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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”.