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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Establishment of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum ~ 50 Years Ago on January 27, 1963

Blog #25. January 27, 2013 by Marcus W. Robbins 
This past Wednesday I attended an enthusiastic appreciation of our local naval history at one of the best kept secrets in Portsmouth.  Located at # 2 High Street is found a small simple building that took on a 2nd life 50 years ago this week because on January 27, 1963 it officially opened to house the artifact collections of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

The words of prior Public Affairs Officer, Joe Law best describe:

A much-prized collection of model warships, old weapons, flags, books and other memorabilia is displayed in the Naval Shipyard Museum located near the foot of High Street in downtown Portsmouth.

More than a thousand artifacts that reflect the long and distinguished history of the Norfolk naval Shipyard are housed in the museum, which is open six days a week.  Most of the collection was assembled in the shipyard by Marshall Butt, shipyard historian and director of the Technical Library, and displayed for many years in Building 33.

Rear Admiral Homer N. Wallin initiated the collection and display of shipyard documents and artifacts after taking command in 1949.  The shipyard's museum opened in March 1950.

The original collection, which was loaned to the city during 1961, has been expanded by additional Navy material.  The museum's content also includes many items illustrating the city's history.

In the simplest of terms, this is a place where you can see up close historical items that tell the story of the birth of our shipyard from its earliest days to present.  As shown in the photo below there was much excitement on opening day as the collaborative efforts between the Navy and the City of Portsmouth were finally realized.  Now also the general public could share and gain both education and cultural awareness from the local hometown naval artifacts.

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, Opening Day ~ January 27, 1963
(Photo courtesy of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum)
So what was the real motive to move the collection from out of the shipyard?  From what I can gather it is really no different today that in time past, a lack of adequate space.  On one hand the collection was far larger than the space allotted to display in 1949 and as shipyard missions grew ever more complex it became painfully obvious that prime 1st floor administrative space was needed to be reclaimed at Building 33.  The location of the former museum is where the large open assembly meeting room is located, northern end on the 1st floor of Building 33.

Portsmouth undertook major investments of their waterfront in the 1960's and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum became an anchor at the end of High Street, a focal point of success.  In 1967 the Coast Guard's Lightship Portsmouth would sail no more as it became permanently berthed, surrounded by concrete and turf to become the newest nautical attraction along the new seawall that was completed in the early 1970's.

Portsmouth Naval Museum Postcard (circa 1965)  
(courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
 Five interesting notes about the postcard view shown above:

  1. The drone Polaris missile and associated water fountain was for years the object of countless pranks that involved boxes of soap powder are no longer there but; who says you can't have clean fun in P Town?   The drone was later taken to Trophy Park for a display.
    2.  The flags display the heritage of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard - "Under Four Flags".

United States
Confederate States

  1. The sidewalk cannon artifact displays are different today than found on the post card view as time progressed forward.  In the 1990's the modern ferry slip was excavated up to the site of the old fountain and much new construction was accomplished placing a large multi-story waterfront condo along the seawall.
    4.  The Lightship Portsmouth has not yet been permanently docked and landlocked (circa 1967)

    5.  The 1917 USS MISSISSIPPI ship bell at the right of the front door was still being polished.

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum website is full of upcoming events and related links as found here:

The museum takes pride to actually tell three local stories under one roof. Those stories honor both the Naval Shipyard and the city of Portsmouth as partners growing up so connected to each other for well over 200 years and also the local military.  The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum offers a unique perspective on U.S. history, from Colonial to Civil War times and beyond. You’ll find beautiful ship models, uniforms, military artifacts and exhibits portraying life in 18th, 19th and 20th century Portsmouth, Virginia.

When I first began to be associated with the museum and realized that I had a passion to preserve and tell the story of Norfolk Naval Shipyard I introduced myself to long time Curator, Alice Hanes.  I remember that day well (July 10, 2006) as I purchased a couple of small matted pictures and had her sign and date the rear of them (all good historians' document memorable events).  To me, Alice provided that physical link back to Marshall Butt who first had the foresight to assemble the original collection because soon after, she passed to torch forward to my good friend, the current Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum Curator, Mr. Corey Thornton.

50th Birthday Celebration of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.
(photo taken by Kristi Britt on January 23, 2013)
Whenever I give a new employee tour or simply answer a co-worker's question about the history of the shipyard I try to slip in my own question, "Have you ever been downtown to the museum at the end of High Street?"  More times than not, sadly it is responded with "I didn't know it was there".  As I started out this writing don't let #2 High Street be one of the best kept secrets in Portsmouth anymore because – “history matters”.

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