Commissioned on Oct 18, 1919, the Army Quartermaster River Steamer Col. J. E. Sawyer was the first concrete passenger vessel made in America. The 700-ton, 128.5-foot ship, able to carry 500 people, was one of nine built from 1919-1920 by the Newport Shipbuilding Corp. of New Bern, N.C. Made of steel and ferrocement, these vessels were named after esteemed deceased army quartermasters. In 1923, Joseph Sable brought the decommissioned Sawyer and an identical ship the Maj. Archibald Butt to Charleston for commercial use. In 1926, the Sawyer sank near Adger’s Wharf creating long-term problems for port authorities who dubbed her the “old sunken hull.” As thousands cheered, the Sawyer was raised on June 22, 1929, after weeks of frustrating yet amusing attempts. The old hull was towed to this site and remains an iconic fixture. Local lore named this steamer the Archibald Butt; however, that vessel was relocated to Miami in 1925.
Brigadier General James Estcourt Sawyer, born in New York in 1846, was of distinguished military lineage. His ancestors served at Ticonderoga in 1758 and Bunker Hill in 1775. Sawyer entered the military at age 19. By 1884, he was Acting Judge Advocate of the Division of the Atlantic and Department of the East. Sawyer served as Aide de Camp to Gen. Schofield who commanded the Department of the Atlantic. Sawyer transferred to the Quartermaster Department in 1893. During the Spanish-American War, he was Chief Quartermaster at Camp Wyckoff, N.Y., Camp Meade, PA, and Augusta, GA. Sawyer served as Special Disbursing Officer to the Philippine Commission and as a member of the Spanish War Claims Board in Washington, D.C. Promoted quickly, he retired as Brigadier General and Chief Quartermaster at the Department of Dakota in 1910. He died on May 29, 1914, in New York and is buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Burlington, VT.