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Saturday, June 20, 2015

182 Years Ago ~ Docking of the USS Delaware at Gosport

Blog #57.  June 20, 2015 by Marcus W. Robbins

The USS Delaware rated at 74 guns was both born and then later died at the Gosport Navy Yard yet still it lives on today. 

With a history like no other American ship, subjected to some classic moments it is a proud journey, most noted for becoming the first ship in the Western Hemisphere to be dry docked on June 17, 1833 at the Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth Virginia.

But every good story must have a beginning and so in August of 1817 the keel of a line-of-battle ship was laid.  The timber for this ship had been in store for years, having been collected under the provisions of the Act of Congress of February 25, 1799 and subsequent amendments.  The name after ward chosen by lottery for this ship was "Delaware."

USS Delaware was built on the same site of construction of the USS Chesapeake in the extreme north end of the present shipyard.  This would be very close to today’s Building 74 footprint across from Trophy Park.  As when I used to conduct walking history tours at NNSY it was amazing to stand in this area and point and say – “this ship was built here, this structure burned there, this ship sank here” as so much of America’s notable early naval history is concentrated in just a few acres of river front.

Ship building at the time was a much different than today, slower and with much manual labor and while no photographs were in existence to capture the moment the below painting by Joshua Shaw in 1820 does give us a glimpse of USS Delaware construction at early Gosport.
 
 
Norfolk; From Gosport, Virginia
(Courtesy of The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99The New York Public Library Digital Collections)
(Accessed on June 20, 2015 by MWR)
The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064
The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-
 
On October 21, 1820, the USS Delaware was launched and housed over, not being required for service immediately.  The ship stays in ordinary and is housed over (a sort of mothballing) till March 27, 1827 as to finally receive orders to be put to sea.

Sailing on February 10, 1828 to the Mediterranean the USS Delaware makes a successful journey back to Gosport on January 2, 1830 and again is layed up in ordinary to await further orders.  In 1833 those order arrive to prepare to sail again.

Yet things were changing at Gosport, the new nation was about to have its first dry dock.  The prior method of a ship being careened to its side for the purpose of undergoing repairs to its hull beneath the waterline as about to end.  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.

As I discussed in “History Matters” Blog #36 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 Dry Dock 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).

On the 17th of June, 1833, the anniversary of the battle of Bunker Hill, the dock was opened for the reception of the line-of-battle ship "Delaware," the first liner built at Gosport, and the first national ship ever docked in a dry dock belonging to the United States.

First Dry Docking in the Western Hemisphere
Gosport Navy Yard, June 17, 1833
(Courtesy of The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99Marcus W. Robbins collection)
 
Large numbers of ladies and gentlemen were present to witness the opening ceremonies, which were made as imposing as possibly, the occasion being one of great rejoicing as well to the citizens of Norfolk and Portsmouth as to the whole navy.

The ship sails a few more times till fate finds it along the shore at Gosport on April 21, 1861.  This is the fact where I refer to this becomes USS Delaware’s place of death.  The Union burn and scuttling of 11 ships renders the end to the once proud ship as it lies in ruins both burned and sunk south of the stone dock.  By the description of the below northern issued weekly periodical it incorrectly places the initial destruction on the Confederates (May 10th of 1862).
The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
 
Remains of the Frigates Delaware and Columbus
(Courtesy of The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99The New York Public Library. "Norfolk, from Gosport, Virginia." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-9e8d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99Marcus W. Robbins collection)

Yet today the spirit of the USS Delaware lives on.  You can see a remarkable scale model of at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, constructed by the craftsmen at the old Norfolk Navy Yard.  There is a small tag from when it graced the Building 33 museum years ago that reads:

NORFOLK NAVY YARD 1925
BUILT BY BOAT SHOP
RIGGED BY RIGGERS SHOP
PORTSMOUTH, VA
 

Full Rigged Model of USS Delaware, 74 gun ship-of-the-line
(Courtesy of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum)
Photo by Curator of History ~ Diane L. Cripps on June 19, 2015
 
USS Delaware began its life here in 1817, then made history with the first dry docking in the Western hemisphere 182 years ago in 1833 and ultimately met its death in 1861.  The vessel is forever tied to our shipyard here on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River because - “history matters”.