Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
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Blog #52. May 15, 2015.

188 Years Ago ~ Commencement of Dry Dock 1 at Gosport

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 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 that 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 DRY DOCK (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 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 to 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)
that shows conditions prior to 1827 and lots added from 1826 to1829
(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 seem 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 "An act for the gradual improvement of the Navy of the United States". With something as important as a Dry Dock 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-inch 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 as the oldest facility at Norfolk Naval Shipyard today and it holds a very special place because – "history matters".

Blog #53. May 22, 2015.

96 Years Ago ~ Explosion In The Gas Plant

Industrial work is dangerous but can be performed safely, yet sometimes accidents do occur with dramatic consequences along with extensive damage.

This week’s "History Matters" will be short on words yet hopefully inspirational with these rare glass plate photographs of just how dangerous compressed gas cylinders are. While there is no other written documentation I can find on this tragic event, it should serve to us as a reminder as our annual June Safety Month campaign approaches to always respect compressed gas cylinders.

Plumbers Shop, Building 42 ~ Southern Elevation
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2237 taken on 5/28/1919)

Plumbers Shop, Building 42 ~ Southeastern Elevation
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2239 taken on 5/28/1919)

And the damage was not just contained to the Plumber Shop but also to Building 42 to the east and the Sheet Metal Shop, Building 55. If there would have been a dropped cylinder next door in the Plumber Shop, these Sheet Metal folks would have never had a clue what was about to happen to them. Observe the concussion effect of the blown out windows.

Sheet Metal Shop, Building 55 ~ Southeastern Elevation
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2240 taken on 5/28/1919)

Also the damage extended across Wilkinson Street to Building 59, the Boiler Shop, with devastating effect along the northern window wall. These folks too never anticipated what was about to happen. The shear sound of the explosion must have been tremendous.

Boiler Shop, Building 59 ~ Northern Elevation
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2241 taken on 5/28/1919)

And finally a photo of the potential culprits. One word can summarize – WOW.

Damaged Compressed Gas Cylinders
(Historic Norfolk Navy Yard Glass Plate Collection, #2236 taken on 5/28/1919)

While the facts beyond these photos have been lost to time and it is unknown if there was a loss of life or personal injury, the physical evidence points to a huge explosion and facility damage. We need to go back home the same way we arrived each day. Make safety part of your everyday routine. It is so very important to learn from these tragic events so that they won’t be repeated because – "history matters".

Blog #54. May 27, 2015.

110 Years Ago ~ Historic Postcard Views of the Norfolk Navy Yard

Historic postcards serve as a window for us today to look back upon the world as it was. It is of good fortune that our location, when it existed as the Norfolk Navy Yard back in the 1905 time period, was the subject of many commercially produced post card views.

Some of the earliest and rarest Norfolk Navy Yard views and also the hardest to collect were part of the Virginia shell series produced by the S. Langsdorf & Company of New York. These cards were embossed and printed (lithographed) in Germany before World War I and the production quality and colors were outstanding.

From Ocean View to Newport News and at other various points around the Tidewater Virginia area, these post card views were produced and surrounded by sea shells. This decoration is very appropriate when one reflects that the sea is indeed the life blood of this area. It is with great pleasure I share the four views from this shell series in their numerical order that capture images of the old Norfolk Navy Yard. Try to spot the changes in these common work areas from over 110 years ago.

S-25, Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Va.
(Commercial postcard circa 1905, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The view above shows the Spanish American War veteran, USS Texas alongside of the massive old Mast House, ex-Building 28, that was constructed in 1828. The Wet Slip of 1840 had now completed its 1st major modernization of just after 1900 and the new Boiler & Machine Shop, Building 59 has now been completed with its distinctive three oval windows. Another fact I like to share is that for over 120 years the Navy Yard here functioned as the headquarters and operation base for the young nation’s naval Atlantic fleet well before Naval Operations Base (NOB) Norfolk is formed in mid-1917.

S-29, Stone Dry Dock, Norfolk Navy Yard. Va.
(Commercial postcard circa 1905, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Not too much can be said here that has not been written about before. The stone dock of Gosport was the site of the first dry docking in the Western Hemisphere with the USS Delaware on June 17, 1833. The stone dock was constructed so perfectly that it is still in service today, 182 years later. Three buildings are shown in this view that were tore down in the early 1990’s, being: ex-Building 36 the Boat Shop, ex-Building 64 the Yard Pay Office and ex-Building 18 the Carpenter Shop.

S-30, Torpedo Flotilla, Norfolk Navy Yard. Va.
(Commercial postcard circa 1905, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Again referring to my above comment that Norfolk was the Navy’s Atlantic fleet center of operations, we had a wide variety of different ships that called this their home port. One of the common pre-World War I sights here was the Torpedo Boat. A small and low profile vessel, these ships were actually the first United States Navy destroyers with USS Bainbridge (DD-1) being the lead ship commissioned on 12 February 1903. They are shown along what we know today as Berth 2 but actually are tied-up right at the rebuilt masting shear crane which was located between the ruins of ex-Shiphouse "A" & "B" launching slips that can also be seen pier side.

S-36, View of U.S. Navy Yard, Norfolk, Va.
(Commercial postcard circa 1905, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

And speaking of the rebuilt masting shear crane, it is shown plainly with this final overall waterfront view. In the background are the Receiving Ships: ex-USS Richmond & ex-USS Franklin across the river at the Saint Helena Annex. A Civil War era Monitor style ship is tied up along the river berth and in conclusion this is the only post card view that ever captures the 1840 stone launching slip. This structure was demolished soon after the year 1900 to support the construction of the modern Building 74 of today’s era.

In some ways, the more things change over time, the more they indeed stay the same. We still produce world class ship repair on the southern banks of the Elizabeth River with some of the same facilities shown in these post cards a full 110 years ago. Take a moment to consider the timeless and excellent craftsmanship that Norfolk is known for because – "history matters".

Blog #55. June 7, 2015.

100 Years Ago ~ Sailors Drilling at the Norfolk Navy Yard

Real picture post cards (RPPC) provide a most accurate window to look back upon events that happened in the past. A naval shipyard is home to many ship building and repair actives, but at the end of the day it’s also a place to care for the sailors that man and operate those same ships.

The ship that appears in portions of two of these RPPC’s is unidentified but could be the USS Virginia BB-13 or a similar battleship after modernization with the addition of the distinctive cage masts. Based upon the fact that the USS Virginia BB-13 called the Norfolk Navy Yard home for most of its career, I shall include a period photograph of same as an illustration of the sheer size of one the most powerful naval vessels in the world as it would have appeared about 100 years ago.

USS Virginia BB-13 underway (circa 1913)
(Courtesy of Library of Congress, image # npcc32728)

The following series of RPPC’s provide a look the north end of the Norfolk Navy Yard about 1915 based upon my review of station maps and the excellent views of the facilities that are shown in the background of these sailor’s everyday drill activities. Every good drill needs a band and if you look to the left side of the below photo, there they are at the ready. Our group of sailors are standing in perfect formation with rifles at their sides. Don’t they look happy?

Sailor Drill (view 1) Norfolk Navy Yard
(RPPC circa 1915, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Below is yet another group and now they are off to march. It appears that these sailors have been joined by a small group of Marines wearing much darker uniforms. If only the two horses in the view could talk, we would know so much more about that day’s activities. As a point of reference, this view is looking north as you can see the flagstaff in Trophy Park and both of the wireless telegraph structures (metal one in the park & earlier wooden one at east end of Building 51). The brick structure is today’s Building 74 and the dome structure is the now demolished connection of the 1851 main entrance which today we know it as Gate 3. The extreme elevation height of this photo indicates it was taken from a ship sitting in Wet Slip 1.

Sailor Drill (view 2) Norfolk Navy Yard
(RPPC circa 1915, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Our sailors have now found their way to the clear space in front of Building 59, the then Boiler Shop that today houses our NAVFAC’s Transportation & Facilities Maintenance functions. Also in the background is a rare image of Building 55, the Sheetmetal Shop (one story structure) before the fire that completely destroyed it on May 18, 1916. Well, it is time to put those rifles to good use and do some stretching exercises. Note the band is in position and tunes are in the air.

Sailor Drill (view 3) Norfolk Navy Yard
(RPPC circa 1915, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Again yet another view, most likely from the same day’s activities and this time taken from the ship sitting along Berth 2 that is seen in two of the above photos. In the view on the left is shown the Metal Bending Shed, Building 41. Across the center is the Black Smith Shop, Building 9, shown with the multiple skylights and a raised monitor roofline. And if you look really close you will see the oldest building standing upon the yard to this day, Building 3. This is a structure which I presently use as my Historian’s Office dating to about 1834 that was constructed on a foundation of left over Dry Dock 1 granite stone. In this view the brick chimney has not yet been removed.

Sailor Drill (view 4) Norfolk Navy Yard
(RPPC circa 1915, courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

From the days of wood and sail that transitioned to iron and steam and onward to today’s nuclear vessels, we still live up to our motto – "Service To The Fleet" at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. It is here where we not only repair, alter and safely harbor ships of all types and sizes but we also take care of the sailors that man them. When you are dealing with an institution that has served this nation for almost 250 years, the waterfront is always changing. It is when these sailors are ashore they must continue with drilling and training to keep their skills sharp and so was it over 100 years ago because – "history matters".

Blog #56. June 14, 2015.

Construction Details of the Stone Dock at Gosport

The USS Delaware was the first ship in the Western Hemisphere to be dry docked on June 17, 1833, at the Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth Virginia. The dock was not yet quite finished when this occurs 182 years ago this week. The dock takes almost six years and 4 months to construct.

USS Delaware Entering the Stone Dock ~ June 17, 1833
(Courtesy of United States Navy)

Today represents my third installment retracing the entire history of Dry Dock #1 with my "History Matters" writings. Previously, Blog #36 of August 16, 2014 - The Earliest History of Dry Dock 1 defined the need & Blog #52 of May 15, 2015 - 188 Years Ago ~ Commencement of Dry Dock 1 at Gosport reviewed the funding and chose the site. This current blog shall detail the actual construction of the Stone Dock.

If you wish to read my two prior referenced Blog #’s 36 & 52, they may be found above.

Today I shall provide you with text written by the Navy in 1874 as it contains some of the most comprehensive and accurate details concerning the actual construction of the Stone Dock.

From survey and turning the first spade of earth in November of 1827 to placement of the final granite stone blocks and thus being called completed on 15 March 1834, the old Stone Dock at the Gosport Navy Yard ultimately supports one of the most significant historic events of naval history for the then young United States, the first dry docking in the Western Hemisphere.

We hold June 17, 1833, in very high regard with the docking of USS Delaware as we beat the Boston Navy Yard by an entire week with their docking of the USS Constitution in their Stone Dock. Another of a long line of our "first" accomplishments for the Navy here at Norfolk.

The following construction text is extracted and transcribed here exactly as written in 1874. It is as close to a first generation primary source that we have today that documents the early history of the Gosport Navy Yard and the construction of the Dry Dock.

History of the United States Navy-Yard at Gosport, Virginia,
(Near Norfolk)

By Edward P. Lull, A. M.,
Commander, United States Navy
For the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Navy Department
Rear-Admiral C. R. P. Rodgers, U. S. N., Chief of Bureau
Washington: Government Printing Office,

Full text of this entire publication may also be found at:

History of the United States Navy-Yard At Gosport, Virginia
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins Collection)


The work upon the dry-dock was commenced in November, 1827. Colonel Baldwin was appointed engineer in charge of the construction of this as well as of that authorized at Boston; and Capt. W. P. S. Sanger was appointed resident engineer at Gosport. Captain Sanger continued the immediate charge of the work under Colonel Baldwin until its completion, and to him the writer is indebted for the most of the following information on the subject, a part of which, derived from the same source, was published some years since by Mr. Charles B. Stuart.

The northernmost of the three sites selected for docks in the plan was chosen for the one about to be built. As will be seen by reference to the plan, the site as laid down projected about 130 feet outside of the shore-line or into about 10 feet of water. The average surface of the ground inside the shore-line was 6 feet above high-water mark.


A strong water-tight coffer-dam was built as a preliminary step to beginning the excavation; this consisted of two rows of piles 12.5 feet apart, directly in front of the dock, and 8 feet apart at the sides. Each row consisted first of ribbon-piles 14 inches square and 45 feet long, driven 8 feet apart, to which were bolted ribbons of 12 by 14 inch yellow-pine timber, one at the. head of the piles, one 6-1/2 feet, and one 10-1/2 feet lower; inside of the ribbons, i. e., toward the interior of the dam, were driven sheet-piles 13 inches square, and tongued and grooved. The rows were then secured to each other by tie-beams laid across and secured to the heads of the ribbon-piles; and by 2-inch iron bolts through the lower ribbons, one between each two of the ribbon-piles. The intervening space between the rows was then filled with clay from the excavation. The dam was found to be perfectly tight and secure, and never gave any trouble while in use.


Joining on to the coffer-dam, on either side, was constructed a cob-wharf; that to the southward extended only some 40 yards when it turned in to the shore; but that to the northward extending along the proposed line of the quay-wall to the entrance of the proposed timber-dock, where it joined a crib-work built along the line designated for the south wall of the latter.


The excavation for the dock was now pushed steadily forward, and the earth removed was used to fill in from the shore-line to the cob-wharf above mentioned, and to level other portions of the yard. The [33] soil for a depth of from 5 to 12 feet was a yellow sand; next a stratum of fine compact blue clay, with here and there upon its upper surface irregular strata of blue sand, and of shells mixed with clay. The blue clay extended at the entrance of the dock about 30 feet below the bottom of the pit, and at the head diminished to 15 feet, where a bed of gravel was reached, so hard that an auger would not penetrate it. The pit was, when the excavation was finished, 40 feet deep, 340 feet long, and 100 feet wide at the bottom; the sides sloping so as to make it about 60 feet wider, and as much longer at the top. A chalybeate spring was met in the excavation, the flow of which was so strong as to force the water through the pores, of the piles which were driven. An auger-hole being bored in the head of a pile, the water would flow out of it freely. The summit of this spring was some six feet below the level of the low-water mark.


The pit having been prepared, foundation or bearing piles were driven in rows 3 feet apart from center to center, but somewhat closer along the central line of the pit. These piles were about 30 feet long at the entrance, and gradually diminished in length to 15 feet at the head, being driven down to the stratum of gravel above referred to, into which it was impossible to make them enter more than a few inches. A row of sheet-piles was next driven across the head and along either side of the pit, a row across the front entrance, one under where the grooves for the floating-gate were to be, one under the turning-posts of the gates, and one under the gallery. These rows of sheet-piles act both as stop-waters and as additional supports to the foundation.


The heads of the bearing-piles were cut off level, and upon them were placed, transversely with the axis off the dock, yellow-pine beams 12 inches thick either way, and secured to the piles by treenails. The spaces between the beams and to the level of their upper surfaces were then filled with broken stone, after which a close floor of 4-inch yellow-pine plank was laid, and upon this and directly over .the lower was placed a second course of timber 12 inches thick by 16, laid edgewise; the intermediate spaces between these were filled with brick laid in cement, after this another floor similar to the first was put down.


All the dimension stone of this dock is of granite from different Massachusetts quarries, and nearly all of it was dressed in the quarries from the plans, and so well was this work done that it is estimated that not $100 were spent in altering stone. The rubble-backing to the side-walls was obtained principally from the quarries at Port Deposit, Md. A small portion, however, came from the Falls of the James River, near Richmond.

[34] The chamber of the dock, or the portion ordinarily used for docking ships, is 253 feet long and 85-1/2 feet wide at the coping. The extreme length of the dock, which can be made available by placing the floating-gate outside the entrance and not using the turning-gates, is 320 feet. The United States ship Severn, measuring 324 feet over all, was recently docked by blocking up to raise her above the miter-sills. The floor of the chamber is 227 feet long and 30 feet wide. The increase in the width of the chamber from the floor to the coping is produced by offsets in the side-walls forming the altars. The side-walls are 35 feet thick at the bottom and but 7 at the coping. The floor is laid in two courses of cut granite in the form of an inverted arch, to resist the upward pressure of the water; the lower course is tapering in form, 1 foot thick at the entrance of the chamber and 2 feet 3 inches at the head, thus giving a rise of 1 foot 3 inches; the second course is of uniform thickness, i. e., 3 feet.

The lowest two altars have a rise of 15 inches each, the floor rising to the level of the lowest altar at the head of the chamber; the next three have a rise of 1 foot each. These five altars are laid so as to form a continuation of the inverted arch; the next three rise 3 feet each; the next three, 4 feet 4-1/2 inches each; when a further rise of 4 feet 4-1/2 inches brings us to the coping. The width of the altars from the lowest up are as follows: The first, 3 feet; the next three, 2 feet each; the next, 4 feet; the next two, 2-1/2 feet each; the next, 4 feet; and the upper three, 2 feet each. The head of the chamber is semicircular. There are five timber-slips in the head of the dock, with landings upon the broad altars. There are six flights of stone stairs in the chamber for the use of workmen, three on each side, viz, one at the head; one at the center; and one at the entrance. At the entrance of the chamber is the gallery, which is the lowest part of the floor, and from which the water passes through gates into the discharging-culverts. Next, outside the gallery, is the great inverted arch; the miter-sills against which the turning-gates rest when closed, abut against this arch. Vertical recesses in the side-walls receive the turning-gates when open. Outside of these recesses, at the entrance of the dock, is another inverted arch, a groove in which, and continued up the side-walls, receives the floating-gate. The floating-gate may, however, as has been mentioned above, be placed against shoulders in the face of the entrance, thus increasing the capacity of the dock.


On either side of the dock a culvert 4 feet high and 2-1/2 feet wide in the opening, and provided with a bronze gate, leads from the gallery to the reservoir across the head of the dock; the culverts are built of hard brick laid in cement, with straight side-walls and semicircular tops and bottoms; the thickness of the walls is 14 inches.

The reservoir is 12 feet high and 7 feet wide, built with straight side- [35] walls of cut granite, a semicircular top of brick 14 inches thick, and a brick inverted arch at the bottom of the same thickness.

From the south end of the reservoir, (where a well is situated, reaching to the surface,) a tunnel, with cross-section elliptical in form, 4 feet high and 2 feet 9 inches wide in the opening and about 190 feet long, leads to the pump-well. From the pump-well a discharge-culvert about 150 feet long leads into the creek at the southwest corner of the yard; it is about 4 feet square at the mouth, and supplied with a composition gate.

Water is admitted to the dock through filling-culverts, one on either side, 14 feet 9 inches below the coping, and leading inside of the turning-gates; these culverts also are supplied with bronze gates.


There are two pump-wells 15 feet 9 inches in diameter each, and connected together; they are built of brick; the bottoms are inverted arches, 2 feet thick; the side-walls are 2-1/2 feet thick, with four projecting courses of cut stone at proper intervals to support the pump-frames. On the tops of the walls are stone copings 1 foot deep and 18 inches wide.

There are four lift-pumps in each well, each 30 inches in diameter and of 3 feet stroke, made of cast iron, lined with composition staves and supplied with composition boxes and valves. The pumps are driven by pinion-wheels fitted on either end of the engine-shaft, working in cog wheels on the shafts of the pumps.

The engine-house was a two-story brick building, 200 feet long by 50 feet wide; but 50 feet of the lower story was used for the lifting-engines; the rest of the building was at first occupied as a saw-mill and as a machine-shop. The whole is now used as a machine-shop.


The turning-gates are constructed of timber and composition, and covered with copper. Each gate is 36 feet wide and 30 feet 8 inches in height. The turn-posts are fitted with composition saucers in the lower ends, which rest upon composition pintles fixed in the masonry; the tops of the posts are secured in place by straps keyed to anchors laid in the coping. Each gate is supplied with two composition rollers, and cast-iron tracks are laid upon the floor for these to travel upon.


The floating-gate, or caisson, is built of white-oak timber and yellow pine plank, copper-fastened. It is 60 feet long, 30 feet high, and 16 feet wide amidships. The stems and keel are each 2 feet thick, and project 14 inches into the grooves in the walls and arches. There is a fore-and-aft bulk-head from stem to stern and from deck to keelson, composed [35] of solid timber, and 2 feet thick. Three courses of tie-beams from this bulk-head to the sides resist the pressure of the water Four copper ship's pumps on each side, and worked by brakes on deck, are used for pumping out the water when it is desired to lift the gate out of the grooves.

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.

Large numbers of ladies and gentlemen were present to witness the opening ceremonies, which were made as imposing as possible, the occasion being one of great rejoicing as well to the citizens of Norfolk and Portsmouth as to the whole Navy.

The line-of-battle ship North Carolina was soon afterward admitted to the dock.

The dry-dock was turned over to the commandant of the navy-yard complete on the 15th of March, 1834. The total cost of the work was $974,356.65. The following is a tabulated statement of expenditures up to October 1,1833, as published in the report of the Secretary of the Navy for that year:

Offices, shop, and stables $22,119.75
Tools, lighters, driving-machines, &c 41,420.44
Pine-timber, plank, mails, iron, &c 17,794.34
Surveys and plans of navy-yards *3,360.26
Coffer-dam 23,532.84
Pier wharves 10,972.50
Cob-wharves *14,022.59
Excavation 58,572.33
Foundation 64,097.46
Drainage, (temporary) 33,803.46
Masonry of dock 450,789.62
Banking up 11,432.72
Wells and tunnel 13,762.02
Engine-house 33,901.97
Engine and pumps 27,945.22
Turning-gates 22,588.43
Floating-gate 24,121.54
Removal of coffer-dam 8,134.81
Miscellaneous 35,010.55
Superintendence 31,256.88
TOTAL 943,645.73


* These items not belonging properly to the dock, their cost should not be included. The engine-house was used for other purposes also, so that part only of its cost should be charged to the dock.

And now in closing I leave you with these last thoughts.

The monies expedited for the Stone Dock were accounted for, right down to the penny. Ledgers were balanced and only things charged to actually support the dock were placed on the final cost, yet the above table represents cost as of 1 October 1833. These accounting practices we could stand to practice today but looking back it is amazing to see a final cost of the Stone Dock at Gosport was declared at $974,356.65.

Stone Dock & Surrounds ~ Station Map of August 31, 1858
(Courtesy of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum)
Photo by Curator of History ~ Diane L. Cripps on June 13, 2015

The above rare linen map shows what Stone Dock and surrounding area really looked like as of August 31, 1858, just 25 years after the docking of the USS Delaware and just before the Civil War.

This is a rare surviving station map that was not totally consumed by the fires of 1861 or 1862, but it has possible evidence of same and is a true survivor! It is by observing maps such as this that we can accurately document our earliest facility construction history including the old Stone Dock because – "history matters".

Blog #57. June 20, 2015.

182 Years Ago ~ Docking of the USS Delaware at Gosport

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 afterward 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 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 Digital Collections)
(Accessed on June 20, 2015 by MWR)

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 which 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, and 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 and 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 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 Marcus 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 burning 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).

Frigates Delaware and Columbus
(Courtesy of Marcus 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:


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".

Blog #58. July 12, 2015.

Receiving Ship USS Franklin at Saint Helena

The fourth USS Franklin was laid down at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine, in 1854 and was constructed with some of the salvaged timber from the third USS Franklin that was constructed in 1815 and ultimately broken-up in 1852. Even back in the day recycling was a popular method to conserve materials for ship building. At a length of 270 feet, beam width of 54 feet and drawing 25 feet of water for an overall tonnage of 3,173, the fourth USS Franklin was a beast. Outfitted with a steam screw she could make 10 knots without sail. The ship in its glory days mounted one XI inch smooth bore, thirty-eight IX inch smooth bores and four 100 pounder rifles.

Notable service includes being the flag ship for Admiral David Farragut (1867-1868) with a European Squadron voyage followed by becoming the flag ship for Rear Admiral William Radford (1869-1871) with another European Squadron voyage. Operating out of the North Atlantic Squadron (1873-1874) USS Franklin returns for her final voyage as flag ship (1874-1877) supporting the European Squadron before being placed out of commission at Norfolk, Virginia, on March 2, 1877.

It is on that same day our story begins; the USS Franklin is recommissioned on March 2, 1877, till October 14, 1915, as the Norfolk Navy Yard’s primary Receiving Ship. Let that sink in for a moment, for over thirty-eight years the USS Franklin continues to serve the Navy’s needs.

USS Franklin, Most Likely at Norfolk, Virginia (circa 1880’s)
(Courtesy of NHHC, photo # NH 53945)

So what is a Receiving Ship? I’m glad you asked, so I refer to the words of Marshall Butt, the prior Shipyard Historian, that were written in 1967 in order to find his explanation as follows:

It was the function of the Receiving Ship to receive and process recruits and transient enlisted personnel, holding them in readiness for assignment to active ships of the fleet. Usually the ship’s spars and rigging were taken down resulting in a clumsy appearance, much like a large houseboat. The Receiving Ship, however, was a prominent feature of the old Navy Yard. The FRANKLIN, stationed here for thirty-eight years, and her auxiliary, the RICHMOND, are well remembered in the community. They were moored to the pier heads at St. Helena where later was established the Naval Training Station. From the mast-head of the FRANKLIN was flown the Commandant’s two-star flag and from her deck was fired, every evening, the traditional nine o’clock gun.

USS Franklin & USS Richmond at Saint Helena
Norfolk Navy Yard (circa 1908)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection)

The Saint Helena annex across from the northern end of the Navy Yard has served different many functions from when it was first procured in 1846, but at that time it contained a small ammunition depot and pier. As time went on, it became apparent that the Navy needed more physical room for launching larger ships and, due to the fact they could dredge and widen the channel across from where the ex-Ship Houses once stood to continue support launchings from those old two remaining building ways, this became a priority. To obtain additional available land on the opposite shore before it was purchased by commercial sources so that the river width would not be able to be changed, became central to the mission of constructing ships at Norfolk. Thus the Navy bought more land and Saint Helena expanded again by 1895.

On newly obtained land at the now expanded Saint Helena Annex, the Sailors were trained in the ways of the Navy by shooting rifles, learning sailing techniques, being taught the wig-wag code of using colored semaphore flags to spell out signal letters, first aid including bringing-to a drowning victim and general parade drill techniques. Eventually Saint Helena is recognized as Training Station Norfolk, Virginia.

Over time, the USS Franklin was housed over and turned into a true Receiving Ship. Under the newly placed roof, the spar deck now became protected from the elements and a great covered space was obtained. It is here and upon the lower decks young sailors could study hard in great numbers at tables while holding class along with inspection drills, such as how to pack a sea bag and maintain their belongings in an orderly fashion. A few cannon guns were retained to continue teaching the old way of the sea, yet, as the turn of the century approached the year 1900, this surely was phased out due to changes in ship design and the events of the recent Spanish American War. The days of the deck cannon had passed but the gun ports remain in the view.

USS Franklin (housed over) at Saint Helena
Norfolk Navy Yard (circa 1905)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection)

Yet while you may now have a better understating of the long ago past history of a Receiving Ship, no story is complete without paying honor to the men that operated under its watch.

USS Franklin, Unidentified Sailor
Faber & Friese Studio, Norfolk, Virginia (circa 1880’s)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection)

And also this one that writes home on the back of his own Real Picture Post Card (RPPC) that states most likely to a little brother back home – "Hello kid, how do you like this. It looks fine, don’t it now".

USS Franklin, Unidentified Sailor
RPPC Privately Taken, Norfolk, Virginia (January 1910)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection)

The USS Franklin was home to untold thousands of Sailors from all over the country and was a proud fixture on the waterfront of the Norfolk Navy Yard for over thirty-eight years in order to train these young men in the Navy way. As the primary Receiving Ship, it became the center piece of Training Station, Norfolk, Virginia, (Norfolk Navy Yard) and must have produced many untold leaders that serve our nation in the Spanish American War, World War I and beyond. The modern Norfolk Naval Station is not commissioned till October 12, 1917, so it is very important not to forget that here on the banks of the Elizabeth River we hosted the first Naval Training Station in this region for many years and the USS Franklin played a big part because – "history matters".

Blog #59. August 23, 2015.

350 Ton Hammerhead Crane, Alternatives and Public Information Meeting

One crane, two alternatives.

BLUF ~ "Bottom Line Up Front" is as follows:

Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, the U.S. Navy is preparing an Environmental Assessment (EA) to evaluate alternatives to address the long-term management of the Hammerhead Crane at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va. Depending on the alternative selected, the proposed action could result in the Navy either dismantling the Hammerhead Crane or minimally repairing the crane to preserve it as a static, non-functional display for a period of 20 years.

For more information contact:
Terri Davis
Congressional and Public Affairs Officer
Norfolk Naval Shipyard
Office (757) 396-9550

As the Historian and Archivist for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, I made it a point to attend the public information meeting that the Navy recently held on Tuesday August 18, 2015, at the Bide-A-Wee Golf Course Pavilion in Portsmouth, Virginia, concerning the Environmental Assessment for the Future of the Hammerhead Crane. As it was correctly summarized in a Virginian Pilot story that ran today, (Sunday) the meeting this past Tuesday night only drew 21 people. This process was advertised in the local newspaper in advance and the public comment period remains open and extends out to October 2, 2015, as indicated by the below newspaper notice that ran multiple times in August. Personally, I was shocked at the sparse turnout but again I highly encourage concerned parties to submit email comments before the deadline.

Notice of Public Information Meeting
Virginian Pilot Newspaper image

As I was one of those 21 people present at the public information meeting, I can attest that the local television report provided by WAVY TV 10 for their 11:00 p.m. news on the night of August 18, 2015, and the Virginian Pilot newspaper story in the Business section that appears today, Sunday, August 23, 2015, both accurately portray a summary of the Navy’s current process. These stories may also easily be found by routine Internet searches if one wishes to seek out further information.

Again, the process extends out to for any and all to submit their written comments by email up until October 2, 2015, to the following address:
Terri Davis ~ Public Affairs Officer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard

The 350 ton Hammerhead Crane, without a doubt, is an iconic structure that has become a symbol of both the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and the City of Portsmouth. Thus I am going to devote two of my "History Matters" blogs to this subject as follows:

Current Blog #59 ~ 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane, Alternatives and Public Information Meeting
My next Blog #60 ~ History and Facts About the 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane

Normally I enjoy writing free flowing historical facts and add my own commentary on historical events or about places in the shipyard, but for this particular "History Matters" Blog #59, I am now going to repeat word for word from both the interior and rear text of the trifold that was made available at the Public Information Meeting.

Public Information Meeting August 18, 2015 ~ Tri-fold (interior text)
Click on Image, then double click in brower

The Navy is preparing an environmental assessment to address the long-term management of the Hammerhead Crane at Naval Support Activity Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The alternatives being evaluated could result in the Navy either dismantling the Hammerhead Crane or minimally repairing the Hammerhead Crane to preserve the crane as a static, non-functioning display, depending on the alternative selected.

History of the Hammerhead Crane
The Navy constructed the Hammerhead Crane at the shipyard – then known as the Norfolk Navy Yard – between 1939 and 1940 as the Navy Yard was mobilizing in anticipation of the United States’ involvement in World War II.

The crane operated as part of the "turret plant," an industrial facility used to construct battleship turrets located in the northern part of the Navy Yard adjacent to Berth 2. The Hammerhead Crane and the turret plant represented significant technological advances that greatly contributed to the Navy Yard’s role in re-establishing and expanding U.S. naval forces following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

Following its heyday in the post-War years, the crane saw diminishing use through the next several decades as shipyard operations transitioned to the dry docks and portal cranes south of the crane’s location. By 2001, use of the Hammerhead Crane stopped altogether. Without a mission to drive active maintenance funding, the crane has deteriorated and now presents a potential hazard.

Purpose and Need
The purpose of the proposed action is to provide a long-term solution to address the continuing deterioration of the Hammerhead Crane. The proposed action is needed in order to address safety hazards for Navy personnel working around the crane. In addition to addressing safety hazards, the proposed action would also benefit the Navy by promoting more efficient use of Navy maintenance funds.

Alternative 1 (the Navy’s preferred alternative) is to dismantle the Hammerhead Crane.
The Navy or the selected contractor would complete required historical and environmental documentation and mitigation before work to dismantle the crane begins.
The crane would be dismantled in stages.
Certain equipment and crane components may be offered to museums or historical societies. Salvageable materials would be sold for reuse or recycling.

Alternative 2 is to preserve the Hammerhead Crane as a static display for a period of 20 years.
The crane is in adequate condition to be preserved with no future use.
Repairs needed to provide safe access, reduce the risk of falling debris, maintain the crane’s appearance, and strengthen the tower and boom would be completed. The Navy would regularly inspect the crane over the 20-year period and make additional repairs if needed.
At the end of the 20 year period, the Navy would make a separate decision to continue to preserve the crane or to dismantle it.

The No Action Alternative is to retain the Hammerhead Crane in its current location without maintaining it. Unfortunately, doing nothing would mean that the crane would continue to deteriorate creating an even greater safety risk to Navy personnel working in its vicinity.

Public Information Meeting August 18, 2015 ~ Tri-fold (front cover and rear text)
Click on Image, then double click in brower

Section 106 Consultation

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, as amended, requires federal agencies, such as the Navy, to consider the effects of their undertakings on historic properties – buildings, structures, cultural landscapes, or archaeological sites that have been included in or determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

As part of the Section 106 process, the Navy is consulting with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the interested parties listed below.

· National Park Service
· Catawba Indian Nation
· Cities of Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Chesapeake
· Local historical societies and museums
· Local civic leagues and community associations

The Navy encourages interested members of the public to comment on the effects of the proposed action on historic properties.

Documenting Historic Significance

While the preferred alternative is to dismantle the crane, the Navy would undertake the proposed action only after consulting with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and other interested parties and implementing mitigation actions to document the historical significance of the crane. Mitigation actions will be developed as part of the Section 106 consultation process and documented in a memorandum of agreement.

Project Contact Information

Terri Davis
Norfolk Naval Shipyard
Public Affairs Officer
(757) 396-9550

Please provide written comments
No later than October 2, 2015

So in conclusion, it is apparent to this writer that the Navy is presently going the extra mile to be transparent in this long public process. Nonetheless, one cannot help but to be affected with a deep "industrial can-do pride" as you view the Hammerhead Crane, it simply dominates the local skyline on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. It has served its country well from 1940 but apparently its last active mission ceased in the year 2001 and none shall return in the future.

Hammerhead Crane Viewed From Path of History
(Photo Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins on 1/21/2013)

Speaking from experience, I have viewed this massive icon almost daily going on for almost four decades. We all that have worked under its shadow or even had the privilege to go up upon the structure have our own deep feelings about what will happen next. Now is the time for any of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard family (past or present) or members of the public that have an individual concern or perhaps a local civic connection to make your voices heard formally before October 2, 2015, because – "history matters".

Blog #60, September 6, 2015.

History and Facts About the 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane

Iconic, magnificent, enormous, an engineering marvel. Words matter in the English language to communicate one’s personal feelings and or to describe something. Sometimes it only takes one word to convey a thought more powerful than many reams of paper or gallons of ink. Now consider this other single word of my own choosing that could fit in really well when describing the 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard – "endangered".

Learn about why I say "endangered" and what is currently going on with the crane by reading my prior "History Matters" Blog #59 concerning the ongoing study and public comment period to determine the fate of the 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane. You may still express your personal views till October 2, 2015. The Navy has been extremely transparent in this very long process.

This "History Matters" Blog #60 shall present an overview concerning the history and facts about the 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane. Utilizing materials from the Navy’s study and my own personal observation along with photos as presented below, one will come to appreciate our 5 million pound green mascot as the Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s iconic symbol here in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Not only may you view for over 12 plus miles distant from up upon the structure but travel anywhere around the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River and one can observe it from the cities of Portsmouth, Norfolk and Chesapeake. You can even see it when sitting along the third base foul line seats at Harbor Park in Norfolk, Virginia. Also from within the gates and walls of the shipyard, as I gave a history tour this past Friday from various spots over our almost 500 acres on the main site, you could not help but to look up towards the north and there it was, silently guarding the skyline as it has since 1940.

Hammerhead Crane, Viewed From Elizabeth River
(Photo of Unknown Source circa 2005)

In this 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane one can appreciate the wonders of American engineering and the "can do" spirit that drove our country to victory in World War II. The crane was built to outfit destroyers with gun turrets. The builders were recognized for an engineering masterpiece when they received the US Navy E for excellence. Yes, this crane helped win the war.

From 1939 to 1945 here at NNSY there were constructed 101 new ships at the same time the yard repaired over 6,850 other vessels of all types (both American and Allied Forces) at the Norfolk Navy Yard as it was known at that time.

Wanting to always to convey factual history and data, the following text is directly from the Navy’s own comprehensive study on the 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane completed in August of 2013. It will be presented here from the various technical sections of that massive report and rearranged and edited by myself for smoother reading as follows:

The war effort required construction of many new facilities including two of the shipyard's most important structures: Facility 932, also identified as Dry Dock No. 8 was one of three "super dry docks" constructed at US Navy yards during this period, and Facility 448, the Hammerhead Crane.

To provide the means to allow for the anticipated heavy new construction, early in 1938 a Norfolk Navy Yard memorandum identified the need for a plant to construct battleship turrets. The Turret Plant, as it was named, was constructed in the northern portion of the navy yard in what was then known as North Landing and included three adjacent structures: a Turret Assembly Building, Turret Welding Shop and the 350-ton Hammerhead Crane. Mechanical plans and selected materials for the crane were supplied by Heyl & Patterson of Pittsburgh; structural designs and steel were provided by the American Bridge Company of nearby Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

Construction began on December 19, 1938 and was completed on July 23, 1940.

Hammerhead Crane, publicly released, signed and dated 12/9/1940
(Original Photo Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection)

The building plans were used to design and construct nearly identical 350 ton capacity hammerhead cranes at the Norfolk Navy Yard and New York City’s Brooklyn Navy Yard, several of the plan sheets noting "one crane for New York, one crane for Norfolk." By returning a comparatively low bid of $1.9 million, the American Bridge Company won the contract to build both the Brooklyn and Norfolk cranes.

The Hammerhead Crane was one of two hammerhead cranes constructed at US Navy yards at this time, the second located off of the East River at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The crane was capable of lifting 350 tons of equipment at one time.

Other structures allowed the yard to carry out its ship repair and construction work more efficiently. These structures ranged from fireproof warehouses and industrial shops to medical buildings. Overall, a total of 55 industrial structures were constructed at the Norfolk Yard between 1940 and 1945. In addition, 17 residential buildings were erected.

In 1939, navy yard employment increased from 3,500 to 7,600. With a congressional authorization in June 1940 for a 7 percent increase in the size of the US Navy, the shipyard began adding approximately 1,000 workers a month to its workforce reaching a peak of 43,000 in 1943.

Admiral Felix Gygax, who assumed command of the Norfolk Navy Yard in August 1941, assessed the facility’s role during the Second World War: "The Norfolk Navy Yard has the responsibility of keeping in the highest possible state of material effectiveness the ships of the fleet sent home for routine overhauling, emergency repairs or alterations to improve their fighting characteristics".

In terms of real estate, World War II saw extension of the Norfolk Shipyard to the south (around Dry Dock No. 8) and the east (into the Supply Area, or Barclay Tract, acquired in 1942). The yard’s physical plant doubled in size. By the end of the war, the yard covered 747 acres, had between four and five miles of waterfront, and had 685 buildings. By 1945, the 20th-century ship building and repair facility that had begun to emerge during World War I had achieved maturity, and the Norfolk Yard had reached its maximum extension to date.

Hammerhead Crane, Commercial Postcard (circa 1950’s)
(Photo Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins collection)

Although the Hammerhead Crane at the Brooklyn Navy Yard was demolished in 1965, the Hammerhead Crane at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard remained operational until 2001.

The Hammerhead Crane is comprised of three cranes mounted on a single superstructure, supported by a 125-foot high octagonal trussed tower. The hammerhead section consists of a 320-foot boom that is mounted 145 feet above the ground. The metal frame boom can rotate 360 degrees on rollers, driven by gears. There are three forged-steel loading hooks on the main crane. One hook is capable of lifting 112,000 pounds. The other two hooks are each capable of lifting 392,000 pounds and were originally used together with an equalizing beam to lift the maximum rated load of 784,000 pounds (350 long tons). The operator’s cab is located underneath the boom. The second crane is an overhead bridge crane capable of lifting 25 short tons. It is a standard bridge crane mounted within the machinery room on a runway structure that extends the full length of the machinery room and just below its roof.

The third crane is mounted on top of the main crane boom, and is capable of lifting 15 long tons. It is referred to as "the pig" because it piggybacks the main boom. It has a 50-foot long boom, and was used to make repairs on the main crane, to place radars on ships, and to lay out rigging used to lift equipment with the hammerhead. This crane is able to travel the full length of the main boom on special tracks.

The 15 Long Ton (LT) crane (#111), the main crane (#110) boom, and tower are constructed primarily of riveted structural steel. The service crane inside the machinery house (crane #112) is primarily welded steel. Repairs and modifications are primarily bolted structural steel throughout. There are cast and machined steel parts as well.

The crane has a maximum capacity of 350 tons at a radius up to 115 feet. The capacity is 50 tons at a radius of 190 feet. The 15 LT crane extends the overall maximum radius to 240 feet.

The crane is equipped with an elevator, hand-held fire extinguishers, electric evaporative toilets, and aircraft warning lights. There are holiday lights on the north end of the crane with power available.

The Hammer Head Crane (Facility 448) is a contributing resource to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) is an 811-acre complex located in the City of Portsmouth, Virginia.

While officially identified as a contributing resource to the Norfolk Navy Yard Historic District, the Hammerhead Crane also has the distinction of being a powerful emblem of the navy yard’s World War II heritage and a well-recognized and beloved symbol of the greater Norfolk Portsmouth region. The Hammerhead Crane remains a visible anchor on the local skyline.

So in conclusion, today without an apparent future mission, we are now left with a supposedly reported 5 million pound symbol of remembrance to the industrial superiority and the "can do" American spirit that served our country so well. It is our 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane that helped to win World War II and beyond. This includes perhaps its largest lift ever that came about during the week of November 10, 1947, when the entire superstructure was lifted off of an American ex-Liberty Ship, the James Rumsey, Hull #329 and placed upon a British ship, ex-HMS Fencer undergoing conversion by another local shipyard, yet Norfolk had the only crane that could support this project. Even back then we provided Service To the Fleet.

Heaviest Lift Approaching 350 Ton Capacity, circa 11/10/1947)
(Photo Courtesy of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum)

The 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane has served in so many ways from 1940 to 2001. Viewing it from the start of my career on October 20, 1977, to currently serving as the Historian & Archivist for the NNSY, I feel like I can speak on behalf of a lot of us locals that this is crane is viewed most favorably as a family member. It is our wordless identification and common bond, yet sentiment alone without maintenance funding or a mission might not yet be strong enough to save it.

The below picture was captured in March 2014 while we were working on documenting the artifacts in Trophy Park, it is a view we Shipyarder’s have seen many times from within the gates.

Hammerhead Crane Viewed From Trophy Park
(Photo Courtesy of United States Navy on 3/24/2014)

Not only does the 350 ton Hammerhead Crane lend a commanding presence to our local skyline but it infiltrates our very local culture in ways we might take for granted. Have you ever seen these items in your daily life - a commemorative lapel pin in the shape of the crane, a coffee mug with an image, letterhead for an organization, pictures or engravings in an office or home, a challenge coin, a tee-shirt or the ever popular baseball style cap?

It is my sincere hope that this short collection of words and pictures serves the purpose of the title of this current blog posting, History and Facts about the 350 Ton Hammerhead Crane because – "history matters".

Continued on next page

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