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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Navy Yard History Wall Mural at # 2 High Street

Blog #37.  August 20, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins 
One of the best kept secrets in Portsmouth Virginia is located at # 2 High Street.  If you want to learn anything the great heritage of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and have never visited this small building at the foot of High Street adjacent to the ferry landing, well you are missing out on a real treat.

As detailed by its mission statement - The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum researches, preserves and promotes the history of the City of Portsmouth, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and the armed forces in Hampton Roads.  The museum accomplishes its mission by offering exhibitions, publications, lectures and educational programs.

With this edition of “History Matters” I will not write about the inner contents of the museum at this time but please be assured the historical holdings are vast and tell the story of early Portsmouth and its unbroken and deeply intertwined relationship with the Navy.  In future writings we shall tour the wonderful artifacts on current display in greater depth.

But for those of you that must know what is behind those doors, a quick peek.  The interior portrays a story before the birth of the Gosport shipyard, the revolutionary period, the steady growth into an industrial power as the premier American shipyard prior to the Civil War, the devastating effects of same war upon the local home front, a slow reconstruction period, the Spanish American War expansion, World War I & II outstanding service and forward to the present.  There is even a section set aside to show honor to the lightships that operated out of these waters to keep maritime traffic safe upon the seas.

My current intent has been first, a tease by mentioning anyway the interior contents of # 2 High Street, but that is not my focus.  It is what hits you as you approach the western exterior fa├žade, a full size wall mural!  How can you not miss something 24 feet tall and 65 feet wide?

Completed Wall Mural Painting by Virginia Artist – Sam Welty
(photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

“We wanted to convey a chronological sense of the history of shipbuilding here in the City of Portsmouth and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  Considering the mission of the museum - to celebrate the history of the city and the shipyard - we focused on the most common element within the history of both places: shipbuilding.  Both places were founded on the industry of shipbuilding and as Portsmouth has grown as a city, it has thrived in large part due to the growth of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  In addition, the theme also pays homage to all of the smaller shipyards and maritime industries that have come and gone over the years.”
      Corey Thornton, Curator of History, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum website is full of upcoming events and related links as found here:

I promise that after your visit to # 2 High Street you will then understand the various name and major flag changes that have occurred down the river less than 1 mile at our great Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  Also if you take good notes you will walk away with a greater clarity of a somewhat confusing issue, the name of the museum located at # 2 High Street being the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.  This museum institution honors a shipyard named for Norfolk that is located in Portsmouth, Virginia.  I’ll let that topic be a future column also because it ties into one of the sister Government owned yards up north, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard located in Kittery on the southern boundary of Maine near the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  This naming confusion and controversy goes back a long time.

In Progress Wall Mural Painting by Virginia Artist – Sam Welty
(photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

I personally was so impressed of what was going on last year I had to make the trip over and observe the work in progress and briefly chat with the artist, Mr. Sam Welty.  As you can see this project required precise layout and was completely done by hand and then painted with very small brushes.  The impact on the western wall of # 2 High Street is forever changed.  We have witnessed a modern artifact of sorts being born last summer.  I felt it was fitting to celebrate its one year birthday of completion this current month because – “history matters.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Earliest History of Drydock 1

Blog #36.  August 27, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

In continuation of the looking back at familiar places all over the modern Norfolk Naval Shipyard I want to give some attention to a facility that can’t even begin to be fully covered in a regular 1,000 -1,200 word edition of “History Matters”.  With that said over the next few months I will from time to time revisit the modern civil engineering marvel known as Drydock 1; the oldest facility upon this magnificent naval institution and take you from its first formal written conception of January 3, 1825 to its continuous unbroken use today in 2014.  Again as stated in my last edition, how can you take pride in where you work if you do not know of its great heritage?

There is so much to know about Drydock 1 but the official plaque near the head of the dock gives summary in fine fashion without any further embellishment as portrayed below.
Drydock 1 Plaque
(Courtesy of United States Navy)

Why did we need to construct Drydock 1 at all?

Well one must be aware that the concept of modern drydocking was indeed recognized by the Americans as our young Navy was born and grew as a means to efficiently effect under the waterline repairs to vessels yet the concept of placing a ship out of water and into a “dry-dock” goes back to early Greco-Roman practices in the area of Egypt nearly 2,200 years ago.  Over the last few centuries the Europeans refined it to the practice we know today.

As with any Government program or new idea several revisions and attempts to fund seem to be the normal course.  With the construction of a dry-dock to support the newly formed American Navy Department this was no different.  I offer a summary here of dates and order of events found in “History of the United States Navy Yard at Gosport Virginia” (Lull 1874) lost to time and never published in any other contemporary writings but important when considering the whole.  Several times from the inception of the Navy Department in 1798 twice appropriations had been made to Congress for the construction of docks, (on the 25th of February, 1799, and on the 3rd of March, 1813) but the amounts appropriated were so small as to be entirely inadequate to the purpose.
On the 25th of May, 1824, the Senate of the United States passed a resolution calling upon the Secretary of the Navy for information on the following points:

1st.  The expediency, usefulness, economy, and necessity of a dry-dock of sufficient capacity for receiving, examining, and repairing ships of the line.

2nd.  The best location for a dry-dock.

3rd.  The probable expense of the construction of one of the size mentioned, in a solid and durable manner, with the needful appendages for an advantageous use of it.

The Honorable Mr. Southard, then Secretary of the Navy, in his answer to the resolution, under the date of January 3, 1825, urged in very strong terms the necessity not only of one, but of at least two dry-docks for the Navy, at its then present size.  He stated that the only method of examining and repairing the hulls of heavy ships below the waterline, then available, was that of heaving down, an exceedingly slow, expensive, laborious, and dangerous operation, and very unsatisfactory in its results; while, with a dry-dock, work might be performed in a few hours, and at trifling expense, which would take weeks by the process then in use.

 I present below an image of operations at Gosport in 1795 depicting the British vessel Thetis being careened to its side for the purpose of undergoing repairs to its hull beneath the waterline.  Think of the physical strain to the ship by tugging and pulling it out its element like a stranded beached whale.  Yet it is a necessary evil to tend to the unseen conditions.  The hull of a ship can be attacked by all sorts of marine growth and once you have a problem, well it can accelerate quickly if not attended to.  As a means to prolong a ship’s lifespan it was customary to sheath the hull fully with thick copper sheets fastened by copper nails yet this could only prolong the onset of maintenance and repair.

The "Thetis" Careened and Repairing at Gosport, Virginia
(From a Water-Color by G. Tobin, 1795)
(Macpherson Collection)
Illustration from Norfolk Naval Shipyard Booklet A Brief History (Butt) April 1951
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Further the Secretary endorsed two locations being at Charlestown and Gosport and these paragraphs were included in same report; some facts that remain true even to this modern time.

“At Gosport there is a valuable yard, with improvements; but there is not within its limits so good a position for a dock as upon the adjoining land, which may be bought for a small sum, and add much to the convenience and utility of the establishment already there.”

“The Chesapeake and its waters form a first object in every plan relating to the national defense, and somewhere upon them must be placed an important portion of our naval means.  Whether our principle depot ought to be there the resolution does not direct us to inquire.  But let that question be decided as it may, Gosport must be retained as a repair and refitting station, to which resort can be had in cases of need.  Lying behind the strong defenses of Old Point Comfort and the Rip Raps, it can never be unimportant as a naval position.  It has numerous surrounding population, deep waters, susceptibility of defense, accessibility at all times, freedom from frost, great facilities in obtaining supplies of materials, and stands at once in the most important and connecting points in that great line of internal intercourse and navigation to which the public attention has at all times been so strongly directed.”

As stated in the above Gosport was all about location, location, location yet it also had so many natural and man-made things going for it also.  The station would have to be enlarged to support the proposed dry-dock.  No longer would Gosport reside inside of the original 16 acres of land first purchased for the sum of $12,000 on January 24, 1801 paid to the state of Virginia.  The deed for that transaction was executed on June 15, 1801 by Governor Monroe, by which title and jurisdiction of the property were conveyed to the United States.

Gosport Shipyard and Surrounds (circa 1825)
(Courtesy of United States Navy)

As portrayed in the above diagram Gosport would soon benefit from legislation entitled “An Act for the Gradual Improvement of the Navy of the United States” passed on March 3, 1827.  The shipyard would grow both to the West and more importantly to the South as additional land was purchased in order to create a place to construct the dock.

Our Drydock 1 can be attributed to the one of the young country’s finest civil engineers at the time, Colonel Loammi Baldwin Jr.  Baldwin in his personal profession had made two different trips to Europe studying and examining public works, the last being in 1824.  This coincided with a report of the Secretary of the Navy urging the building of two dry-docks in America that was presented on May 25, 1825 thus the die was cast leading to his acceptance of an appointment to oversee the construction of the new dry-docks at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, Massachusetts and the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia between the years of 1827 & 1834. 

Colonel Baldwin was one of a family of engineers, all more or less distinguished in their profession.  He had visited many of the dry-docks of Europe, and was particularly qualified for the work which he afterward preformed of building the docks at Gosport and Charlestown (Lull 1874).

Portrait of Loammi Baldwin Jr. by Chester Harding (circa 1822)
(Courtesy of U. S. National Portrait Gallery)

Next month we shall begin to examine the actual November 1827 construction of what would later become the first functional dry-dock in the northern hemisphere on June 17, 1833 because – “history matters.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Closer Look at the History of Gate 3

Blog #35.  August 20, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

Today I wanted to begin a series of looking back at familiar places all over the modern Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  Places we see each and every day but I dare say know nothing about.  Facilities not only tell our past story, they are the very structures we depend on to get our job done.  I shall utilize long forgotten about outdated original text, maps, glass plate images, film photographs and postcards while I write about these topics.  The locations I promise will be very interesting as we still work around them even today.  How can you take pride in where you work if you do not know of its great heritage?  

Gate 3 – An entrance or access point upon Norfolk Naval Shipyard located at the northern portion of the installation.  We have all seen it, and maybe even used it but I dare say never gave a second thought about what history Gate 3 as a supporting facility may have played over time.

Today we view Gate 3 as an opening between the two independent Buildings 19 & 51 that stand guard as a massive two story brick wall along Lincoln Street but it was not always so.  This structure can trace it roots back to the pre-Civil War growth of the Gosport Navy Yard.  Building 51 was begun construction in 1849 to support Gunners and Sail Makers.  It was closely followed in 1851-52 by the completion of Building 19 which housed a Rigging Loft, Armory, Offices and the entrance gateway (Lull 1874).  The two were joined with a formal bell tower and presented an imposing formal look.

1859 Gosport Navy Yard Map ~ section of extreme north end
(courtesy of United States Navy)

The structure of Gate 3 is about 163 years old and looks nothing like it former self but still serves basically the same purpose although it was radically modified by the removal of the grand center section in the World War I era to form a traditional roadway with iron gates.  Prior to this the actual Gosport main gate were huge wooden doors of massive configuration such as the original gate that is still in place at Fort Norfolk from the War of 1812 era.  Still today Gate 3 allows for the movement of people and equipment with the ability to secure the installation from outside intrusion. 

Illustration from Norfolk Naval Shipyard Booklet A Brief History  (Butt) April 1951
(courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)  

It was out of this same gate that Commander Rodgers and other Union officers departed quickly the flaming inferno all around when the Navy Yard was burned and evacuated as they had attempted to blow up the stone Drydock in the early morning hours of April 21, 1861, they were truly the last ones out.  An interesting note before Rodgers was captured he encountered the Confederate forces whom hoisted a rebel flag up the flag-staff of which upon questioning by Rodgers of how they got in, it was conveyed that they came in by the main gate (Lull 1874).  As you can see by the map presented above the location of the flag-staff within Trophy Park is yet a stone throw from the main gate.
The main gate complex continued to loom large at the northern end of the shipyard as the post-Civil War era destruction of both Shiphouse “A” & “B” were cleared away.  This was before we started to engage on the building of the Battleship Texas and Protected Cruiser Raleigh in the late 1880’s upon the former Shiphouse’s stone ways that were first placed in the 1820’s and their ruins remain under the large asphalt parking lots today.

Illustration from Norfolk Naval Shipyard Booklet A Brief History  (Butt) April 1951
(courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
One thing I pride myself on is extensively collecting obscure items relating especially to the old Gosport Navy Yard.  Below shown is a privately taken oversized stereo-view card that shows our subject gate straight on with a group of Marines in the foreground.  This is a one of a kind item but again it tells a long lost story and is from about the 1874 timeframe.

Privately Taken Stereo-View Card circa 1874
(courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins) 
Over time the main gate facilities of Buildings 19 & 51 transitioned from working Shops to more administrative in nature.   The Shop functions moved out of the Gate 3 complex as the yard expanded to the south.  If you look carefully in the middle ground of the below photograph you can see the ruins of the 1850’s stone launching slip.  It was upon this same location long before that modern stone ways was in place that the USS Chesapeake and USS Delaware were constructed, the entire area is rich with early naval history.  Somewhere around 1911 plans were being made to convert a portion of Building 51 into an Apprentice school to educate the workforce of the ever changing complex business of ship construction and repair.

Illustration from Norfolk Naval Shipyard Booklet A Brief History (Butt) April 1951
(courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
Now in conclusion I will leave you with a rare post card gem, actually because it partly shows the cannonball pile that was later removed during World War II and melted down for the war effort.  More importantly it shows in great detail what Gate 3 looked like 100 years ago as the main gate was large enough for the train track to pass out onto Water (First) Street.  I wonder if that horse cart is observing the speed limit?  Remember that some of the north end buildings were actually stables but that is a subject for another column.

Post Card circa 1905
(courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins) 

In summary all these views are very important to understand how Gate 3 evolved, because – “history matters”.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

History Matters: The Great Quarters “A” Fire of August 12, 2014

Blog #34. August 12, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

As I opened my email this morning, I was in shock as I viewed a Google news feed link relating to a recent fire at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. It was hard to wrap my mind around what I read and then viewed with the related local video feed. I was watching the Shipyard Commander’s home, Quarters “A” located in Portsmouth, Virginia, upon the grounds of the nation’s oldest continuing operating naval shore establishment in flames. The fire had started around 2:00 in the morning and the events and cause were still unfolding just a few short hours later.

Fire at Norfolk Naval Shipyard ~ Quarters "A" on August 12, 2014
Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins
Being recently retired as of August 1 this year after serving the bulk of my 36 years, 9 months and 12 day career at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, repeatedly passing by this historic landmark was commonplace. Over my tenure I worked around it as a tradesman, wrote repair specifications for it while in the Public Works Facilities Service Contracts Division for the 5 years I tended to the Family Housing Contract, and more recently informed the recent occupants of little known fun facts concerning Quarters “A” as the yard’s local Historian while also serving as the Command Facilities Program Manager.

To put it simply I have a deep connection with this home even to the point of my wife Jo Ann and I being invited a couple of years ago to a formal Christmas gathering; these are the things that happy memories are made of. Ask anyone whom has ever entered into this home of their feelings and you will understand of the pride that Quarters “A” radiates.

The home is to put it simply, iconic. It is our flagship residence. Quarters “A” stands as a symbol of both elegance and long standing naval tradition. It spans from the rapid growth of the Gosport Shipyard pre-Civil War era up into our modern times. The home was begun in 1837, and the central brick section was first occupied in 1838 by Shipyard Commander Captain Lewis Warrington. That’s right, Quarters “A” is 177 years young and just as strong as the day it was born.

To each and every member of the NNSY Shipyard family both past and present, today should be a sad one. We have lost a part of a good friend, yet from the outward appearance all may not be lost. It should be our hope that this Phoenix shall rise from the ashes and live again.

The remainder of this column shall be extracted passages from the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission document submitted on November 19, 1974, that nominated not only Quarters A but also the nearby Quarters B & Quarters C to the National Register of Historic Places as follows:

Quarters A, B, and C at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard are handsome and finely crafted examples of Asher Benjamin’s Greek Revival style and illustrate in striking form the pervasive national influence of architectural handbooks among builder-craftsmen of the early-nineteenth century. In addition they are relics, along with their contemporary, the nearby Drydock No. 1, of a period of rapid expansion for the United States and the original Gosport Navy Yard following the War of 1812. After the War of 1812, a systematic effort to expand and improve the facilities at Portsmouth began.

All three of these houses survived the burning of the Gosport Navy Yard by evacuating Union forces in 1861 and another by departing Confederate forces the next year. Well maintained, they continue to serve as residences for high ranking officers of the Yard.

A set of plans for Quarters A, built c. 1837, refer to this building as the Commandant’s House. Larger and more formal than the other two, it is a two-story, Flemish-bond brick structure set on a high basement and covered by a hipped roof with interior end chimneys. The central entry, with its Doric pilasters, plain full entablature, the blocking course, is taken directly from Plate 28 of Asher Benjamin’s The Practical House Carpenter (1830), with minor addition of a transom light. Two curving flights of stairs with original iron railings ascend to a landing at the front-door level. The three-part windows, each consisting of a pair of two-over-two sash flanking a six-over-six window, have ramped white marble lintels with corner blocks. Frame, two-story sun porches with bracketed cornices have been added to the side and to the rear of Quarters A. The latter, with its fantastically carved pilasters and elaborate jig-sawn balusters is a handsome example of its style.

Quarters A’s plan has been slightly modified by the cutting of large arches between the reception rooms. Paralleling its central entrance hall, to the left is a service passage off which the house’s northeast corner is an elliptical stair with eased and scrolled banister, derived from Plate 62 of Benjamin’s Practical House Carpenter. Farther down the passage is a pantry. To the right of the entrance hall is the dining room, and the rear half of the arch with corner block imposts, a central tablet, and symmetrically molded trim. The second-floor plan is similar to the first, but double doors, rather than an open arch, separated the two chambers. Much original detail remains in the house including paneled window reveals, simple marble mantels, and Greek-fret stair brackets.

As Mr. Joe Law stated in his prior writings - of all the residents and recollections over the years, perhaps no entry in A Log and History of Quarters A is more poignant than that of Rear Admiral Brown, who wrote, “May Quarters A continue as long as the shipyard and remain the symbol of gracious living befitting the responsibilities of the shipyard commander, as well as an historical shrine.”

Today was a sad day at Norfolk Naval Shipyard if you only look at the plain brick and mortar of a facility, but due to the craftsmanship put forth 177 years ago today’s event - The Great Quarters “A” Fire of August 12, 2014, will in time be looked at in a more favorable light as something that "was" overcome. Just as our NNSY motto is Any Ship, Any Time, Any Where I venture to say that land based events like this are important too because – history matters”.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Historic Truxtun, Nation’s First Planned Black Housing Community @ 95 Years Old

Blog #33. June 09, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

One of the joys and honors I have come about with telling the history of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard over these past few years is being asked to speak in public.  Well, speaking is something that comes easy concerning certain well known subjects.  The challenge to becoming a well rounded historian concerning our rich history is to be asked on short notice to speak on something you might have only heard about but never really had time to study. 

Last month I found myself in such a situation concerning a topic I knew little about.  I could have said no, I am too busy on a Saturday but again I am glad I did not.  With a little research and a visit to walk the streets of my new subject I learned a great deal about the community of Truxtun, the nation's first planned Black housing Community which was founded 95 years ago.

Historic Truxtun Marker on Portsmouth Boulevard (traveling west)
photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, June 4, 2014  

On Saturday May 31, 2014 I gave the following brief comments:

I want to thank Mr. Chester Benton, Chairman of the Historic Truxtun Civic League for allowing me the honor to speak briefly to you all today as we celebrate the 95th anniversary of the formation of the Truxtun housing community.

I am Marcus W. Robbins, an employee at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard for the past 36 & ½ years that currently serves in the Executive Support Branch as the Command Facilities Manager and in addition fulfills the role as the volunteer Historian and Archivist for the installation.  Facilities at the shipyard have been my life and now education and preservation of our great NNSY heritage is my passion.

The reason why I was asked to speak today is Mr. Benton wanted you all to recognize and appreciate the inseparable history and heritage dating back to 1919 that your community of Truxtun has enjoyed over these 95 years with the Norfolk Naval Shipyard; a true win/win. 

Often when I publicly speak or write about the shipyard I make a comment that you cannot speak about one institution (either the City of Portsmouth or in this case the community of Truxtun without also discussing the influences of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  You cannot separate one and not talk about the other, like threads in a tapestry.

We all stand here today because of decisions made on the world stage over 100 years ago as war raged in Europe.  Take a minute to think about that and reflect to the direct relationship between world events and workload increases to support a war effort.  The Navy Yard needed labor and grew practically overnight with vast increase of its industrial capacity due to World War I.  Due to the great masses of workers coming in from all over the country and coming very quickly these workers and their families needed decent homes.

As taken from the City of Portsmouth’s website, I offer the following historical reference:

Truxtun is the first planned community for African-Americans; it was built as a project of the U.S. Housing Corporation to house shipyard workers.  It is significant because Truxtun is among the first government-funded and planned communities in the entire country.  The design concept of this district reflects what we today call “new urbanism,” a wholly contained community where residents could live, play, and shop within an easy commute to the workplace provided by public transportation.  Truxtun was designed with 200 detached and 50 semi-detached 5-room houses on 42 acres.

It was a different time back then, segregation however unfair was a hard cold fact of life.  The white shipyard workers lived in their own recently built planned community that we still refer to today as Cradock.  Both Cradock and Truxtun were also laid out to where the two communities were totally independent and their workers did not have to cross paths yet they shared the same employer.  It has taken decades to change this culture yet it is important that we not forget our past but also mindful not to dwell on its ugliness.

So let us look back on the historical facts of Truxtun and its relationship to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  Again to accurately reflect history I offer in complete text the official background as transcribed by the Greater Historical Truxtun Foundation:

After World War I in 1918 the Government purchased seventy acres of land for $67,097 from land-owners in Portsmouth and Norfolk, for a planned community of ship yard workers.  The land was divided into two parts in order to house the then segregated community into two areas for both black and white ship yard workers.  The divided area was called Cradock for Whites, and the area of Truxtun was for Negros.  This was the first and only constructed housing development for Negros in the United States (U.S. Housing Project #150C.)  The town was named after naval commander, Thomas Truxtun.  The original design also included plans for a school, church, community house/center, Movie Theater, small railroad station and 35 shops and stores.  The area was designed for 253 families, 1265 people, 203 detached homes, 50 semi-attached homes.

As you can see Truxtun was a planned community.  Given the chance for home ownership was to give opportunity to become middle class for the Negro worker.  The Truxtun community can be proud by being the first in the country to do so.  The shipyard gave the residents a decent living wage.  With this, independence and the self-sufficiency followed.  Truxtun was on the way to middle class by the 1920’s.

So as I conclude I want to revisit my title Historic Truxtun ~ A Community Effort, Strong at 95 Years.  Three weeks ago I met the Chairman of the Historical Truxtun Civic League, Mr. Chester Benton.  In that 45 minutes we spent walking these streets and looking at the surrounding of modern Truxtun I was impressed with his passion for both his and your community.  Passion is not something you force a person to exhibit; it must come from within the soul.  You are very fortunate to have such a visionary in Mr. Benton as Truxtun approaches its next milestone at 100 years.
The stories he told me of his growing up on these streets and the fact you could not get in trouble because by the time you got home the parent network had already relayed the facts so there was no need to make up a story gave a sense of responsibility and pride to do the right thing.  Growing up in Truxtun gave many people in this audience today their jump on a successful life because  – history matters.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

City of Portsmouth 130th Annual Memorial Day Parade

Blog #32.  May 28, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

Monday May 26, was a glorious sunshine filled day.  On this day we had the honor to witness our very own Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Shipyard Commander Captain Mark Bridenstine serve as the Grand Marshal of the City of Portsmouth’s 130th Annual Memorial Day Parade.  He was accompanied by his wife Shelly.
Norfolk Naval Shipyard Commander Captain Mark Bridenstine
 Grand Marshal of Portsmouth’s 130th Memorial Day Parade is accompanied by his wife Shelley.

Photo provided by Marcus W. Robbins.

While the weather in eastern Virginia can sometimes be unpredictable this day was bright and sunny.  A cheerful festive mood resonated loudly down the street as an estimated crowd of 10,000 attendees lined the sidewalks of High Street for as far as the eye could see.  American flags waved and patriotic music played.  Red, white and blue was the color theme of the day!

This parade has been a Portsmouth tradition dating back to 1884, a 130 years.  To have the leader of the nation’s oldest continuous operating naval shipyard serve as Grand Marshal this year just seemed to be fitting as the modern Norfolk Naval Shipyard can trace its roots back to November 1, 1767 some 247 years.  I have often said that the story of both Portsmouth and our Navy Yard must be told together as one cannot be separated without mentioning the other.  We live in a proud community, one that has served our nation well.  Now, isn’t that what Memorial Day is all about?  Providing unwavering military service to the nation is something that comes easily to both of these great institutions.

After the parade nearby there was a touching service to honor the Vietnam War Memorial and the names of local war heroes whose honor of service to their county was acknowledged and their names were read aloud.  These folks gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we could enjoy events such as the one today.  On this day as it should be every day, we should be proud to be “Americans” and not identified by any other labels.  On this day there was an especially strong sense of “united we stand”.  It should be our hope we never lose this spirit of freedom and not just outwardly display it on 1 day and ignore it the other 364 days of the year.

As quoted by Portsmouth’s Mayor Kenneth I. Wright he proudly provided the following.  “Celebrating the 130th Annual Memorial Day Parade in Portsmouth is a long honored tradition of which I am very proud, and it also kicks-off a festive time of tourism and outdoor events within the beautiful and historic City of Portsmouth.”

With approximately 65 marching bands, cars, floats, drill teams and other units marching this indeed was a community event.  From the youngest to the oldest observing from the sidewalk or of the wide range of participants there were smiles everywhere.  A cross section of not only of our community was represented but of our nation.  We are a diverse people, again on Monday the only label you could rightfully place on the crowd was that of “Americans”.

Did you miss this year’s event?  Do you wish you could have made it?  Have you ever attended as a child yet lost touch and wish you could make that connection again?  Fear not – if I were a betting man I would say just as Spring follows Winter you shall get another chance next May as the Memorial Day observance gears up for consecutive year 131 because here in Portsmouth Virginia –“history matters”.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Historical Events Do Tell a Story at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard

Blog #31.  May 12, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

As a historian and archivist attempting to tell the story of our great institution I am often approached by both new and old employees wishing to know more about where they work.  It is an honor that I don’t take lightly as to portray our historical past accurately is to lay the groundwork for our future.  To read and recite facts coldly is one thing but to be able to tell our story often from memory and point out a specific building, area of grounds on the modern shipyard, a certain set of conditions and then to be able to paint a picture in the employees mind of “that’s where they did this” brings a certain satisfaction when you see their faces.  Only then they are able to buy in and own it too.

When you can transform at a personal level the historical events of this shipyard especially by one on one interaction and a person can actually see where the event took place then the teaching and telling of the story is not lost to time and forgotten.  It gives them pride of where they work.  That is the very purpose of my “History Matters” blogs that you can read in their entirety here back from the beginning with Blog #1 on January 31, 2011.

Our Norfolk Naval Shipyard lives on today because of the proud accomplishments of not only its past but its promise of the future.  It is so very important that new employees here learn of the great milestones we accomplished here on the southern branch of the Elizabeth River, not only for the Navy but for the United States.  The one thing I try to tell everyone is history is not just something abstract that happened in the past.  The history of our shipyard going into the future depends on you also, the new employee “you must own it”.

The historical events story of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard is like a great tapestry; it is woven of many individual fibers all coming together to create something larger.  Those fibers begin with our people as they demonstrate pride, knowledge and the craftsmanship of the shipbuilding and repair.  Those fibers are the tools used and raw materials that are transformed into ships and equipment.  Those fibers are the facilities and buildings that are utilized to bring everything together in order to deliver a world class product.

Norfolk Naval Shipyard delivers world class products as evidenced by our motto – “Any Ship, Any Time, Any Where”.

One of the best physical artifact tools for learning and teaching a quick overview of our historical events at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard is the bronze plaque inside of Gate 10.  I often take new employees there or advise the more seasoned ones to take time to go read what they have driven past for years.  It was erected by the Norfolk Naval Historical Association in 1950 with the very mission of telling our story.

Bronze plaque erected in 1950 (located inside of Gate 10) at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. 
Text sourced from "A Brief History" by Marshall W. Butt April 1951.

If you read the above text carefully you shall learn of the four flags this yard has had flown from its flagstaff (British, Virginia, Confederacy & United States) and you shall learn of the three different burns (1779, 1861 & 1862) of the shipyard.  From the first dry docking in 1833 of a ship in the United States (USS DELAWARE) our Drydock 1 still remains in operation today a testament to the craftsman that built it.  Other facts contained on the plaque high lite the conversion of the ironclad (CSS VIRGINIA) of which was important because it helped changed modern naval warfare, it too can trace its heritage to Drydock 1.  The US Navy’s first Battleship (USS TEXAS) and the first aircraft carrier (USS LANGLEY) also were constructed here.  Finally the plaque gives the various specific dates that this great institution underwent formal name changes.

I have recently unearthed archival documentation of the 1950 dedication of this beautiful bronze tablet and photos of the event, they too shall be the subject of a future blog because –“history matters”.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Looking Back at the 2nd Burn of the Navy Yard ~ 153 Years Ago Today

Blog #30. April 21, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

 If you are a regular reader of this blog you no doubt followed the progression and build-up to not only the 2nd burn of the Gosport Navy Yard on April 21, 1861 by the Union forces but the instant industrial base of ship building and repair operations gained by the Confederates.

All without a single shot being fired yet for the decisions ultimately made by Shipyard Commander Charles S. McCauley to torch the yard and destroy the remaining ships over the night of April 20 and into the daylight of April 21, 1861 influences directly the duration of the Civil War.

These events were covered in great detail beginning with my “History Matters” Blog #4 written on March 4, 2011 and progressing in a specific cadence of what was transpiring exactly 150 years ago and concluding with my “History Matters” Blog #10 written on June 22, 2011.

These specific blogs as well as the other historical events leading up to the Battle of Hampton Roads and then 3rd burn of the Gosport Navy Yard may be found upon my main website under the “History Matters” link found here:

As to pay respect to the memory of what happened 153 years ago I have blended excerpts from some of my prior blog passages mentioned above to give a concise summary for the reader of the 2nd burn of the Gosport Navy Yard.  It is my hope that today’s visitors walking around the surviving structures and the very grounds that were once covered with ash would gain an appreciation of how historic an event this was thus I share the below:

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.
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.

Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War pages 94 & 95
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins) 

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.

The below paragraph is taken from the H. W. Burton’s 1877 book – The History of Norfolk Virginia.

On Saturday night, April 20th, 1861, the Gosport Navy-yard was evacuated by the U. S. Government troops.  General Taliaferro, commandant of the Virginia militia at this place, made a demand upon Commodore MaCauley for a surrender of the Government property at the yard, which was refused – the Commodore assuring General T. that nothing would be removed and no vessel should leave the yard without due notice being given him.  This assurance quieted our people for a while; but in short time it was observed that the hands in the yard were engaged in “cutting down the shears, (which fell across the Germantown), scuttling the vessels, spiking the guns and destroying everything they could lay hands upon.

The following provides summary as given in testimony to the select committee of the Senate appointed by resolution of the 25th of July, 1861, that was formed to inquire into the circumstances attending the destruction of the property of the United States at the Navy Yard at Norfolk.

On the 18th of April, Captain Paulding was sent to Norfolk with written instruction to take command of all the naval forces there afloat, to defend the property of the United States, repelling force by force, and, if necessary, to destroy the vessels and property there to prevent them from falling into the hands of the insurrectionists, or those would wrest them from the custody of the government. He arrived at the navy yard at about 8 o’ clock in the evening of the 20th of April; he had at his command all the vessels of war belonging to the United States, and fully one thousand effective men, viz: one hundred marines, taken at Washington on board the “Pawnee” in which vessel he went to Norfolk, the crew of the “Pawnee” of one hundred men, Colonel Wardrop’s regiment of Massachusetts volunteers, consisting of three hundred and fifty men taken on board the “Pawnee” at Fortress Monroe, three hundred and fifty men on board the “Cumberland, “ and at least one hundred and fifty marines and sailors at the yard on the receiving ships.

Captain McCauley was highly censurable for neglecting to send the Merrimac from the yard as he was ordered, and also for scuttling the ships and preparing to abandon the yard before any attack was made or seriously threatened, when he should have defended it and the property instructed to him, repelling force by force, as he was instructed to do if the occasion should present itself.

A summary of the vessels at Gosport is provided here:

There were at the Navy Yard at that time, the sloop-of-war Cumberland, 22 guns, in commission, with a full complement of officers and men on board; the sloops-of-war Plymouth, 22 guns, and Germantown, 22 guns, and the brig Dolphin, 6 guns, almost ready for sea; the steam frigate Merrimac, 40 guns, almost ready for sea and undergoing repairs; the line of battleship Pennsylvania, 120 guns, in commission as a receiving ship, with considerable crew on board, and the 74-gun ships Delaware and Columbus, and the frigates Raritan, Columbia and United States, dismantled and in ordinary.  The force of sailors and marines on the various vessels and at the Navy Yard was probably about 600, well-armed and abundantly supplied with ammunition.  The Plymouth, Germantown, Dolphin and Merrimac were lying alongside the wharves and men working on them.  The Delaware and Columbus were at a wharf at the southern end of the yard, and might have been considered in “Rotten Row” a term applied to vessels for which the Government no longer has any use.

In closing, many reams of paper have been written by others before me of the events that transpired over the evening of April 20 and into the morning of April 21, 1861.  Gosport would now fall victim to the match for the second time.  The flag would change from the Union stars and stripes to that of the state of Virginia by daylight of the 21st, all without a single shot being fired because –“history matters”.