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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”.