsecutive terms as President of the United States. In Mobile, Ala. a new shipyard opened at the ft. of Palmetto Street, named Harrison Brothers Dry Dock& Repair Yard, Inc. About 1915, it moved across the Mobile River to Blakely Island and they have been located there ever since.
In 1958, the company opened a second shipyard about a mile south of the original location. Today the original facility is known as the Upper Yard and handles brown water repair and the Lower Yard is for blue water projects, although crossover projects do occur. Recently a 100-ft. barge came in for repair and the dry dock at the upper or brown water yard was not available to handle it, so the Lower Yard did the repair. President of the company is Bill Harrison III, who took over the job from his father Bill Harrison, Jr. in 1986. "My father is now chairman of the board of the company and still beats us all into work on a lot of mornings," Harrison said. Bill Harrison, Jr. became president of the company in 1946 assuming the reins from his Father Bill Sr. who became president in the 1930's(his father and uncles who shared the position from the shipyard's inception. If a young "sparkplug" kind of a guy is the secret of many companies, then Harrison Brothers is well set for the future. Mark Tate is head of contracts of the company and is thoroughly indoctrinated with the easygoing confidence that has obviously "rubbed off" from the Harrison father and son team. "This company is amazing," Tate explained. "It was built on listening to the customer and then doing it their way to meet or exceed their expectations and also do it in a way that also maximized the value for the customer," Tate added.
Harrison Brothers has literally seen it all during their 109-year history. "Our yard was taken over by the Federal Government during World War II," Harrison explained. Then from the mid 1990's until a year ago, we thought we were going to lose the Lower Yard to the state's right of Eminent Domain," Harrison said. It seemed that the State of Alabama wanted to put another bridge across the Mobile River and one of the large bridge supports would be in the center of the shipyard, effectively closing it. "The project died about a year ago when the state got the idea of building the bridge to bypass the entire area and we were allowed to keep our shipyard. I can only think that Divine Intervention played a big part in this decision," Harrison said.
Both yards are kept busy with a variety of projects. "We contract to do a super wide range of work here, well beyond normal ship repair": Tate said. "We store vessels at our Lower Yard, have a crane barge that we can take on the river to do anything from deliver groceries to move loads onto or off a vessel," Tate said. Jobs with the barge in Mississippi and Florida are not unusual for this "can do" yard.
Recently, the lower yard had the American Pioneer on dock. This 185-ft. supply boat was in for the usual regulatory inspections but also had hull steel replaced and the normal removal of the rudders and wheels and other below the waterline work. After blasting and painting the vessel was on its way back into the Gulf of Mexico.
Chemical barges owned by Olin Chemical
Company and others are frequent visitors to Harrison Brothers. "In addition to the normal below the water line work, we had to replace some structural members inside the vessel, "Harrison said. Harrison Brothers employs 22 people at both yards. "We certainly are not the biggest repair yard in this area, but we can handle a lot of different kind of work well and have been doing it for over 100 years, so people in this area know us and most importantly trust us and our work," Harrison said.
When the casino building boom was in full swing about a decade ago, Harrison Brothers was in that hunt as well working on various barge projects
for Palace Casino.
The big news that has Harrison Brothers particularly pleased is the work they have been doing for the Coast Guard on their Inland Construction Tenders and River Buoy Tenders. Rumor has it that the Company wasn't sure about taking on Coast Guard work.
The story is that many decades ago the on-site Coast Guard rep and the Company settled one dispute with a fistfight. No one is sure who won or even if the story is true, but it is one more colorful chapter in the long history of Harrison Brothers.
Apparently this story had no impact on the bidding as Harrison Brothers got first one and then a second contract to overhaul these units. "These are tug barge units with a crane on the barge," Tate explained.
"The Coast Guard was so pleased with the work we did on the Axe that had a 65 ft. barge, we are now working on the Cheyenne, a similar vessel but with a 100-ft. barge," Harrison added.
The company replaced all of the steel on the bottom of the hull and did a lot of underwater and topside repairs on both vessels.
"We think we will get other Coast Guard work based on our performance on these two vessels," Harrison said, "and they have a lot of these tug-barge units all about the same vintage built in the early to mid 1960's. It fits real well into kind of work we like to do."