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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.

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