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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

History Matters: Gosport, Before the Match Was Lit – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #5 (written March 26, 2011)

Picking up from my last writing which gave a quick summary of sides being formed, North and South the mood both inside and outside the gates of Gosport were in a word – apprehensive.  The clouds of potential Civil War were building, yet Gosport continued to be a firm anchor as it is today providing employment for about 1,500 locals by constructing and repairing ships for the country.  As described by official reports an overall narrative view of Gosport and its national importance before the outbreak of the war was presented in my last blog.

In order to really appreciate our shore based history today I want to now share of what buildings and facilities were in place before our shipyard suffered it’s second of three major fires, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the inferno.  

Gosport would soon become a smoldering victim of the match under the Union force’s evacuation on April 21, 1861.

Wood by its very nature is temporary, thus buildings become wounded by decay or completing their circle of life in a few decades are in time replaced by other structures.  Brick, a more permanent and lasting material is generally found devoted to more important structures depending on the application and can under the right conditions mark their age by a century or more.  Any building can be damaged by the external forces of nature - rain, wind and flood such as are found on the shores of the Elizabeth yet nothing is completely safe from FIRE.

In all of my readings the definitive civil record and history of this establishment are captured in an 1874 document by Commander Edward P. Lull – History of the United States Navy-Yard at Gosport, Virginia, (Near Norfolk).  Attached is Plate map 2 from this document, it shows in very graphic relation the civil layout of this shipyard in November 1860.  Additional planed buildings are overlaid on this map and if one looks carefully at the water’s edge line in the tracing you can see the great improvements yet to come along by our quay walls.

Plan of the U.S. Navy Yard Norfolk Va.
showing conditions November 1860
Lull – History of the Gosport Navy Yard, 1874
(courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The Drydock was completed by 1834 as was the brick boundary wall both of which survive today.  The Timber Dock was began in 1835 and completed in 1854 providing safe a harbor out of the main channel, we know this structure today as Wet Slip 1. 

A series of brick structures both to the north and south of the Timber Dock were constructed in the from 1840’s to 1860’s serving as a mast house, a foundry, timber sheds, machine shops, ordinance and various stores. 

Some of these buildings are known to us today by our current numbering assignment being – 3, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 & 36.  Both ex-Building’s 28 and 36 became demolished victims in the 1980’s, yet witness proof to the fine qualities of brick construction by having walls 16 inches thick. 

I witnessed their last fight, slowly crumbling under the modern day wreaking ball.

Officer quarters provided the Shipyard Commander and other Navy Yard Officers a place of private residence on station.  Quarters - A, B, C, D & E were all constructed in the 1830’s.  For untold reasons lost to time neither side in 1861 or 1862 set fire to these grand architectural structures of which we can be thankful for today.

In 1851 was constructed a grand entrance gate flanked by an imposing set of wings, along the northern face of the yard.  Today we know this area as Buildings 19 and 51, and the main formal center structure survived till the outbreak of World War 1 to later become what we know as Gate 3. 

Take time, walk Lincoln Street and observe the effects of fire damage to the upper brickwork as the wood roofs burnt off each of these buildings.

Towering along the waterfront were the massive ship houses “A” and “B” of which there are no known photographs, but are shown in their pre-destruction service in an 1861 engraving contained in my prior blog.  Soon they were also wrapped in flames that were seen for miles, marking a new chapter in Gosport’s rich story.

Please consider attending the Naval Shipyard Museum’s program on Saturday April, 2, 2011 entitled – “Gosport Burning” from 10pm – 5pm  to learn more of these 1861 events as there shall be special exhibits and you can learn more about our shipyard’s eventful past because - “history matters”.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gosport, Before the Powder Exploded – 150 Years Ago

Blog #4. March 18, 2011.

The following will be the first in a series of posts ...

In 1861 the Gosport Navy Yard (GNY) was the premier Naval Station for Uncle Sam here along the banks of the Elizabeth River, but in March of 1861 the winds blew with an uneasiness that the images below can not capture. Ultimately, on April 21, 1861, things were about to drastically change the very landscape we work at today, but I will save that till next month to tell.

Plan of the Harbor (Partial Section) of Norfolk and Portsmouth
by Chas. E. Cassell, March 1, 1861.
(Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room)

On February 18th, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated at Montgomery, Alabama, as President of the Confederate States of America. On March 4th, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President of the United States. The atmosphere hung heavy with the dark clouds of a civil war coming on. Newsprint of the time was full of speculation of Mr. Lincoln’s recent call for arming of troops. Likewise the South began to establish a formal military structure. Sides were being drawn and soon talk of secession was in the air throughout the South. With the April 12, 1861, action at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the die was cast for the ultimate direction that Virginia would take: succeeding from the Union on April 17th, 1861.

But now back to life at GNY before the late unpleasantness –

I want to paint a mental image for you what Gosport was like and will cover our canvas with a collection of statements contained in 36th Congress, 1st Session, House of Representatives, Document Number 34 of March 2, 1860, that was really an investigation report on all the Navy Yard conditions at the time. Also, with a look back using 37th Congress, Senate, Document Number 37 of April 18, 1862, that provides colorful background before the destruction of Gosport, this document frames an accurate written account of the physical shipyard appearance and shipbuilding infrastructure leading up to the raging inferno yet to come.

Upon the date of the visit of June 20, 1859, in the first mentioned document the following lead statement was made that reads in part, "It is the largest and most important yard in the United States" . . . Later within this document is found "The general appearance of the yard is good, and the buildings in pretty good order, with the exception of the ship-houses”. Writer’s note -- the large ship-house structures you see in the below engraving were erected in 1820 overtop of the stone building ways, so being constructed entirely of wood and with dirt floors, forty years later they must have been a sight to see. It is at this location, just north of the iconic Hammerhead Crane today we have a large parking lot. So just under our feet remain the granite ruins of both ship-houses "A"& "B".

Gosport - The Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia.
Harper's Weekly, March 16, 1861.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Found within the Senate review, a detailed narrative of Gosport is given. "This yard was one of the oldest naval depots in the country, and since its original establishment had been very much enlarged in area. At the time of its abandonment, on 20th of April, 1861, it was about three-fourths of a mile long and one-fourth of a mile wide, being by far the most extensive and valuable yard in the possession of the United States.

There was connected with it a dry dock of granite like the Charlestown dry dock. The yard was covered with machine shops, dwelling-houses for officers, and storehouses of various kinds. There were in it two ship-houses entire and another in progress of erection, marine barracks, sail loft, riggers' loft, gunners' loft, numerous smith shops and sheds, carpenters' shops and sheds, machine shops, timber sheds, foundries, dispensary, saw-mill, boiler shop, burnetizing-house, spar-house, provision-house, numerous dwellings, and a large amount of tools and machinery. There were also great quantities of material, provisions, and ammunition of every description".

All of this was about to change, Gosport Navy Yard would never be the same because – "history matters".

Stay tuned .....

100 Years Ago, March 1911 - The Sinking of the former U.S.S. TEXAS

Blog #3. March 14, 2011.

The Norfolk Navy Yard can claim many first accomplishments and one of our finest was the construction of the Navy’s first Battleship, the U.S.S. TEXAS built 1889-1892.
Recently a new age in ship construction had arrived here on the shores of the Elizabeth River with the passing of wood and sail to the new age of iron and steam when this shipyard converted the steam-frigate Merrimac into the CSS Virginia three decades prior. As revolutionary as this radical change in naval construction was, the construction of TEXAS marked the beginnings of the modern navy and even more advanced design changes.
The TEXAS was authorized August 8, 1886, laid down June 1, 1889, with commissioning on August 15, 1895.
TEXAS shown alongside of ex-Building 28
Location is modern Berths 7 & 8
Circa 1905 Postcard
Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins

The site of this amazing feat of construction of such a large vessel was actually on the former site of ship-house "B" just north of our Hammerhead Crane by utilizing the granite building ways incline first laid down in 1820. I am currently gathering construction photos and will be making a future display to document the construction progress. The battleship came to life one rivet at a time and we have some actual shipyard photos to prove it!
Both the TEXAS and the MAINE were actually prototypes of the entire battleship class to come, thus they are not represented by the traditional "BB" hull designations. Each ship was slightly different in design to prove different construction techniques. Plans were actually from an English shipbuilder who won $15,000 in prize money after competing amongst other naval architects.
The main battery consisted of two 12 inch breach loading rifle guns set in turrets, placed "in echelon" which is to say that they are not on centerline with the ship. TEXAS had its forward gun on the port side and its stern gun on the starboard side both in the amidships area. This design was reversed for MAINE but again this was the age of experimentation. Protection came from her belted armor design some 12 inches thick, running a length of one hundred and fourteen feet down each side and six feet wide, showing only two feet above the waterline.
If you visit the Naval Museum on High Street you can see a part of this actual armor belt outside the front door along with one of the TEXAS anchors. After you stand upon these items for a photograph to remember your visit, you will come away with a different appreciation of how we could accomplish constructing such a huge ship using 19th century lifting devices and essentially assembling the hull in an open field before the slide launching.
TEXAS served her country well in the Spanish American War obtaining revenge for the sinking of the MAINE in Cuba, which is another story. TEXAS participated on June 16, 1898, with the bombardment of Guantanamo Bay and on July 3, 1898, as part of the Flying Squadron at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. After the war, TEXAS operated out of the Norfolk Navy Yard as the Flagship of the Atlantic Coast Squadron till 1908.

ex-TEXAS ~ Before the Shelling
Location is Chesapeake Bay, Virginia
Circa 1911 Photogravure by Clarke & Muller
Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins
Then seeing service as the station receiving ship at Charleston from 1908-1911, our once glorious ship saw its days numbered. Our second class battleship TEXAS was renamed SAN MARCOS on 16 February 1911 to allow for the future BB-35 to now claim the name TEXAS, but the old girl still had one more bit of service to give to her country, going out with style and honor.
100 years ago this month in March 1911 the ship was towed out into the Chesapeake Bay near Tangier Sound to be used as a target ship for the USS NEW HAMPSHIRE BB-25. The end result was a deliberate sinking in the shallow waters, all the while providing useful visible evidence of the effectiveness new Navy's long range guns.
In the end, ultimately TEXAS gave its very life for the good of our country, because – "history matters".

ex-TEXAS ~ After the Shelling
Location is Chesapeake Bay, Virginia
Circa 1911 Photogravure by Clarke & Muller
Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins

Building M-22 & Gosport's Marine History

Blog #2. February 17, 2011.

The other day I was asked to speak at an all-hands function for one of our newest tenant commands (SURFMEPP) that is going to eventually house over 200 employees in Building M-22. I also volunteered to bring over some picture artifacts of the NNSY Marine compound area that would help enlighten their work force of the grand historic area that they are moving into.

The following is a rough timeline of our local Marine Corp events, touching on facilities challenges from the early beginnings up until the closing of the post in 1978. In these last 90 plus years Building M-22 played an important role first for the Marines and more recently as an administrative support facility for the shipyard. Now our story --

A new era of Federal ownership and operation began for the Gosport Navy Yard in 1801. It was during this period that lands were purchased and plans were made to improve the yard. A growing need for security of materials, tools and ships resulted in October 1801 by a Marine guard force being ordered to Gosport. Their original mission was "guard the property of the United States deposited in the Navy Yard".

As today, priorities of security details are subject to change and on August 6, 1804, the Marines were ordered to detach and were sent to Washington to support operations against the Tripolitan pirates. Returning in November of 1807 the Gosport Marine presence has remained continuously and served our nation as the country's second oldest post, only to Washington, until it closed on September 30, 1978.

Our Marines were first housed and operated out of barracks of wood, then brick, within several different areas of the shipyard. These wooden accommodations in the early 1800's were described as "miserable huts of wood, wanting much repair". It is reported that the Officer's toilets were in a detached building with the seats hanging out over the water and exposed to mosquitoes in the summer and icy winds in the winter.

By the later part of the 1880's, plans were made to construct permanent barracks, being a large brick structure along Third Street, currently at the location of our current swimming pool and tennis courts. Despite this more modern brick facility, it was still lacking for adequate space and mission support qualities (sound familiar?).

Congress approved monies in 1902 to construct our current M-32 structure and other supporting Marine officer housing all of brick (only structure M-1 survives) focused around a large parade ground on the recently purchased Schmoele tract as the shipyard expanded west. Years later, in response to world events and the eventual outbreak of World War I, saw further increase of Marines at Norfolk.

Building M-22 was constructed in the 1917-1919 timeframe to house 250 Marines. The Marine Officers School for Service Afloat, the only one of its kind in existence, began in 1918 to teach young officers seamanship, ordnance, naval law, navy and shipboard organization, hydrography and history.

Building M-22 has served our country and supported Marines during World War I & II, Korea and Vietnam. In 1957 Marine Barracks, Norfolk, Virginia, consisted of 30 acres and 22 buildings. One of the more colorful and popular was found right next door, Building M-23, otherwise known as the little Tun Tavern. Most of our current employees know this location as the old McDonalds eatery, currently scheduled for demolition in 2011.

(Building M-22 from a privately obtained personal photo,
dated by the person in the view on the porch, July 2, 1926.
Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The Marine Corps color detail lowered the flag in front of building M-32 for the last time on 30, September 1978. Building M-22 Marine Corp's barracks and training support also came to a close that day. Building M-22 continues to serve Norfolk Naval Shipyard and its tenant activities in administrative roles, being very proud of its Marine Corps past because, "history matters".


Blog #1. January 31, 2011.
Photographer: Gardner. Circa 1864.Norfolk Navy Yard ruins, looking north from
Drydock 1. Ex-building 18 in the near view.

A few weeks ago Jennifer Zingalie, a Public Affairs Specialist working in the NNSY Public Affairs Office (PAO) asked me if I would be interested in creating and maintaining material for a consistent historical look at our shipyard's history for posting on NNSY's Facebook page.

Well, it did not take me long to positively respond, as if any of you know me personally, history within the walls and gates of this Navy Yard in the last few years has become my passion. We have a great story to tell. I am a firm believer and have said many times "you must know where you came from in order to know where you are going". My friends, this will be the first of many postings to share Norfolk Naval Shipyard's rich and interesting historical heritage.

It will be a journey that expands on unique little known facts taken and explored from the larger story of this great institution, our Norfolk Naval Shipyard. It will be a journey to gain insight of the people, the facilities and the vast waterfront that has served our country for the last 244 years from its humble beginnings on the banks of the Elizabeth River when first founded 1 November, 1767. Today we walk over history, we work under the roof of history, and we owe it to future generations to tell the story.

To honor those that have recorded the story about our shipyard's history, beginning with published accounts going back into the 19th century, I will bring together facts and various quotes from the writings of those great authors that have gone before me, chiefly being Commander Edward Lull, Lieutenant Commander Simon Barksdale, Technical Librarian Marshall Butt and Public Affairs Officer Joe Law.

Their collection of works and reference materials document our earliest beginnings and will provide unlimited opportunities. I too shall provide unique insight and materials from my own personal collection of newspapers and periodical materials that document our work establishment environment, especially the 18th and 19th centuries. My emphasis mostly shall focus on the old Gosport Navy Yard (from late 1700's) to the end of the Norfolk Navy Yard period (mid 1940's).

Who am I and what creditability do I have to speak on our history? My name is Marcus W. Robbins and I was born and raised locally in Norfolk Virginia. Upon graduation from Norview High School I found myself in Public Works, Shop 07 with an apprenticeship being trained as a Welder in the fall of 1977. After 4 years of waterfront time and trade theory with Shop 26, my career has been involved around Public Works either working with my tools as a Journeyman Welder, serving as a Planner & Estimator, serving as an Engineering Technician in the Facilities Support Contracts Division, serving staff to the Public Works Officer as a Facilities Maintenance Specialist and most recently my career has lead me to NNSY Code 1100 as the Command Facilities Program Manager.

The reoccurring theme of "my work life" is our NNSY facilities. I know these grounds and facilities well, along with how they have historically performed their functions by personal observation these 33 years.

Our people do a good work and I have seen many changes at this establishment over the years. Our people have a story to tell, your family members have a story to tell. Together I want to help tell their story because, "history matters".