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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.


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