Shipbuilding company’s new name is fitting tribute to its founder

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Print this page by Robert Powell

When Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding was spun off as a separate, publicly traded company earlier this year, it returned to its roots in search of a name: Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.

That new identity invokes the names of the founders of the company’s two major shipyards in Newport News and Pascagoula, Miss: Collis Huntington and Robert Ingalls, respectively.

As a history buff, I salute the company in its choice for a new name. Too often, companies choose new names that have been ginned up by a marketing firm. The result frequently is a name that defies the logic of spell check, has no historical or regional connection, and ultimately means nothing.

Huntington Ingalls, however, reminds us of two men who were pillars of America’s shipbuilding industry, and in the case of Huntington, much, much more.

In fact, it is hard to know where to begin with Huntington, who founded Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in 1886. In starting the shipyard, he came up with perhaps the first company mission statement: “We will build good ships here, at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but we will build good ships.” The statement is engraved in a plaque on a rock in the shipyard to this day.

Huntington also is a founding father of Newport News and the driving force in completing a railroad from Virginia to the Ohio Valley, a rail link that brought West Virginia coal to piers in Newport News.

Born in a section of Harwinton, Conn., known as “Poverty Hollow,” Huntington first visited the Newport News area as a young traveling peddler. The visit must have made an impression on him because he returned to Virginia decades later after building railroads, and an immense fortune, in the West.

After gold was discovered in California in 1849, Huntington left Oneonta, N.Y., where he and his brother ran a store, and moved to Sacramento. He endured fires, floods and general lawlessness to become a successful merchant selling supplies to prospectors. From there, Huntington and a business associate, Mark Hopkins, linked up with Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker in a venture considered the “moonshot” of the 19th century.

The four men formed the Central Pacific Railroad, which, with the help of generous government loans, began building tracks headed east from the West Coast. In May 1869, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific linked up in Promontory, Utah, driving a golden spike to complete the transcontinental railroad.

Huntington later went on to develop another western railroad that crossed New Mexico and Arizona eventually reaching to New Orleans —  the Southern Pacific —  and to wage a famous feud with Stanford.  But, starting in 1869, much of his attention was devoted to the development of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. By 1873, the railroad had completed a transportation link from Virginia to the Ohio Valley, a dream held by Virginians since George Washington proposed the building of the James River and Kanawha Canal in the 18th century. (The C&O also became connected to the Southern Pacific system, which grew to more than 9,000 miles of track.)

The eastern end of the C&O was originally in Richmond, but Huntington developed an additional line through the Peninsula to coal piers in Newport News. The rail link from the Appalachian Mountains to Hampton Roads helped develop an overseas market for West Virginia coal. Huntington, W.Va., in fact, was named in honor of Collis Huntington.

Huntington, however, wasn’t done yet. He helped spearhead the development of Newport News, which became an independent Virginia city in 1896 without ever becoming a town.

Huntington also was a major supporter of a school for African-Americans in Hampton, which became Hampton University. When the school’s founder, former Union Gen. Samuel Chapman Armstrong, suffered a stroke while visiting New York in 1892, Huntington provided a private rail car to transport him back to Virginia.

Huntington’s generosity extended beyond the grave. He donated his art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Huntington, however, was no saint. He was considered a ruthless competitor and is sometimes included among the railroad “robber barons” of the 19th century. He also made many enemies. “I am rather proud of the enemies I have made,” he once said, according to author George Kraus. “All I ask is that they do not praise me, for then my friends would say: ‘What has Huntington been doing now, that such fellows would praise him?” ’

Huntington, nonetheless, had a huge influence on Newport News and Virginia. Huntington Ingalls Industries, which this year celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Newport News shipyard, is a fitting legacy.

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