Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
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Blog #65, May 5, 2019

100th Anniversary of the 1st Ship Entering Dry Dock #4

Drydock 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."

As a structure it was begun on January 8, 1917, and was declared completed on April 1, 1919. It along with so many other Norfolk Navy Yard facilities upgrades and expansions of the time was a direct result of World War I.

The 1st ship to enter the Navy’s largest dock to that time is the USS Wisconsin as shown in the first photo, (100) years ago today on May 5, 1919. Dry Dock #4 has been in continual service to the fleet from that time to present, servicing all types of naval vessels for now a full (10) decades.

Photo #1 ~ USS Wisconsin
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2225 taken on 5/5/1919)

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 to the underwater hull sections and components.

This second photo of the USS Wisconsin’s stern sitting up upon the blocks is also a fitting way to see a glimpse of the World War I facilities expansion as the new modern Power Plant, Building 174, as it is nearing completion as viewed in the background. But, for a moment focus upon the facility of Dry Dock #4 itself, I repeat with the same word I started with –"massive."

Photo #2 ~ USS Wisconsin
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2227 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 then 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 andis laid to rest at Norfolk until it is sold for scrap after WorldWar I. As in any deactivation the docking period is critical, DryDock #4 provided the needed dry dock facility to support USS Wisconsin’sfinal mission. The ship becomes the first United States naval vessel admitted into Dry Dock #4 as evidenced by this rare surviving artifact, the Dock Master's actual ledger book that depicts it's docking on May 5, 1919 and it's undocking on May 14, 1919.

Photo #3 ~ Dock Master's ledger book for Dry Dock #4
(Original document image from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard collection)

As I often state when conducting historylectures to today's NNSY workforce and others these ships that visitour shipyard are actually the sailor's home and we should respectthat fact when preforming work upon same. No other image that Ihave ever come across illustrates this better than an extremelyrare panoramic photo of USS Wisconsin of May 6, 1919 asfound in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum's collection. Lookclosely, those are bedding mattresses airing out on the cage mastsand we all know sleep is essential for an effective naval warrior.

Photo #4 ~ USS Wisconsin
(Original photograph from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum's collection, taken on 5/6/1919)

Dry Dock #4 now enters its second century of continuous service for the United States Navy here at "America’s Shipyard" because –"history matters".


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