Portsmouth, Virginia

Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
Copyright. All Rights Reserved.

The Norfolk Navy Yard into the 20th Century


and Representative Citizens

Col. William H. Stewart
Biographical Publishing Co., Chicago, IL

pp. 418 - 442.


Advantages of its Situation—Virginia Ownership—Gosport Navy Yard—Purchases
of Land for the Navy Yard—Construction of the Stone Dry Dock—Improvement of the Navy Yard.

The greatest public institution in Norfolk County is the United States Navy Yard, located on the west side of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River; on the south and partly within the limits of the city of Portsmouth. It is about three-fourths of a mile from High, street and the ferry wharf. The main entrance is by an arched way through a large building extending from the river to the yard of the Admiral's residence. On the right of the entrance is the marine guard-room, on the left the labor board's quarters and the watchmen's room. This Navy Yard is one of the oldest, the best located geographically in the United States, and is excellently equipped for constructing, fitting out and repairing men-of-war of all classes. It is located near enough to the Virginia capes to be easily accessible, for Hampton Roads carries the ocean up to its very wharves, and at the same time it is in a position readily defended from attacks either by water or land. Fortress Monroe and Fort Wool are the grim barriers which guard it from foreign foes and the benign effects of the Gulf Stream keep away ice blockades, which have only occurred twice in two centuries. The mildness of the climate allows work of all sorts to be carried on at all seasons of the year without interruption. It is in every aspect the finest location for a great naval station on the Atlantic Coast. The products of the great Pocahontas coal mines are unloaded from cars within its walls, and coal is the life of the great iron battleships, which are necessary to protect our coasts and the great Chesapeake Bay with its navigable rivers penetrating into the very heart of some of the richest States in the Union, one of them, the Potomac, leading from its magnificent capital. England first established a marine-yard on the site of our Navy Yard, but the Virginians took charge of it on the departure of Lord Dunmore and used it with varied fortunes until it became the United States Navy Yard at Gosport. The name Gosport was doubtless taken from Gosport, near Portsmouth, England, where one of the most important of the British dockyards is located. There is a tradition that this place had been used for some time, before the establishment of the marine yard by the British, as a careening-ground for their ships. A letter written in 1824 by Miles King, Esq., United States navy agent, states that scarcely had the British government commenced its work for the completion of the naval establishment, when the Revolution began, and the yard, together with the adjoining property of Andrew Sprowle, the British navy agent, became confiscated and forfeited to the State of Virginia.

Virginia immediately commenced prepara- [419] tions for establishing a navy and vigorous measures were adopted to that end. In October, 1776, the Virginia Convention passed an ordinance for building a navy and directed the commissioners of the navy to provide material for two 32-gun frigates and four galleys, also to enlist sailors to serve on the fleet three years from March 1, 1777.

In March, 1777, Thomas Talbot entered into a contract with Paul Loyall and David Stoddard, commissioners of the Continental shipyard, located at Gosport, near Portsmouth (on the site of the present Navy Yard), to furnish timbers for the frame of a frigate to be built by the Continental Congress. The contract price was £1,000 ($3,333.33), and it was estimated at the outset by the experts that it would require 200 oak trees and 120 pine trees. The following are the dimensions of the timbers furnished and give some indication of the size and character of this frigate (or cruiser) of that era:

For Keel and Keelson, 324 feet.
Stem and Linding, 100 feet.
Stern Post, Quarter Pieces, Logs and Knee, 120 feet.
73 Floor Timbers, 18 ft. long each.
226 Lower Futtocks, 15 ft. long each.
113 Fair of Timbers of a side, middle and upper Futtocks and Top Timbers—containing 53 ft. in each Fair.
67 Large Beams, 34 ft. each.
208 Knees for Do.
30 Beams for Quarter Deck, 30 ft. each.
120 Knees for same.
13 Hooks, 20 ft. each.
For Bends, 1,500 feet.
Water ways.
Rudder and Counter Timbers.
Mead Stock and 6 Knees.
Pieces for Ribbons.

In the fourth volume of the Virginia Historical Register there is given a brief account of the invasion of Virginia by Sir George Collier and General Mathews, in May, 1779, copied from a volume published in England, entitled a "Detail, of some particular services performed in America during the years 1776, 1777, 1778 and 1779, supposed to be chiefly taken from a journal kept on board the ship "Rainbow," commanded by Sir George Collier. After giving a detailed description of the attack and capture of the American fortifications and the dispersion of the Virginian flotilla, the account goes on to say: "The town of Portsmouth, within half a mile of the fort, was taken possession of at the same time. Norfolk of the opposite shore, and Gosport, where the rebels had fixed a capital marine-yard for building ships, were all abandoned at the same time by the enemy, and the men-of-war moved up into the harbor, where they moored. The enemy, previous to their flight, set fire to a fine ship of war of 28 guns, ready for launching, belonging to Congress; and also two large French merchantmen, one of which was loaded with bale goods and the other with a thousand hogsheads of bacon. The quantity of naval stores of all kinds found in their arsenals was astonishing. Many vessels for war were taken on the stocks in different forwardness; one of 36 guns; one of 18 guns; three of 16 guns; and three of 14 guns, besides many merchantmen. The whole number taken, burnt and destroyed while the King's ships were in the river amounted to 137 sail of vessels. A most distressing stroke to the rebels, even without other losses. Many of the privateers and other vessels fled up the different branches of the river, but as there was no outlet the Commodore either captured or destroyed them all. * * * General Mathews having made application to the Commodore that the troops might be re-embarked on the 24th of May, in order to return to New York, Sir George endeavored to dissuade that measure being carried into execution till the return of the express he had sent to the commander-in-chief of the army, to whom he had wrote in very strong terms, pointing out the infinite consequences it would be to the King's service, the keeping possession of Portsmouth, as the doing so would distress the rebels exceedingly, from their water communication by the Chesapeake being totally stopped, and by which Washington's army was supplied with provisions, and an end put to their foreign trade; that the natural strength of the place [420] was singularly great, both by sea and land, and might be maintained with a small force against a very superior one; that the marine-yard was the most considerable one in America, and the quantity of seasoned oak timber there for shipbuilding very large; which, as well as a vast deal of other stores, could not be embarked then for want of vessels, but might be sent by degrees to England, where it was much wanted. * * * General Mathews, however, conceiving himself tied down to the letter of his instructions, did not care to recede, and preparations were therefore made for abandoning this valuable settlement. As many of the naval stores as could be carried away were shipped off, but great quantities were unavoidably left behind and set on fire. The conflagration in the night appeared grand beyond description, though the sight was a melancholy one. Five thousand loads of fine seasoned oak-knees for ship-building, an infinite quantity of plank, masts, cordage, and numbers of beautiful ships-of-war on the stocks, were at one time in a blaze and all totally consumed, not a vestige remaining but the ironwork that such things had been." The account from which the above is quoted states that on the day following that on which the squadron got to sea, they were rejoined by the express-boat, which had been sent by Sir Henry Clinton, and which brought his answer, "Now of no consequence, as the evacuation of Portsmouth had taken place—a fatal and unfortunate measure, universally regretted by all who were acquainted with its importance, and the advantages which would have resulted to Great Britain from its being in possession of the King's troops."

The letter of Sir George Collier, above referred to, was published in the Westminster Magazine of June 17, 1779, and bears the date of May 19, 1779. It says: "You are too good a judge, Sir, of the very great importance of this place, we now hold, to render my saying much upon the subject necessary; permit me, however, as a sea officer, to observe that this port of Portsmouth (Virginia) is an exceedingly safe and secure asylum for ships against an enemy, and is not to be forced even by great superiority. The marine-yard (Gosport) is large and extremely convenient, having a considerable stock of seasoned timber, besides great quantities of other stores. From these considerations, joined to many others, I am firmly of opinion that it is a measure most essentially necessary for His Majesty's service that this port should remain in our hands since it appears to me of more real consequence and advantage than any other the crown possesses in America; for by securing this the whole trade of the Chesapeake is at an end, and consequently the sinews of the rebellion destroyed. I trust and hope, Sir, you will see this matter in the same important light I do, and give such directions for reinforcements to be sent here as you may think necessary in order to our preserving and improving those advantages which we have with so much good fortune  acquired."

Jefferson's notes, 1781-82.—"Before the present invasion of this state by the British under the command of General Phillips, we had three vessels of 16 guns, one of 14, five small galleys, and two or three armed boats. They were generally so badly manned as seldom to be in condition for service. Since the perfect possession of our rivers assumed by the enemy, I believe we are left with a single armed boat only."

"At a Norfolk County Court, held on the 20th day of July, 1834, Capt. William Moffat of the town of Portsmouth in Norfolk County, made oath before Samuel Watts, a justice of the peace, that he was the mate of the brig 'Neptune' and that whilst he was at Portsmouth in 1780, he saw the State ship 'Renown' which was built at the State Navy Yard at Gosport by Stoddard, the master ship-builder, and commanded by Capt. Robert Elliott, drop down from the Navy Yard and when she passed the wharf where the 'Neptune' lay, Captain Elliott inquired when the 'Neptune' would be ready for sea and expressed a wish that she would get ready and proceed to sea under convoy of his ship. The 'Neptune' followed [421] the 'Renown' and when they reached Hampton Roads they found 16 or 17 sail of other vessels waiting the departure of the 'Renown' and wishing protection under her. Captain Moffat further made oath that in May of the year 1779, a sloop-of-war was burnt at the Gosport Navy Yard by the enemy and that the ship 'Renown' was built on the same stocks and was pierced to carry 20 odd guns, but at the time of her first sailing in April, 1780, in consequence of the great deficiency of arms at that time, she had only eight or ten guns; that the 'Renown' went into the port of Eustalea and there fitted with her full complement of guns and returned to the Colonies. He further made oath that Captain Elliott went to sea a second time in the 'Renown' and was chased into St. Martin. The 'Renown' was captured and Captain Elliott taken prisoner. This deponent did not return to Portsmouth until after peace, being more than three years from the time of Captain Elliott's first cruise in the 'Renown.' This affiant does not know at what time Capt. Robert Elliott entered the service, but supposes the sloop-of-war that had been built in 1778, and was burnt in May, 1779, was designed for his command as he commanded the ship built in the place of that sloop-of-war. On the return of this affiant, it was then peace and Captain Elliott was then at home. He does not know how long Captain Elliott was in prison."

A protest was entered at Edenton, North Carolina, on the 6th of June, 1779, for ship "Le Soucy," Capt. Pierre Raphael Chorlet, of Bordeaux in the Kingdom of France, which states that on the 8th day of May, 1779, his ship was laying at moorings before the town of Norfolk, Virginia, having 366 hogsheads of tobacco part of her cargo on board, and he was informed that an English fleet of ships of about 40 sail was in the Bay of' Chesapeake and had anchored before Hampton on that day, that on Sunday the following morning the fleet came to anchor in the Elizabeth River. This made him apprehend that the enemy intended to make a descent on Portsmouth; the fort at which place having but a few soldiers was incapable of making any defense. That the inhabitants were in great confusion, each shifting for himself. He went on board his ship, and got her into the Southern Branch before the shipyard, where he tarried until next morning. About 10 o'clock, the enemy being within cannon-shot of the fort, he sailed without a pilot three or four miles up the river and grounded. He fastened a small cable to a tree on shore and waited in that situation until the next morning, having passed a very tedious night, the sailors with matches in their hands to burn the ship in the event of threatened attack. He received information that the British had landed with 2,500 men and made themselves masters of the fort and were preparing to come up the river. His ship had seven guns but his sailors showed no disposition to fight, he called his officers together in council of war and all agreed to burn the ship, to prevent a valuable cargo and the ship, which with a small expense might be fitted out as a frigate-of-war, falling into the hands of the enemy. He caused all the pitch and tar to be put under the scuttles of the main deck ready to be fired on the approach of the enemy. He put into the long boat such provisions as were necessary should the crew be compelled to fly to the woods for safety. About seven o'clock next morning he saw a defile of boats coming with great swiftness toward him, on which he dispatched the long-boat and crew, reserving the boatswain to light the fire, which being fully accomplished they proceeded to join the longboat's crew.

This statement was also affirmed by 1st Lieut. Pierre Vallet, and 2nd Lieuts, Louis Virginer and Armie Bourgeois.

These court orders throw some light on the reports of the British commanders aforementioned.

The Virginia Navy was employed mainly for the defense of the bays and rivers of the State. Commodore Samuel Barron was appointed its commander-in-chief, being styled "Commodore of all the armed vessels of the Commonwealth.''

In May, 1776, an ordinance of the Virginia [422] Convention appointed Thomas Whitney, John Hutchings, Champion Travis, Thomas Newton, Jr., and George Well naval commissioners to direct the naval affairs of the Colony.

On the 24th of December, 1790, the legislature passed an Act placing Mary Boush, wife of Capt. Goodrich Boush, on the pension list, allowing her three years' half-pay of a captain in the navy of the state for immediate relief and also allowing her annually said half-pay for seven years, reciting in the preamble that Goodrich Boush entered into the service of his country at the first establishment of a naval armament and continued in the service until his death, leaving his widow and four young children in distressed circumstances.

On October 30, 1789, Jack Knight and William Boush, two negro slaves belonging to the Commonwealth, were manumitted for faithful service on board armed vessels of the State, which were no longer continued in the public establishment.

On the 27th of March, 1794, by an Act entitled an "Act to provide a naval armament," the President was authorized by Congress to procure, by purchase or otherwise, equip and employ, to protect our commerce from the Algerines, four ships to carry 44 guns each and two ships to carry 36 guns each, and to appoint the requisite number of officers to command them. The duty of carrying out the provisions of this law was assigned to the Secretary of War, Hon. Henry Knox.

It was resolved that the ships should be built, and immediate preparations were made for procuring materials and plans for executing the work. Joshua Humphreys was appointed naval constructor, and seems to have had the general charge of all the ships, that were laid down. Six captains were appointed, and one was assigned to duty as superintendent of the construction of each of the frigates.

In a report submitted to the House of Representatives by Secretary Knox, under date of December 27, 1794, after stating the character, armament, etc., of the vessels ordered, the materials to be used and how to be obtained and prepared, he goes on to say that, in order as well to distribute the advantages arising from the operation as to ascertain where the work could be executed to the greatest advantage, the building of the ships had been ordered in six different ports of the Union; one of the ports selected was Portsmouth, Virginia, where a frigate of 44 guns was laid down. The Secretary further says that the following arrangement had been adopted for the construction and equipment of the frigates, viz:

1st. All contracts for the principal materials for construction and equipment had been made, under pursuance of law, under direction of the Secretary of the Treasury.

2nd. All labor and inferior materials, not otherwise provided by the Secretary of the Treasury, were to be procured by agents, who were to be allowed a compensation of two and a half per cent, upon money expended by them.

3rd. The captains of the frigates were to superintend the construction and equipment.

4th. A master builder or constructor was appointed at each yard, and also a clerk of the yard to receive, issue and account for all public property belonging to the ships. To each of these officers had been sent his special instructions.

The Secretary concludes his report, by stating that at the time the work was commenced few or not materials for construction or equipment existed in their proper shape; that everything, if not to be created, was to be modified; the wood of which the frames were to be made was standing in the forests, the iron for cannon lying in its natural bed, and the flax and hemp probably in the seed; but that vigorous measures were being made for collecting the materials and pushing on the work, and it was hoped that the ships would be afloat during the following year (1795).

The marine-yard at Gosport was lent to the government by the State of Virginia, and, as will be seen further on, it was not purchased by the United States until several years later. Capt. Richard Dale was appointed superintendent of the yard; Josiah Fox, naval con- [423] structor or master builder; and William Pennock, navy agent.

Timber of sufficient size for the purpose required was not to be had in the market, and the government was compelled to contract for live oak and red cedar, standing in the forests of Georgia, the government to cut the wood, and the contractors to haul it to navigable waters. A large number of ship carpenters and choppers were sent out from New England. John T. Morgan, a master ship-builder of Boston, was appointed to superintend the operations of the party; to select the timber to be cut; cause it to be shaped by molds; and to ship it north to the various yards. As the work could be done only at certain seasons, much delay was experienced, and the end of the year 1795 found not one of the frigates ready for launching.

In a report of the Secretary of War, dated December 12th of that year, it is stated that about two-thirds of the live oak frame of the frigate at Norfolk (Gosport) had been received, a part of the planking, the copper for sheathing and fastening, most of the iron work, the masts and spars, and the most of the other materials necessary were in store or being prepared. The keel had been laid and part of the frame bolted together and ready for raising.

On the establishment of peace, early in 1796, between the United States and Algiers, work was suspended upon the ship at this yard, and such of the materials collected as were thought perishable were sold, and the rest put in store, Mr. Pennock, the agent, being employed, to take charge of them. In June, 1797, the materials on hand at Gosport were valued at $52,989.

The breaking out of the war with France in 1798 gave a fresh impetus to the infant navy, and considerable sums of money were appropriated by Congress for building, purchasing, or hiring vessels to be used against that republic.

By an Act of Congress, approved April 30, 1798, a separate department was created for the administration of the affairs of the navy, and Benjamin Stoddert was appointed the first Secretary of the Navy, George Cabot, of Massachusetts, having declined the appointment.

In July, orders were sent to Mr. Pennock to recommence work on the frigate at Gosport, for which the name of "Chesapeake" had been chosen. During the same month, a brig of 200 tons, which had been built near the Navy Yard, by Mr. Herbert, and which was nearly ready for launching, was purchased by the government and fitted out, under the name of "Norfolk." Capt. Thomas Williams, of Norfolk, was appointed superintendent, and afterward commander of the brig, being regularly commissioned in the navy.

Josiah Fox, who had been discharged from the yard upon the suspension of work in March, 1796, was now reappointed as naval constructor and directed to proceed with the work upon the "Chesapeake" on a plan proposed by himself, by which the size of the vessel was reduced from a 44 to a 36-gun ship. The following extract of a letter from Mr. Stoddert to the navy agent, under date of August 17, 1798, will be of interest, as showing the reasons for reducing the size of the ship, and which is referred to more particularly, as a distinguished naval historian has made a very different explanation of the matter in his efforts to correct history. Mr. Stoddert says:

"Believing that there will he occasion for this ship in the spring, doubting whether it would be possible to have her ready so early without materially altering her dimensions and, indeed, not being entirely satisfied of the policy of increasing the size and expense of our frigates; so far beyond what is known in Europe without increasing their force, I have determined, although the keel has been laid, to reduce the size of the frigate at Norfolk to the largest-sized frigates, in the British Navy. This, Mr. Fox assures me, can be done with very great advantage, and with a prospect of finishing the ship in half the time it would take to complete her on the former scale, and with half the expense. In pursuance of this [424] idea, I now enclose you the dimensions by which the frigate is to be built. The keel, already laid, must of course be cut, and some alterations must be made in the stern. This, Mr. Fox informs me, can be easily done. * * * The greatest inconvenience will be in altering the molds. This, Mr. Fox says, he can do in full time after getting to Norfolk."

Considerable activity prevailed at the yard during the remainder of the year. A brig, "Augusta," was purchased by the citizens of Virginia, and presented to the government. It was named the "Richmond," and was fitted out under the command of Capt. Samuel Barron, who had served in the Virginia Navy during the Revolution.

The vessels of Commodore Truxton's squadron frequently resorted to the yard for repairs and supplies and to pay off their crews. We also find that large quantities of bread and of some other articles of provisions were furnished during the year and the next succeeding for other stations. The yard was also made a depot for the supply of masts and spars to cruising ships, and even to vessels fitting at Baltimore and Philadelphia.

By a report submitted to Congress by the Secretary of State March 2, 1799, it appears that commissions were issued for the district of Norfolk between July 9, 1798, and January 1, 1799, to 10 private armed vessels, amounting in the aggregate 65 guns.

On July 16, 1799, Commodore Samuel Barron was ordered to duty as superintendent of the yard, Mr. Pennock, the agent, not having exercised the degree of economy which the Navy Department desired. In the following month, however, Commodore Barron was detached and ordered to the command of the "Constellation," at New York. In November of the same year we find him again ordered to hold himself in readiness to superintend the "Chesapeake," which, contrary to the expectations of the Secretary of the Navy, was not yet finished, but which was finally launched in the following month, to begin her ill-fated career. The importance of the Gosport yard, particularly as an equipping, recruiting and victualing station, had now become so well established that the Secretary of the Navy resolved to make it one of the permanent navy yards of the country. To this end he addressed the following letter to the Governor of Virginia, with a view to the purchase of the ground:

Navy Department, January 20, 1800.

Sir: The United States have heretofore occupied for navy purposes a piece of ground at Gosport belonging to the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is supposed to contain about ten acres. (Footnote: The yard really contained about 16 acres.) The ground is considered to be very well situated for a permanent navy yard; and if it should be so appropriated, it will be desirable to commence immediately some buildings for the accommodation of workmen and the security of timber.

Permit me, therefore, by order of the President, to solicit the favor of Your Excellency to communicate to the Legislature of Virginia the desire of the Government of the United States to obtain this property, either by purchase or in such other way as the Legislature shall deem proper.

I have the honor to be, with great respect, Your Excellency's obedient servant,
His Excellency JAMES MONROE, Esq., Governor of Virginia.

The request of the Secretary was promptly complied with and on the 25th of the same month the legislature passed an Act, of which the following is a transcript:

Chap. 64. An Act authorizing the Governor of this Commonwealth to convey to the United States, upon certain conditions, the property of this Commonwealth called Gosport.

Whereas it has been represented to the present General Assembly that the Government of the United States are desirous that certain lands the property of this Commonwealth, commonly called and known by the name of Gosport, should be vested in the United States, for the purpose of establishing a navy yard upon the same:

I. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That it shall and may be lawful for the Governor of this Commonwealth, and he is authorized to appoint some fit and proper person to meet such persons as shall be appointed on the part of the United States, to ascertain and fix the value of the property belonging to this Commonwealth, situate near the town of Portsmouth, in the County of Norfolk, and commonly called and known by the name of Gosport. So soon as the value of the property shall be ascertained, and the Governor shall be satisfied the Government of the [425] United States are willing to pay the amount thereof to this Commonwealth, then, and in that case, it shall be lawful for the Governor of this Commonwealth, and he is hereby authorized, for and in behalf of this Commonwealth, by proper deed in writing, under his hand and the seal of the Commonwealth, to convey, transfer, assign and make over to the United States, all interest in and title to, as well as all the jurisdiction which this Commonwealth possesses over, the public lands commonly called and known by the name of Gosport, before mentioned, for the purpose of establishing a navy yard: Provided, That nothing herein contained shall be so construed as to prevent the officers of this State from executing any process whatever within the jurisdiction hereby directed to be ceded.

II. And be it further enacted, That in case the Government of the  United States shall at any time hereafter abandon the design of establishing a navy yard at the place hereby ceded to the United States, or, after the establishment thereof, shall discontinue the same, then, and in that case, the property in the soil and the jurisdiction over the territory directed to be vested in the United States shall revert to this Commonwealth, and shall be considered as the property and subject to the jurisdiction of the same, in like manner as if this Act had never been made: Provided, That in such case this Commonwealth will repay the Government of the United States the sum or sums paid by the United States in consideration of the cession hereby directed to be made.

This Act shall commence and be in force from and after the passing thereof.

In accordance with the requirements of the above quoted law. Thomas Newton, Jr., Esq., was appointed on behalf of the State of Virginia, and by an order dated 7th of April, 1800, William Pennock was appointed to act on the part of the United States to ascertain, with Mr. Newton, the value of the lands required. In a letter bearing the same date, the Secretary of the Navy enjoined the greatest economy on the part of Mr. Pennock, informed him that the only funds available out of which the property could be paid for were those appropriated for the building of the "74-gun ships." (Footnote: See Act of Congress approved February 25, 1799, for "The augmentation of the Navy," and which, among other provisions, authorized the construction of six ship, to be armed with not less than 74 guns each.) He also intimated to Mr. Newton that the less the amount paid for the property, the more there would be available for improvements and suggested $100 per acre as a fair valuation.

In a report to the President, dater April 25, 1800, Mr. Stoddert in recommending the establishment of permanent navy yards, to be the property of the United States, remarks that a large part of the expense of building the frigates arose from handling the timber, owing to the confined space in which it was piled—enough, he thinks, to have purchased ground and have improved it. He states, that the ground at Gosport had recently been ceded to the United States on condition of the payment of its value, which he hopes will not exceed $2,000.

To the surprise of the Secretary the value assigned to the land was $12,000, or $750 per acre. In a letter addressed to Mr. Pennock on the 7th of August, Mr. Stoddert expresses the opinion that the ground should have been given to the government without charge, but that it must be taken at the valuation named, though he considered it exorbitant. He also directs Mr. Pennock to have prepared plans for improving the timber-dock, a creek making up into the yard, and which was then used as such.

On January 24, 1801, $12,000 were remitted to John Hopkins, of Richmond, Virginia, to be paid to the State, as the purchase money of the Gosport lands, and under date of the 15th of June, 1801, a deed was executed by Governor Monroe, by which the title and jurisdiction of the property were conveyed to the United States.

In a report submitted to the House of Representatives April 27, 1802, by Mr. Mitchell, from the Committee on Naval Affairs, that gentleman stated that $12,000 had been expended for purchase and $4,000 for improvements at Gosport without authority of law. Under date of March 10, 1802, Mr. Mitchell, from the same committee, reported that, in the opinion of the committee, Gosport and Charlestown, Massachusetts, from the improvements already made, and from other circumstances, were the most eligible places for receiving and repairing the ships in actual service; and that, should any additional improvements be necessary at those places, they ought to be made.

[426]  He also recommended the appointment of suitable persons to make plans for improving those yards and the appropriation of $50,000 to carry the plans into effect.

The $4,000 above referred to as having been expended in improvements at Gosport had been used to build a spar-shed, timber-shed, a bridge across a creek which separated the yard from the rest of Gosport at that time (outside of where the present wall stands), and probably in part for wooden wharves along the water-front, and a fence around the property.

We find mention of vessels laying up, repairing and fitting out at this yard in 1800, 1801 and 1802. In 1801 a squadron under Commodore Dale fitted out. On the 27th of July, 1801, orders were sent to heave down the "Chesapeake" for repairs.

In October, 1801, a marine guard was sent to the Gosport yard, and the navy agent was directed to furnish its members with quarters. It is probable that the wooden barrack-building which stood on about the same site that the brick barracks were afterward built upon was erected for the purpose.

In April, 1802, Mr. Pennock recommended the building of a storehouse for provisions, etc., within the yard. Up to that time, private warehouses had been hired for the use of the navy stores.

On April 26, 1802, Mr. Pennock was removed and Daniel Bedinger was appointed navy agent and superintendent of the Navy Yard.

In May, 1802, a circular order was addressed by the Department to navy agents informing them that specific appropriations had been made for the expenses of the navy, and that, among other items, $190,575 had been appropriated for the purchase and transportation of timber and other materials, including ordnance for the 74-gun ships and $50,000 for improvements of navy yards.

In April, 1803, $10,000 were sent to Mr. Bedinger to build a warehouse and a timber- shed at Gosport. We find by the correspondence of a little later date that, instead of expending the money for the purpose authorized, Mr. Bedinger built with it, first, a brick wall, beginning a short distance from the waterside, running along the north front of the yard and down the west side of the creek which formed the southern boundary, and part of which forms the present timber-basin, secondly, a brick dwelling house for himself within the yard and, which was afterward for many years used as the commandant's house, and with what money was left, a very indifferent shed for timber, and a warehouse, which afterward had to be taken down to prevent its falling.

On August 6, 1804, an order was sent to Mr. Bedinger detaching the marine guard from the Navy Yard and ordering it to Washington.

In May, 1805, Bedinger was ordered to repair the wharves, which had been represented by a citizen as being much out of order. We find, under date of February 6, 1806, a report from Thomas Turner, accountant of the navy, in which that gentleman states that $42,748.78 had been expended in improvements and repairs at this yard, and yet, except, the wall, scarcely anything of permanent value seems to have been done. The wharves were, and continued to be for many years later, of wood, and of course, in waters infested with the Teredo naxualis, were constantly requiring extensive repairs, and even complete renewal. During the summer of 1806 we find several gunboats and ketches fitting out and laying up, under the direction of Lieut. Arthur Sinclair.

On the 28th of November, 1806, Capt. Stephen Decatur was ordered to superintend the building of four gunboats at Norfolk. He seems to have superceded Lieut. Sinclair in his duties also, although that officer continued on duty under him. In July, 1807, Mr. Bedinger was ordered to contract for materials for 10 additional gunboats and, a little later, to contract for building the same. Captain Decatur was ordered to superintend the construction. We now find Captain Decatur addressed by the Department as "Commanding naval forces at Norfolk," and he appears to have [427] continued this command until November, 1811; part of the time his force consisting of the frigate "United States," which he himself commanded, and of such gunboats and other vessels as were from time to time put into commission. He appears, however, to have had no immediate charge of the Navy Yard, which continued under the control of the navy agent.

In November, 1807, a marine guard was again ordered to the yard. On February 10, 1808, Bedinger's appointment was revoked and Theodore Armistead appointed in his place as navy agent and superintendent of the Navy Yard. We now find complaints lodged against Bedinger for having used the public wharves and property in repairing his own vessels, though whether these charges were substantiated does not appear.

The agents up to this time seem not to have been required to give bonds, and in fact to have been held very little responsible for their acts, the Department having no military control over them.

In March, 1808, Mr. Armistead was authorized to contract for 50 tons of native hemp and to have made it into cordage for the navy. The work was done by private manufacturers, however, and not at the yard. In April of the same year authority was sent to Mr. Armistead to build a new timber-shed and a warehouse.

In May, 1809; an order was sent to build a powder magazine in the yard. This stood near the creek (afterward the timber-basin). In June, 1810, on account of the uncertain relations with Great Britain, a small cruising squadron was ordered to Norfolk under the command of Commodore Decatur.

On July 7th of the same year the Department having become tired of the practice of operating the Navy Yard under irresponsible civil administration, ordered Commodore Samuel Barron as commandant of the yard, the gunboats, the officers and men. The navy agent was, however, still continued as purchasing and disbursing agent and as such in charge of "all stores other than military." The following letter, addressed to Commodore Barron by the Secretary of the Navy, is of some interest as being the first instructions to the commandant:

NAVY DEPARTMENT, September 29, 1810.

Sir: In defining your duties and your authority in the yard at Gosport, it will be sufficient for me to state that all the military stores of every description will be under your care; that the direction of all improvements in the yard, and of all reparations to our vessels at the yard are committed to you; and that within the yard you are to have the entire undivided command.

The navy agent, as heretofore, will have the charge of all stores other than military, and he must have a warehouse at the yard for their safe-keeping, with perfect liberty of ingress and egress.


The house which has been mentioned as having been built by Mr. Bedinger was assigned to Commodore Barron as a residence. It was at the time occupied by the storekeeper or clerk of the yard, an eccentric person of the name of Thomas Dulton, an ex-shipmaster. Although the navy agent was nominally superintendent of the yard, Captain Dulton had been in immediate charge of it for some years, performing all sorts of offices therein; ringing the bell, and mustering the workmen himself. Many singular anecdotes of him are preserved among the traditions of the yard. His will was admitted to probate on the 18th of June, 1823. It was an odd paper. He directed a heart-pine coffin tarred on the outside and no other ornament. He recommended and commanded as far as he could that no branch of his family go into or wear mourning as "I am an enemy of hypocrisy."

Commodore Barron had scarcely entered upon his command when on the 29th of October, 1810, he was overtaken by death. Lieut. Robert Henley, under date of November 10th, was ordered to assume temporary command of the yard until a relief should be ordered.

In May, 1811, Capt. Samuel Evans was ordered as commandant and from that time we find lieutenants, masters, medical officers, boatswains and gunners, attached to the yard and to the vessels in ordinary.

Captain Evans continued in command un- [428] til August 10, 1812, when Capt. John Cassin was ordered to relieve him. Captain Cassin had, as lieutenant and master commandant, been for several years attached to the Navy Yard at Washington, part of the time as superintendent and part of the time second in command. The Department seems to have regarded him as a valuable dockyard officer, and the pay and allowances of a captain commanding a separate squadron were given him in his new position, although he was almost the junior captain on the list when ordered to the command.

On the laying of the embargo in April, 1812, we find Commodore Decatur's squadron again at Norfolk, and he was ordered by the Department with the vessels under his command and with the gunboats ordered to be fitted out at the Navy Yard, to prevent vessels sailing from the Chesapeake without regular clearances. A few days later we find him ordered to leave the enforcement of the embargo to the gunboats, under the direction of Captain Evans, and to cruise to the eastward with his squadron.

On the 21 st of May, 1812, Commodore Decatur's squadron was ordered to New York in anticipation of war with Great Britain, which, on the 18th of June, was formally declared. 

The only force at Norfolk at this time consisted of 21 gunboats, the greater part of which were fitted out and used for harbor defense. On, the 14th of July, an order was sent to Captain Evans, limiting the complement of men of each gunboat to eight exclusive of officers, or just enough to exercise the guns and informing him that in case of emergency he must rely upon volunteers; to bring the crews up to an efficient number. This order greatly impaired the usefulness of the gunboats a little later, as it was found impossible to procure volunteers to serve in them.

In, August, as above stated, Captain Evans was relieved by Captain Cassin. Very little of interest occurred during the remainder of the year. In October a blacksmith's shop was erected. By the letters of Captain Cassin we find that considerable quantities of timber, lumber and other stores and of munitions of war, were furnished from time to time from the Navy Yard to the army in the vicinity, particularly to the engineer officers who were erecting fortifications. During the summer Captain Cassin's little force was increased by an armed yacht under Lieut. E. P. Kennedy.

Early in February, 1813, Capt. Charles Stewart, in the "Constellation," which was fitted out at Washington, in attempting to get to sea, was met by a large force of British ships, which were seen entering the Chesapeake as he came abreast the Horse Shoe. It being calm when he discovered the enemy Captain Stewart kedged the "Constellation" from the Horse Shoe to a position in the Elizabeth River, just opposite Fort Norfolk, now the navy magazine.

Captain Stewart now became commanding officer of the station in general by virtue of his seniority, though Captain Cassin continued to command the gunboat flotilla, and made his reports directly to the Department. The most untiring vigilance, activity and skill were now required to defend the frigate and flotilla from capture, and at the same time to annoy the enemy as much as possible. Both objects were successfully accomplished.

The inconvenience of having the gunboats so poorly manned was severely felt; every effort was made to procure volunteers for them but without effect, even though very considerable bounties were offered for one month's service. It was soon found necessary to put out of commission all but 10; the crews of those laid up being drafted into those that were kept in commission, though even this left them very short-handed. In March four block-ships were sunk off Lambert's Point to obstruct the channel and to prevent the ships of the enemy from passing up the Elizabeth, as they were hourly expected to do. Several attempts were made by the enemy to cut out the "Constellation" with boats but were thwarted by the vigilance of Captain Stewart and his officers and crew. [429] In the spring of 1813 Captain Stewart was detached from the "Constellation" and the command was given to Captain Tarbell, which made Captain Cassin the senior officer on the station.

Norfolk continued to be blockaded until the close of the war.

On the 30th of November, 1813, Mr. Jones, the Secretary of the Navy, in answer to a resolution of the House of Representatives calling for information on the subject of navy yards, submitted among other papers the following letter of Captain Cassin giving a description of the yard at the date of the report:

NAVY YARD, Gosport, May 25, 1813.

Sir: I have the honor to enclose you a statement of the accommodations provided in this yard, with the number of officers and men attached. * * * The commander's dwelling of brick, two stories high, made comfortable quarters; marine-barracks, miserable huts of wood, wanting much repair; the officers' quarters are low two-story frame buildings, the whole 150 feet from the west wall, which is only 5-1/2 feet high; the northwest is bounded by warehouses and timber-sheds, having to extend a fence on the east end to low-water mark.

The marine hospital stands in the center of the yard, two stories high, was formerly occupied as boatswain's and gunner's storerooms, built of wood, the center of which is occupied as a hospital, the garret as rigging-loft, and lower part gunner's store, storekeeper's office, purser's issuing-room and office.

The blacksmith's shop, begun of brick, 165 feet by 50, including anchor and plumber's shops, not completed, the old shops being dangerous to heat a large fire.

One large timber-shed, 300 feet long, with brick pillars, and 50 feet wide.

One small shed for the armorer and plumber; two sheds appropriated, one for the joiners, the other for mast-makers.


In April, 1815, an order was sent to Captain Cassin by the Secretary of the Navy to raise the hulks which had been sunk in the channel during the war and which constituted a serious obstruction to the narrow channel.

In the summer 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." We find authority given during the same summer to build a saw-shed and a steam-stove.

In January, 1818, authority was sent to Captain Cassin to remove or pull down the old hospital, which was situated in the yard. A small frame building, located near the present drydock was afterward used for some years as a hospital.

In June, 1818, the ship "Alert" was assigned as receiving-ship at Norfolk, Commander Jesse Wilkinson being ordered to command her.

In September, 1818, Capt. Arthur Sinclair was ordered to the Navy Yard to superintend the construction, of the "Delaware," under Captain Cassin. Captain Sinclair was soon after addressed as commanding naval officer afloat at Norfolk, and held a command separate from the yard for several years later. The receiving ship was a part of his command, and all recruiting was done under his direction. We find about this period, and for some years after, considerable quantities of timber, plank, knees, masts and mast-pieces, and also of cordage, furnished from Gosport to the navy yards in other parts of the country.

In the latter part of 1818, the old wooden buildings used as marine barracks were pulled down and a brick building put up in their place. The line-of-battle ship "New York" was also commenced in this year.

In October, 1820, the "Delaware'' was launched and housed over, not being required for service immediately.

In June, 1821, Captain Cassin was relieved by Capt. Lewis Warrington. During the summer of that year Captain Warrington was directed to fill in the old timber-basin. This was a shallow basin, originally formed by a creek or cove, and included the spot where ship-house "B" was afterward built; its banks were protected by wharf-logs, with a wharf across the entrance, provided with slips for [430] boats to enter. A ship-house was authorized to be built over the "New York;" this was afterward lettered "A."" A pair of masting-sheers was also authorized.

In August, 1821, a school for midshipmen was established under the charge of Chaplain David P. Adams, on board the "Guerriere" frigate, then in ordinary at Norfolk.

Improvements to the Navy Yard buildings, repairs to the wharves, filling in and leveling the grounds were carried on from year to year under the current appropriations. In November, 1823, the Secretary of the Navy reported to Congress the following as the improvements at Gosport up to that date, the most of which have been previously noticed in these pages, viz.: A brick wall around the yard; a comfortable dwelling for the commandant; a large and convenient smiths' shop of brick; two large brick warehouses; a few frame buildings used as joiners' shop, coopers' shops, etc.; very convenient houses and quarters for the marines; a building slip; a substantial ship-house; and a pair of masting-sheers.

In. December, 1824, Captain; Warrington was relieved from the command of the yard by Master-Commandant James Renshaw.

The title of master-commandant was changed to that of commander; and sailing-master, to master, by Act of Congress approved March 3, 1837.

On July 31, 1822, United States ship "North Carolina," 74 guns, Capt. C. W. Morgan, sailed directly from Hampton Roads along the wharves to the Navy Yard under full sail. On January 1, 1838, the same thing was done by the United States 120-gun ship "Pennsylvania." Her commanding officer was Samuel Barron.

On the 25th of May, 1824, the Senate of the United States passed a resolution calling upon the Secretary of the Navy for information upon 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.

Hon. Mr. Southard, then Secretary of the Navy, in his answer to the resolution, under 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 called attention to the fact that not one existed in the country, although the arguments to prove "the propriety of building one or more had several times been offered since the organization of the Navy Department in 1798; that twice appropriations had been made by 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. He stated that the only method of examining and repairing the hulls of heavy ships, below the water-line, 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.

In regard to the location he quoted the opinion of the navy commissioners that there should be one in the eastern part of the Union and one in the waters of the Chesapeake. For the site of the first of these he proposed Charlestown, Massachusetts, and for the second, Gosport. The following paragraphs are copied from the Secretary's letter:

"At Gosport there is also 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 [431] placed an important portion of our naval means. Whether our principal 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 repairing 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 a 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."

The estimated cost of construction of two docks, based mainly upon an estimate for one at Boston by Col. Loammi Baldwin, then one of the first civil engineers of the country,* was $700,000. (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 performed of building the docks at Gosport and Charlestown.)

No immediate action was taken by Congress upon the report of the Secretary of the Navy, but Mr. Southard, on the 31st of March, 1825, directed the navy agent at Norfolk to ascertain the prices at which the land, adjoining the yard to the southward and extending in that direction to the river, could be purchased. Under the date of April 14th Mr. King, the naval agent, reported that the aggregate cost of the several parcels of land would be $44,500.

Mr. Southard regarded this sum as altogether too great and directed Mr. King to proceed no further in his negotiations.

On the 25th of May, 1825, Commodore James Barron relieved Captain Renshaw as commandant of the yard.

On the 28th of November Commodore Barron, in answer to a complaint of the Secretary of the Navy that too long a time was required to repair and fit out ships, informed the Secretary that the delays were immediately owing to want of proper workshops, storehouses and a dock, and proposed a plan for the improvement of the yard, which involved the purchase of more land (the yard being altogether too confined for the purpose for which it was required) , the erection of suitable buildings and shops, and of a floating dry dock. He furnished a plan and estimates for the last. He especially urged the inexpediency of erecting wooden wharves and docks in waters infested with the Teredo natualis, which destroyed the structures at the water's edge and left the sub-structure to form actual obstructions in the channel.

The question of purchasing additional ground seems thus to have been reopened, and under date of February 26, 1826, Mr. King, the navy agent, suggests to the Navy Department the plan of applying to the County Court to appoint a jury to appraise the lands required by the government. This suggestion was approved by the Secretary, but seems to have been a very slow process.

On the 22nd of May, 1826, a resolution of Congress of the following purport was approved, viz.:

The President to cause an examination and accurate survey to be made by skillful engineers of a site for a dry dock at the navy yards at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Charlestown, Massachusetts, Brooklyn, New York, and Gosport, Virginia, respectively; and that such engineers be required to state the dimensions necessary for such docks, the advantages of each of the above-named establishments and the objections that apply to either, with a detailed estimate of the expense of a suitable site, and of constructing a dock at each of said places; and the President be requested to communicate the same to Congress in the first week of the next session.

On the 26th of July Colonel Baldwin (the civil engineer before mentioned) was appointed by the Department to make the required surveys. The first spot selected at Gosport as the [432] site of the dock was at the northern side of the entrance of the creek, now forming a timber-dock; this site was chosen as being the best in the yard as it then existed.

During the same year (1826) the frigate "St. Lawrence" was laid down and a ship-house built, afterward lettered "B."

On (the 3rd of March, 1827, Congress passed an Act entitled "An Act for the gradual improvement of the Navy of the United States," by which there was appropriated the sum of $500,000 per annum for six years, to be applied to the purposes specified in the Act.

By section 4 of the Act the President was authorized to cause to be constructed two dry docks on the most approved plan for the use of the United States Navy; one of the said docks to be erected at some point to the south and the other to the north of the Potomac River.

By section 6 the President was authorized to cause the navy yards of the United States to be thoroughly examined and plans to be prepared for the improvement of the same and the preservation of the public property therein; from which plans, after they should be sanctioned by the President, no deviation should be made but by his special order.

On the 29th of March, 1827, Mr. King, the navy agent, reported that the lands from Jefferson street, along the line of Third street to the county road, and thence down to the water, could be purchased for $7,825. He was authorized to make the purchase, and also of such other lands adjoining the yard on the south as should be deemed necessary, and was directed to consult with Commodores Bainbridge, Morris and Chauncey, who then constituted the Board of Navy Commissioners charged, under authority of the Act above alluded to, with the examination of the yards and the formation of plans for their improvement.

The lands finally purchased included all the ground south of Lincoln street and east of Third street to the creek, and several parcels of land lying to the southward of the creek, and now included within the walls of the yard, being town lots Nos. 120 to 151, both inclusive, and the parcels of land marked from 1 to 7.

The following is a list of the purchases made, the date of the conveyances, the prices paid, respectively, and the names of the vendors:

In taking possession of the newly acquired property the government also took possession of as much of Second, Nelson, Jefferson and Fayette streets as were included in it though, as will be shown further on, these were not purchased until some years later. It may be here said that the streets above mentioned were never actually made or used as such. A county road ran along the south side of the creek to the river, where a bridge crossed from a point near the southern end of the present mast-house and house-joiners' shops.

The Board of Navy Commissioners, of which Commodore Bainbridge was president, during the winter of 1827-28 made an elaborate plan for the improvement of the yard, based on a thorough survey of the yard and the adjacent waters by Colonel Baldwin. The position before chosen for a dry dock was abandoned and sites for three docks were selected on the addition to the southward of the creek. The report of the commissioners was dated April 1, 1828, and was approved by the President, John Quincy Adams, on the 24th of the following November.


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.

The northernmost of the three sites selected, for docks was chosen for the one about to be built. 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 12-1/2 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 eight 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 forty 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 cribwork 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 soil for a depth of from five 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 augur 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 three 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 or 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 of the dock yellow-pine beams [434] 12 inches thick either way and secured to the piles by treenails. The spaces between the beams and to the level of their uppermost 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 dressed in the quarries from the plans, and so well was this work done that it is estimated that not $1oo was spent in altering stone. The rubble-backing to the sidewalls was obtained principally from, the quarries at Port Deposit, Maryland. A small portion, however, came from the Falls of the James River, near Richmond.

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 docked by blocking her 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, one foot thick at the entrance of the chamber and two feet three inches at the head, thus giving rise of one foot three inches; the second course is of uniform thickness, i. e., three 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 one foot each. These five altars are laid so as to form a continuation of the inverted arch; the next three rise three 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, three feet; the next three, two feet each; the next, four feet; the next two, 2-1/2 feet each; the next, four feet; and the upper three, two 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 float-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 four 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 seven feet wide, built with straight side-walls of cut granite, a semi-circular top of brick 14 inches thick, and a brick inverted arch at the bottom of the same thickness.

[437] From the south end of the reservoir (where a well is situated, reaching to the surface), a tunnel with cross-section elliptical in form, four feet high and two feet nine 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 four 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 nine inches below the coping, and leading inside of the turning-gates; these culverts are also supplied with bronze gates.

There are two pump-wells 15 feet nine inches in diameter each, and connected together; they are built of brick; the bottoms are inverted arches two- 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 one foot deep and 18 inches wide.

There are four lift-pumps in each well, each 30 inches in diameter and of three feet stroke, made of cast iron, lined with composition staves and supplied with composition boxes and vales. 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 sawmill 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 turning-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 two feet thick, and project 14 inches into the grooves in the walls and arches. There is a fore-and-aft bulkhead from stem to stern and from deck to keelson, composed of solid timber, and two feet thick. Three courses of tie-beams from this bulkhead to the sides resist the pressure of the water. Four copper ship's pumps on each side and worked by brakes on declare 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.

The First Dry Dock in America,
U. S. S. Delaware,
Gosport Navy Yard, June 17, 1833.

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 figurehead of the "Delaware" represented Tamarind, a chief of the Delaware tribe of Indians. It was saved when the "Delaware" was destroyed in 1861 and is now in the Naval Museum at Annapolis. It is referred to as a masterpiece of wood-carving. This figurehead was carved by William Luke, who had obtained great reputation as a sculptor in wood. His establishment was located at the southeast corner of Court and London streets, Portsmouth, and it is said that he executed all the carving at that place for the United States Navy. He died February 2, 1829.

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 [438] 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:

In 1830 a claim was set up by the widow and trustees of William Pennock to the square of ground which had formerly comprised lots 128 to 135, both inclusive. This ground had been purchased by the United States from Arthur Emmerson, whose title was derived from the State of Virginia, and was of comparatively recent date. It was now asserted by the claimants that the square had been purchased by Wells Cowper, in 1785, from the commissioners appointed by law to sell the Gosport lands, and had been sold and conveyed by the heirs of the said Cowper to Mr. Pennock.

On the 23rd of March, 1830, Mr. Emmerson informed the Board of Navy Commissioners, in answer to a communication from them on the subject, that he knew of no title to conflict with his own; but that if anybody could produce a valid title he was willing to refund the money he had received for it, or if suit was entered he held himself ready to defend the title.

Under date of June 25, 1830, Nash Legrand, the navy agent at Norfolk, was directed by the Secretary of the Navy to cause the conflicting titles to be examined. In his answer, dated July 20th, Mr. Legrand states that the heirs of Cowper held a receipt for the purchase money paid to the commissioners in 1785, but that if any deed had ever been executed conveying the property to them it had been lost. They had, however, held uninterrupted possession of the land, "except the ownership of Emmerson under the State patent." Mr. Legrand had consulted the State's attorney, whose opinion was that the claimants could easily establish their title.

The claimants several times declared their intention of entering suit for the property, but seem never to have done so. As it was not desirable to build upon the ground so long as there was any doubt as to the title, Mr. Legrand was directed, on the 30th of April, 1831, to enter into a contract on the part of the government with the claimants (they having previously expressed their willingness to do so) by which the latter bound themselves to convey the property to the United States in case their title to it should be established, for the same amount that had been paid to Mr. Emmerson, and which amount that gentleman had again promised to refund should the decision be against him. The contract was executed accordingly on the 31st of October, 1831, but no further steps seem ever to have been taken.

In 1832 a correspondence was commenced by John Harper, who had obtained from the State of Virginia, under date of November 13, 1832, a grant of such portions of Second, Fayette, Nelson and Jefferson streets as were included in the newly added portions of the yard, and described as "waste and abandoned lands,"' and which he had caused to be surveyed after it was not only in the possession of the government of the United States, but actually enclosed, as was certified to by the surveyor himself. Mr. Harper now desired the Navy Department to purchase his title.

The Department, of course, declined to consider his proposal and on the 27th of February,
1833, an Act was passed by the General Assembly of Virginia authorizing the trustees of [439] the town of Portsmouth to convey the title of the property in question to the United States upon the payment of its value, and also ceding to the United States the jurisdiction of all lands recently purchased. The ground contained in the streets was assessed at $4,779, and was duly conveyed to the government in 1833, by the trustees of Portsmouth, on the payment of that sum; there being some informality in the deed, however, a new conveyance was made in May, 1837. 

In accordance with the further provisions of the Act of the 27th of February, 1833, above referred to, Governor Littleton W. Tazewell, by deed of April 1, 1835, conveyed to the United States the jurisdiction of all lands recently added to the Navy Yard as well as of that purchased in 1826 near Fort Nelson, and upon which the Naval Hospital was afterward erected, under conditions that should the government at any time, for the space of five years, fail to use the property for the purpose specified, the jurisdiction should revert to the State of Virginia, and also providing that the officers of the State should at no time be prevented from executing within the limits of the property any process whatsoever.

Mr. Harper continued to urge his claim until 1839, when the last of his letters is dated. While the work of building the dry dock was going on some progress, was being made under the plan for the improvement of the yard. This mainly consisted in putting up workshops, erecting a wall around the yard, filling in and leveling the grounds, etc. After the completion of the dock Capt. W. P. S. Sanger became the civil engineer of the yard, which position he continued to hold until 1842, when he was transferred to the Bureau of Yards and Docks, then newly created.

A plan of the yard, made by Captain Sanger about the year 1840 (there is, unfortunately, no date upon it), shows the progress up to that time of the work of improvement, which consisted of the following, viz.: A smithery; an iron store, including copper smiths', tin- smiths', and other small shops; five timber-sheds; a storehouse; a mast-shop, with shed for masts and spars; a boat-shop and boat-house; a workshop for capstans, rudders and other heavy work; a cooperage and storehouse for water-tanks, staves, etc.; dwelling houses for the commandant and four other yard officers, all substantial brick buildings; besides these, a few temporary timber-sheds, and a number of small buildings not contemplated in the "approved plans," consisting of stables, saw-house, watch-house, oil-house, tar-house, etc. In addition to these a large portion of the quay-wall had been built on the water-front and about three-fourths of that surrounding the timber-dock or basin. The timber-dock was commenced in 1835. Specific appropriations were made for the quay-wall in 1835, and continued from year to year until 1840.

Commodore Warrington, who had assumed command of the yard May 26, 1831, continued it until the 7th of October, 1840. The yard was constantly used in the meantime for fitting out, refitting, repairing and laying up the ships and vessels of the navy.

The sloop "John Adams" was built in 1830. The frigate "Macedonian" was rebuilt here between the years 1832 and 1836. The surveying-brig "Pioneer" was launched in 1836. The line-of-battle ship "Pennsylvania'' became the receiving-ship in 1837. The sloop "Yorktown" was commenced in 1835 and launched in 1839.

USS Pennsylvania 1837-1861
120-gun ship

Of the old buildings that were standing in 1837 the shiphhouses, the office buildings along the north wall, the commandant's house and a portion of the marine-barracks, were still standing in 1840; the rest had all been removed or rebuilt.

Commodore W. B. Shubrick assumed command of the yard in October, 1840, and retained it until October, 1843. A plan of the yard made under his direction by Captain Sanger and received at the Bureau of Yards and Docks in November, 1842, shows little progress up to that date beyond what is mentioned above, the continued appropriation; for "gradual improvements" having ceased. A black- [440] smith's shop and turning-machine and a foundry and plumbery had been added to the steam-engine house, and some other storehouses had been begun.

The steamer "Union" was laid down at the yard in 1841 and launched in 1842. The store-ship "Southampton" was commenced in 1842.

In October, 1843, Commodore Shubrick was relieved by Commodore Jesse Wilkinson, as commandant.

In 1842 an appropriation was made by Congress for a dredging-machine for this yard, which was completed the following year, and successfully used for deepening the channel in front of the dry dock and along the wharves; the earth brought up was used for filling up where needed in the yard. During the year 1843 the ground around the dry dock was graded and the pavement relaid; by this the dock was protected from injury to which it had been subject from filtration.

The brig "Perry" was laid down in 1843; some additional machinery was erected in different shops during the same year. The quay-wall was completed during that and the following years, i. e., 1843-44, as far as ship-house "B."

The sloop "Jamestown" was laid down in 1843 and launched in 1844. In 1845 another storehouse, No. 16, was built. A bridge across the timber-dock was completed. The dock itself was still in an unfinished state; no appropriation having been made for several years. Work was suspended on the quay-wall in 1845 for the same reason. A new building-slip was commenced in 1845 under special appropriation. The store-ship "Southampton" was launched in the same year.

On the 26th of August, 1846, the lot of ground opposite the Navy Yard, on the Berkley side of the Elizabeth, and known as St. Helena, was purchased and added to the yard. This ground was needed for ordnance purposes. Commodore Wilkinson had purchased it some time previously without letting it be known that the government contemplated doing so, and now conveyed it to the United States for $2,403.50, the amount he had paid for it, with interest to date, his sole object in making the purchase from his private means having been to save the government from the exorbitant valuation likely to be put upon the land as soon as it should be ascertained that it was desired as an addition to the Navy Yard. Jurisdiction of the St. Helena property was ceded to the United States by an Act of the General Assembly of Virginia, dated March 22, 1847.

Commodore Lawrence Kearny became commandant on the 1st of June, 1847. Some progress was made that year upon the launching-slip previously spoken of. Another store-house, No. 13, commenced the year before, was finished. The frigate "St. Lawrence'' and the brig "Perry" were launched. The former had been on the stocks for over 20 years. The steam frigate "Powhatan" was laid down.

January 19, 1848, Commodore John D. Sloat was ordered to relieve Commodore Kearny as commandant.

In 1848 a small appropriation was made by Congress for continuing the quay-wall, and was applied to build a coffer-dam for the north wall of the timber dock. Appropriations were also made for a new pair of masting-sheers, for additional machinery, for various shops, and for improvements at St. Helena.

In September, 1849, Fort Norfolk and the grounds about it were turned over to the Navy Department by the War Department for the establishment of a magazine for powder and balls. Work was immediately commenced upon the shell-house. A building near the site of the present sawmill (outside of the yard, when built) had been used as a magazine for some years previously. During the same year, building No. 51 was erected, also some brick stables. An engine-house to the smithery was commenced. A gun-park, a coal-house, and a landing-wharf were built at St. Helena. Work upon the quay-wall progressed as far as the appropriation would permit.

Between the years 1850 and 1860 great progress was made in improving the yard, under current appropriations, while at the same [441] time great activity prevailed in building, repairing, fitting out, and laying up the ships and vessels of the navy. The steam frigate "Powhatan" was launched in 1850.

During Commodore Silas H. Stringham's administration in 1851, three oak trees were planted in front of the commandant's office, one by Ordnance Officer (afterward Admiral) Farragut, one by William H. Peters and one by Gunner George Marshall.

Work upon the quay-wall was steadily continued from year to year, though that portion to the southward of the timber-dock, instead of being placed where it was originally designed to be on the "approved plan," was built on a continuance of the line of that to the northward of the dock. This brought it into considerably deeper water, and at the same time added to the area of that portion of the yard. In 1854 the method of building coffer-dams to exclude the water from the section of wall in progress was abandoned, and the work was carried on by the use of diving-bells. This change not only facilitated the labors but very considerably reduced the cost.

The timber-dock was finished in 1854, together with the bridges across it. A culvert was built in 1853 to drain the lands adjoining the yard and to conduct the water from them into the dock, thereby considerably freshening that in the dock. The culvert was built of brick laid upon a pine-plank floor.

There being but a limited supply of fresh water at Gosport, appropriations were made in 1850 for building cisterns for collecting rain water; one was completed in 1851, with a capacity of 38,000 gallons. Afterwards two large reservoirs were built,—one completed in 1856, holding 124,000 gallons, with a head, when full, 14-1/2 feet above the grade of the yard. Pipes from this cistern lead to hydrants in different parts of the yard, and to the wharf at the masting sheers, thus supplying the yard and ships with water and also the engines in case of fire. Water was supplied to the cistern from the roofs of store-houses Nos. 14 and 16, near which it was located. The other reservoir, completed in 1857, was located near timber-sheds Nos. 32 and 33, from the roofs of which it was supplied with water; its capacity is 128,000 gallons.

Work upon the magazine and the keeper's house at Fort Norfolk was commenced in 1851, but not completed until 1856. A reservoir was built near the magazine to contain 90,000 gallons of water. A sea-wall and landing-wharf were also built, and two old houses converted, one into a store-house and the other into a filling-house.

Building No. 19, a rigging-loft, armory, and offices, and the entrance-gateway, was erected in 1851-52. A building was constructed in 1853 near timber-shed No. 33, which was designed for a sawmill and burnetizing-house. It was entirely devoted to the latter purpose, however, and in 1856 a sawmill was erected at the South end of the yard, on one of the sites intended for a dry dock. A culvert was constructed in 1855 from the burnetizing-house to the timber-dock.

In 1855, Gosport, Norfolk and Portsmouth were visited by that terrible scourge, yellow fever. A ship called the "Ben Franklin" arrived in May or June with yellow fever on board, and was sent below to the quarantine, where she was kept until it was supposed all danger was past, when she was allowed to come up to Dickson's wharf in Gosport, and there discharge her cargo. This occurred during the first week in July. A few days afterward the fever broke out in Gosport, and gradually spread to Portsmouth, and thence to Norfolk, assuming the most virulent type, and raging without sensible abatement until frost set in, late in October. Work at the Navy Yard almost entirely ceased, the panic being so great that it was impossible to procure mechanics, with the exception of a small number of old hands. Almost everybody who could do so left the city, remaining away until the danger was past.

Dredging was carried on from year to year during the decade, deepening the channel and furnishing material for filling in the low places [442] of the yard, and the space between the old shore-line and quay-wall as well as at St. Helena. A new dredging-machine was built in 1854.

Grading the yard was also attended to; pavements were laid around the buildings, and brick foot-walks through the yard in various directions; roads were macadamized, and a thorough system of drainage established, by which the sanitary condition of the yard was much improved.

Gas for lighting the yard and buildings was introduced in 1855.

On the removal of the sawmill in 1855 and 1856, new machinery was added to the machine-shop, and a new foundry was erected, completed in 1859, on site 41, designed in the "approved plan" for an iron and copper store. A boiler-shop was commenced to the northward of the machine-shop. A new engine for pumping out the dry-dock was completed and set up in 1856. A large and commodious building was erected in 1856 as a receiving and issuing store for the department of provisions and clothing. It was located on the new-made ground, just south of the entrance of the timber-dock, into which a culvert from its cellar leads. An ordnance building not on the "approved plan" was commenced in 1858 and completed in 1859. Guns and shot platforms were built at St. Helena, and also at the yard south of the ship-house "A."

Two large lifting cranes were erected on the quay-wall in 1857, and a large amount of machinery of various sorts was added to the different shops through the yard. Alterations, additions, and improvements were made to some of the buildings under the appropriation for "repairs of all kinds," Rail-tracks were laid down at St Helena and also at the yard; in the latter connecting the anchor-racks near the dry-dock, the different shops and storehouses, with the wharf near the sheers.

Considerable building, repairs, etc., of ships was carried on during the same period. In 1855 the magnificent steam frigates "Roanoke" and "Colorado" were laid down; these vessels were finished and launched in 1857. The steam sloops "Dakota" and "Richmond" were begun in 1858 and launched, the former in 1859 and the latter in 1860. A purchased steamer called the "Dispatch" was rebuilt, in 1859 under the name of "Pocahontas."


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