German Immigrant’s Drawing of Hamburg Shipyard Returns to Home City After 162 Years

Mar 30, 2017

William Karl Wilburn Enlarge image William Karl Wilburn holds the package containing his great-grandfather's drawing. (© Like many immigrants, when Gustav Oskar Pfeiffer came to the United States from Germany in the mid-1800s he brought a piece of his homeland with him: his detailed drawing of a Hamburg shipyard. This was no small sketch, however. Dated 1855, it is a highly-detailed pencil drawing on two long sheets of paper, which he presumably rolled up for storage. Now, 162 years later, that 6-and-a-half-foot-long drawing is making its way back to its origin. Gustav’s great-grandson, Maryland attorney William Karl Wilburn has decided to donate the drawing, which has always been in his family, to the Hamburg History Museum.

Wilburn, who has worked with the Embassy in the past, visited the Embassy recently to display his great-grandfather’s drawing and share the story of this family artifact. (Video below)

1855 drawing Enlarge image Drawing by Gustav Oskar Pfeiffer (© “He was a young ships architect in Hamburg,” Wilburn said of Gustav Oskar Pfeiffer. “This drawing has been rattling around in our family and passed down from one generation to another, usually finding a forlorn spot in someone’s basement, most recently in mine. I felt that it should be given new life, and I intend to give this to the city museum of Hamburg, and I have been in touch with them, and they have graciously accepted the offer.”

Olaf Matthes, head of the Photographic Collection and Archive at the Museum für Hamburgische Geschicthe (museum for Hamburg history), said the museum is happy to accept Wilburn’s generous donation. “This is a piece of local, regional history that has become global history,” Matthes said of the drawing, which he has so far seen only in photographs. As part of the museum’s holdings, the drawing would expand and enhance the graphics collection, he said. The museum’s experts will determine if the piece requires restoration and whether funds would be available for the work.

Hamburg Harbor Enlarge image (© dpa) The story of Gustav Oskar Pfeiffer that has been passed down in the family is that he was born in the late 1830s in Schkeuditz, near Leipzig in Saxony. He worked as a naval architect in Hamburg, where he apparently made the drawing of the Reiherstieg shipyard.  Located in the Wilhelmsburg district of the city, Reiherstieg was once one of the largest shipyards in the bustling harbor city and was owned by Joh. Ces. Godeffroy & Sohn at the time of the drawing. 

Once in the United States, Gustav either volunteered for or was conscripted by the Union Navy during the Civil War and designed ships for the war effort in New York. Wilburn said that he likely gained US citizenship through his wartime service. After the war, he married an American woman, invested in real estate, even buying a ranch in Wyoming, and traveled frequently back to Germany with his wife and children “in grand style,” Wilburn said. “He lived the American dream.” Gustav Oskar Pfeiffer died in 1913. Wilburn was close to his maternal grandfather, Gustav’s son Karl Erwin Pfeiffer, who has able to tell him about the story.

Wilburn himself speaks fluent German, thanks to an influential German teacher in the United States and a year he spent at a boarding school in Bavaria in the 1960s while his father was in Europe on a Navy assignment. Wilburn was working as a lawyer in Baltimore in 1980 when he learned of a DAAD program to study German and European law, so he returned to Germany, this time with his wife, to study law at the University of Tubingen and to intern at a law firm. That experience and his fluency in German led him to eventually start his own firm concentrating in construction and government contracts and often working with international clients. 

“I am very happy that the city of Hamburg museum has expressed interest in this and I certainly think it deserves a homecoming back to Hamburg.”