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Friday, May 29, 2015

110 Years Ago ~ Historic Postcard Views of the Norfolk Navy Yard

Blog # 54.  May 29, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins
Historic postcards serve as a window for us today to look back upon the world as it was.  It is of good fortune that our location when it existed as the Norfolk Navy Yard back in the 1905 time period was the subject of many commercially produced post card views. 

Some of the earliest and rarest Norfolk Navy Yard views and also the hardest to collect were part of the Virginia shell series produced by the S. Langsdorf & Company of New York.  These cards were embossed and printed (lithographed) in Germany before World War I and the production quality and colors were outstanding.

From Ocean View to Newport News and at other various points around the Tidewater Virginia area these post card views were produced and surrounded by sea shells.  This decoration is very appropriate when one reflects that the sea is indeed the life blood of this area.  It is with great pleasure I share the four views from this shell series in their numerical order that capture images of the old Norfolk Navy Yard.  Try to spot the changes in these common work areas from over 110 years ago.

s-25, Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Va.
(commercial postcard circa 1905, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The view above shows the Spanish American War veteran, USS Texas alongside of the massive old Mast House, ex-Building 28 that was constructed in 1828.  The Wet Slip of 1840 had now completed its 1st major modernization of just after 1900 and the new Boiler & Machine Shop, Building 59 has now been completed with its distinctive three oval windows.  Another fact I like to share is that for over 120 years the Navy Yard here functioned as the headquarters and operation base for the young nation’s naval Atlantic fleet well before Naval Operations Base (NOB) Norfolk is formed in mid-1917.

s-29, Stone Dry Dock, Norfolk Navy Yard. Va.
(commercial postcard circa 1905, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
Not too much can be said here that has not been written about before.  The stone dock of Gosport was the site of the first dry docking in the Western Hemisphere with the USS Delaware on June 17, 1833.  The stone dock was constructed so perfectly that it is still in service today, 182 years later.  Three buildings are shown in this view that were tore down in the early 1990’s being: ex-Building 36 the Boat Shop, ex-Building 64 the Yard Pay Office and ex-Building 18 the Carpenter Shop.  

s-30, Torpedo Flotilla, Norfolk Navy Yard. Va.
(commercial postcard circa 1905, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Again referring to my above comment that Norfolk was the Navy’s Atlantic fleet center of operations we had a wide variety of different ships that called this their home port.  One if the common pre-World War I sights here was the Torpedo Boat.  A small and low profile vessel these ships were actually the first United States Navy destroyers with USS Bainbridge (DD-1) being the lead ship commissioned on 12 February 1903.  They are shown along what we know today as Berth 2 but actually are tied-up right at the re-built masting shear crane which was located between the ruins of ex-Shiphouse “A” & “B” launching slips that can also be seen pier side.

s-36, View of U.S. Navy Yard, Norfolk, Va.
(commercial postcard circa 1905, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

And speaking of the re-built masting shear crane it is shown plainly with this final overall waterfront view.  In the background are the Receiving Ships: ex-USS Richmond & ex-USS Franklin across the river at the Saint Helena Annex.  A Civil War era Monitor style ship is tied up along the river berth and in conclusion this is the only post card view that ever captures the 1840 stone launching slip.  This structure was demolished soon after the year 1900 to support the construction of the modern Building 74 of today’s era.

In some ways the more things change over time the more they indeed stay the same.  We still produce world class ship repair on the southern banks of the Elizabeth River with some of the same facilities shown in these post cards a full 110 years ago.  Take a moment to consider the timeless and excellent craftsmanship that Norfolk is known for because – “history matters”.

Friday, May 22, 2015

96 Years Ago ~ Explosion In The Gas Plant

Blog #53. May 22, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins

Industrial work is dangerous but can be performed safely yet sometimes accidents do occur with dramatic consequences along with extensive damage.

This week's “History Matters” will be short on words yet hopefully inspirational with these rare glass plate photographs of just how dangerous compressed gas cylinders are.  While there is no other written documentation I can find on this tragic event it should serve to us as a reminder as our annual June Safety Month campaign approaches to always respect compressed gas cylinders.

Plumber Shop, Building 42 ~ Southern Elevation
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2237 taken on 5/28/1919)

Plumber Shop, Building 42 ~ Southeastern Elevation
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2239 taken on 5/28/1919)

And the damage was not just contained to the Plumber Shop, Building 42 but to the east with the Sheet Metal Shop, Building 55.  If there would have been a dropped cylinder next door in the Plumber Shop these Sheet Metal folks would have never had a clue what was about to happen to them.  Observe the concussion effect of the blown out windows.

Sheet Metal Shop, Building 55 ~ Southeastern Elevation
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2240 taken on 5/28/1919)
Also the damage extended across Wilkinson Street to Building 59, Boiler Shop with devastating effect along the northern window wall.  These folks too never anticipated what was about to happen.  The shear sound of the explosion must have been tremendous.

Boiler Shop, Building 59 ~ Northern Elevation
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2241 taken on 5/28/1919)

And finally a photo of the potential culprits. One word can summarize – WOW.

Damaged Compressed Gas Cylinders
 (Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2236 taken on 5/28/1919)

While the facts beyond these photos have been lost to time and it is unknown if there was a loss of life or personal injury the physical evidence points to a huge explosion and facility damage.  We need to go back home the same way we arrived each day.  Make safety part of your everyday routine.  It is so very important to learn from these tragic events so that they won’t be repeated because – “history matters”.

Friday, May 15, 2015

188 Years Ago ~ Commencement of Dry Dock 1 at Gosport

 Blog #52. May 15, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins

As promised in my Blog #36 edition of “History Matters”
I wish over several months to tell the little known facts lost to time (from inception to present) about the oldest facility still in use today at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard being known locally as our Dry Dock 1.  Also as I stated before, this modern civil engineering marvel is indeed the oldest facility (including all buildings) surviving upon this magnificent naval institution.  Construction, as defined by first moving earth began in November of 1827 and thus with that fact we can assign a birthdate leading up to its continuous unbroken and continuous use today in 2015 of Dry Dock 1. 

Think about that for a moment.  The preparation work that began 188 years ago this fall gradually gave rise to the very huge granite blocks, set so perfectly without any further alterations to date that we see today.  These same materials were in place when on June 17, 1833 the USS Delaware became the first ship successfully dry docked in the Northern Hemisphere.

History is all around us at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, from our earliest beginnings in 1767 to present day.  Some of the most significant ships of the United States Navy are associated with Dry Dock 1 or had vital repairs accomplished all along the waterfront.  As quoted by our 107th Shipyard Commander, Scott Brown – “We are America’s Shipyard”.  It is my sincere hope that outreach efforts such as this “History Matters” blog that is read worldwide and the public lectures I have given both when working and now retired inspire pride for the countless future generations of shipyard craftsmen in order to understand and respect their great naval heritage.

Thus, when we last left off with Blog #36 I concluded with reference to the initial efforts of Colonel Loammi Baldwin Jr.  It was now up to him to carry on with the wishes of Congress, two dry docks were to be constructed, one north of the capital city along the Potomac River and one to the south.  As before told the yard at Charlestown (Boston) and the yard at Gosport (Norfolk) were the chosen sites.  Each to receive the same design for identical docks and to be constructed at the same time under Baldwin’s oversight.

Further to show the physical conditions of the time period a survey was made by Colonel Loammi Baldwin Jr. as the below December 1826 survey map is presented as photographed from the collection at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.  It is titled, “Plan at the Navy Yard at Gosport Va. With the proposed Site for a DRY DOCK: Made under direction of the Secretary of the Navy Pursuant to a resolve of Congress passed May 22nd 1826”.

Plan of the Navy Yard at Gosport Va. With the proposed
Site for a DRYDOCK (December 1826)
(Courtesy of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, photo by Diane Cripps)

If this plan was carried forth the location of the proposed DRY DOCK  would have been just to the south of Shiphouse "B" which is very near to where the USS Merrimac was burned and sunk 35 years later, or for those of you that need a more modern reference point, the very footprint of where the Hammerhead Crane is today.  Careful facility planning supporting the Navy was as important then as it is today yet this proposed plan was subject to change.

Additional land at Gosport thus had to be procured as the initial sixteen acres purchased by the United States on January 24, 1801 was ripe for growth to both the west and more importantly to the south along the river front.  Gosport needed more room to fulfill its mission.  On March 29, 1827 Mr. King, a navy-agent reported that lots could be obtained and purchased and soon he received permissions do so supporting the infrastructure upgrades that the Congress had just passed on March 3, 1827 under “An act for the gradual improvement of the Navy of the United States”.  The Dry Dock would now be located on the site of Lot 5, south of the Timber Dock.
History of the United States Navy-Yard at Gosport Virginia (Lull) 1874
Illustration (Plate 1) shows conditions prior to 1827 and lots added from 1826 to 1829
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection)
As you can see the shipyard only previously extended west to what is now 2nd Street yet with a brick wall that dated back to appropriations provided in April 1803 that would have traversed the modern Trophy Park and followed along Building 11’s length towards the Timber Dock to what was then the Marine Barracks compound on the site of today’s Building 39.  There are no visible remains of this 1803 wall today above ground but its foundation surely remains undiscovered in areas.

What we do observe today is a circa 1830 brick wall that was extended along Lincoln Street from the 1802 Brick Stores (at 2nd Street observe the difference of the thickness of the wall inside near Quarters A east side yard and a distinctive construction seam on the Lincoln Street side) and then this wall turns south at 3rd Street and would have continued south past the Timber Dock and all the way to the river (near today’s Drydock 3).  Why was this wall important and related to the Drydock?  It was also procured as part of the “An act for the gradual improvement of the Navy of the United States”.  With something as important as a Drydock to be constructed at Gosport the boundary of the Navy Yard needed to be well defined and protected.

Gosport Wall (circa 1830) Looking West Along Lincoln Street
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins on 01/21/2013)
And so our Dry Dock was commenced in November of 1827 under the appointed engineer in charge, Colonel Baldwin and he was assisted by Captain W. P. Sanger as his resident engineer.
One fact that is really interesting is that the location of the dock extended some 130 feet beyond the shoreline of the time out to about a depth of 10 feet of water.  A cofferdam (filled with clay from the excavation) would have to be constructed as a preliminary step to allow the site to be excavated.  The below diagram shows the ancient shoreline in 1827, they would build over a third of the dock in what was river up to 10 feet deep and alter the shoreline outward.

Drydock in the Navy Yard Norfolk (Sky View Plan)
(Courtesy of US Navy)



In a future blog we shall review the techniques employed to fabricate the Dry Dock at Gosport along with some little known construction facts and review a most detailed and complete tabulated statement of expenditures.

Amazing is the fact that we have a large surviving piece of the tongue and grove sheet pile used in the construction of the double wall cofferdam shown in the above image (a component that would have been in place by early 1828 and is older than the stone dock itself).  Also we have and an extremely long wooden pile wrapped with copper that transitions into a lower 13” square pile with a point (to support being driven into the riverbed).  This pile is from the original cob wharf that was also recovered in the summer of 2001.  Photos of these items shall be shared as we discuss the dock’s construction in my next edition of this fascinating multi-part story. 

Dry Dock 1 has stood the test of time and as the oldest facility at Norfolk Naval Shipyard today and it holds a very special place because – “history matters.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Pier 4 Construction 96 Years Ago

Blog #51. May 8, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins

Pier 4 is nothing but a memory now but in its day it served our nation well.

As we continue to look back on how World War I changed the Norfolk Navy Yard both before and after the Great War nothing defines progress along the waterfront like the visual impact of a huge capital improvement project.  A few weeks ago (April 10, 2015) with “History Matters” Blog #47 ~ The Men That Built Pier 4, we focused first on the crew of the pile drivers and then provided some overview photos as the pier took shape.

Ask any historian, dates of a time past are cool reminders of what happened back in the day even if they don’t fall exactly on a key anniversary such as - 10, 50 or 100 years ago.  As I woke up this morning without a clue to what I would write on today (retirement has been treating me very well) I did what every married man should do (remember his own anniversary) and then wished my beautiful wife Jo Ann a happy anniversary and for providing us a great 33 years so far.  Our journey together began formally on May 8, 1982.  By that time I had already been working at Norfolk Naval Shipyard for going on five years.

Thus it was pretty cool that I discovered the following four glass plate images all taken on May 8, 1919, a mere 96 years to the exact date of today concerning the ongoing progress of Pier 4.  As I have stated before about the men that built our facilities, their names were never recorded when the photos were taken and now they too are lost to time.  For sure these would have been local men, maybe even related to us that read these words today.  Pictures do tell a story so let us look back 96 years ago this very day as Pier 4 was continuing to take shape.

Photo #1 ~ Pier 4 Head Looking South
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2228 taken May 8, 1919)
Yes folks, that is of what you would know today as Hitchcock Street, looking south.  Building 163 is on the right, Building 202 is yet to be constructed and the first part of Building 171 is further in the view.  Where the pine trees are seen in the distance, well World War II will take care of them as that is the eventual site of Pier 6.

Photo #2 ~ Pier 4 Head Looking North
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2229 taken May 8, 1919)
Again, Building 163 is shown now to the left and towering in the skyline on the right is the massive Ship Building Ways that is the site of many launchings over the years for ships constructed at Norfolk.  It is from this structure we launch the battleship Alabama and three aircraft carries in World War II but that is a story for another time.  In the far distance the cage masts of a pre-World War I battleship are visible.

Photo #3 ~ Pier 4 Looking West
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2230 taken May 8, 1919)
In the above photo here are the “real men” that built Pier 4.  It was not easy work but again nothing worthwhile comes without a price.  Here you see the crew taking a pause as they form concrete piles that eventually supported the deck of Pier 4.  Construction of a ship repair pier is somewhat like an iceberg, the heavy supporting elements are not ever seen on the surface.

Photo #4 ~ Pier 4 General Construction View
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2231 taken May 8, 1919)

The huge  Schmoele tract of land that had been purchased a couple of decades prior has now begun to become developed and the yard is growing to the south as you can see all the marsh grass.  It indeed was a different environment back then to construct a shipyard waterfront but there was vision.  Pier 4 serves us well for World War II, then with the Korean & Vietnam Wars - about 90 years till it is removed to support the construction of the super carrier Pier 5 of modern times that has just completed.

Photo #5 ~ Pier 4 Looking East
USS Missouri circa 1952
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins, commercial postcard image)

The final view above is a postcard view from the early 1950’s.  Without much further comment it provides to many of us the reminder of how America’s majestic war ships can come back into a port for much needed repairs.  It is because of our great facilities and our huge repair piers that we at Norfolk Naval Shipyard continue to serve the nation.

In closing, a theme of today was about dates.  Our own 250th anniversary is just around the corner in 2017.  There will be so much to look back upon and I’m already looking forward to it because –“history matters”.

Friday, May 1, 2015

1st Ship in Dry Dock #4 ~ USS Wisconsin

Blog #50.  May 1, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins

Dry Dock #4 at the Norfolk Navy Yard was at one time the largest concrete structure in the world.  With a usable length of 1,110’-10” and a floor thickness of 20’ it can be summarized in one word – “massive”. With a future “History Matters” I shall write and feature photos of the construction of same.

This current week, the NNSY Facebook page posted another one of the many informative sign plaques found outside our northern wall along the Path of History.  That sign pertained to a quick overview of Dry Dock #’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 & 8.  While this blog will look specifically at Dry Dock #4 and the docking of the first ship therein let me put the following mystery issue to bed.
Photo #1 ~ Path of History Plaque
(Photo Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins taken on 01/21/2013)

Where was or why was there not a Dry Dock #5?  No, it is not the inner secondary cassion seat of Dry Dock #4 as originally built.  Dry Dock #5 was to be a twin to the immediate south and share the southern side traveling dock crane rail of Dry Dock #4.  All of this is proven on a rare station map; PW 4707 – Proposed Final Layout for Development United States Navy Yard Norfolk, Virginia dated 28 December 1917.  The site later becomes the footprint for Building 261 and is eventually added onto with Building 1579.

So let’s get back to Dry Dock #4.  As a structure it is begun on 8 January 1917 and is declared completed on 1 April 1919.

The 1st ship to enter the Navy’s largest dock to that time is the USS Wisconsin as shown in the below photos, a mere 96 years ago this week.  Dry Dock #4 has been in continual service to the fleet for an almost full 10 decades.

Photo #2 ~ USS Wisconsin
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2225 taken on 5/5/1919)

As taken from the Naval History and Heritage Command website the following information is presented about the ship as background to our story.

The first Wisconsin (Battleship No. 9) was laid down on 9 February 1897 at San Francisco, Calif., by the Union Iron Works; launched on 26 November 1898; sponsored by Miss Elizabeth Stephenson, the daughter of Senator Isaac Stephenson of Marinette, Wis., and commissioned on 4 February 1901, Capt. George C. Reiter in command.
Then 19 years of full operational service follows… and finally:
Placed out of commission on 15 May 1920, Wisconsin was reclassified BB-9 on 17 July 1920, while awaiting disposition. She was sold for scrap on 26 January 1922 as a result of the Washington Treaty.

The ship meets the end of its famous career and is laid to rest at Norfolk until it is sold for scrap after World War I.  As in any deactivation the docking period is critical, Dry Dock #4 provided the needed dry dock facility to support USS Wisconsin’s final mission.

Photo #3 ~ USS Wisconsin
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2226 taken on 5/5/1919)

Again, as I repeated in an earlier blog about Dry Dock #3 a couple of months ago it is true that any place can have a river berth or a pier to safely tie a vessel up to but what sets apart a true shipyard is its ability to perform dry docking.  This location, being the Norfolk Navy Yard along the Elizabeth River has the ability to take any vessel of Uncle Sam’s Navy out of its natural element (water) and allow it to become docked (dry) so craftsmen may preform repairs.

Photo #4 ~ USS Wisconsin
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2227 taken on 5/5/1919)

This final picture of the USS Wisconsin’s stern is a fitting way to say good bye as now we know its story and operational career.  But for a moment focus upon the facility of Dry Dock #4 itself, I conclude with the same word I started with – “massive”.

Dry Dock #4 has provided the United States Navy with over 96 years of nearly continuous service here at “America’s Shipyard" because –“history matters”.