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The Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, Virginia is the oldest naval shipyard in the United States. It was established November 1, 1767 under the British flag, thirty-one years before the creation of the United States Navy Department. It has felt the impact of 10 wars in which it was three times burned. From its staff have flown flags of four sovereign powers.

The shipyard was the nucleus from which has grown, in the Hampton Roads area, the largest naval base the world has ever known, the Navy's oldest and largest hospital, and a major supply center. Situated on the Portsmouth side of the Elizabeth River, it is a strange fact that this venerable institution more than two centuries old, has never borne the name of its "home city". Known as the Gosport Yard for the first century of its life it then became known as "Norfolk", after the largest city in the area.

Throughout its long history it has attained a number of priorities of which it is justly proud.

Built here in 1798-99 was the U.S. frigate CHESAPEAKE, one of a group of six ships built for the U.S. Navy after the revolution.

Drydocked here on June 17, 1833, was the U.S. ship DELAWARE, the first ship to enter a drydock in America. This oldest American drydock is still in daily service.

Built here in 1861-62, was the Confederate States ironclad ship VIRGINIA, converted from the partly burned U.S. steam frigate MERRIMAC. The VIRGINIA's battles in Hampton Roads, March 8 and 9, 1862, with the wooden squadron and the armored MONITOR, highlighted the obsolescence of the world's wooden navies and changed the course of naval history.

Built here in 1889-92 was the USS TEXAS, the U.S. Navy's first battleship to be commissioned.

Built here in 1919-22 was the USS LANGLEY, converted from the collier JUPITER into the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier.

This shipyard is the "mother institution" of the Navy's oldest and largest hospital, the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, built 1827-30.

Many historical exhibits depicting its past achievements are displayed with pride in the Naval Shipyard Museum in Portsmouth, Va. These have served as an inspiration in realizing the shipyard's present enviable record of productive efficiency in an age of electronics and atomic energy.

Norfolk Naval Shipyard is built on 819 acres of land, has 30 miles of paved streets, 324 permanent buildings, 33 miles of railroad track, 4 locomotives, 137 cars, 334 cranes and derricks, 7 drydocks, and is capable of drydocking and rendering complete service to the world's largest ships.

The shipyard attained nuclear technology capability in the early part of 1965. The USS SKATE (SSN-578) arrived in the shipyard on April 28, 1965 and became the first nuclear-powered submarine to undergo a major overhaul here.

Click on the links below to learn more

Early Settlement and Shipbuilding
Revolution and Virginia Navy

Federal Government Selects Site

Federal Ownership

War of 1812

Expansion and First Drydock

Federal Evacuation - Confederate Navy

Steel, Steam, and the White Fleet

Expansion and World War I

Depression and Six Battleships

World War II and Aftermath

Early Settlement and Shipbuilding

The Elizabeth River, upon which the yard is located, was recognized as a desirable shipbuilding site by the English settlers of Jamestown as early as 1620, when one John Wood, a shipbuilder, applied for a patent of land here and pointed out that the depth of water and stand of good timber were especially suitable for the building of ships. With the spread of settlement in this region, a plantation community with local county government was established in 1637. The many navigable streams in the area led directly to the doors of the planters who made use of them for direct transportation of their goods both at home and to and from the West Indies and Europe. This gave rise to the need of ships and shipbuilding facilities, resulting in the early establishment of several small private shipyards along the sandy shores of the Elizabeth River.

At first, they were little more than careening grounds with tar pots, timber sheds, and a saw pit for hand sawing large timbers, and perhaps, a smith's forge for the iron work. Later, to the larger yards, there were added such conveniences as masting shears for stepping the tall masts in vessels and a rope walk for manufacturing the cordage with which the spars and sails were handled. With the passing of the years the pungent smell of oakum floated over the waters, and the ring of the caulker's mallet and the ship-carpenter's adze echoed from the wooded banks of the Elizabeth River, while in the local people there was developed to a high degree the skill of the shipbuilder which for generations has been a recognized tradition in this area.

One of these yards, the forerunner of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, was located along the western shore of the Southern branch near where the shipyard's First Street gate now stands. Andrew Sprowle, a Scot who had settled first in Norfolk Borough about 1735, acquired this 16-acre tract of land in 1767 from a variety of residents. He was a neighbor of Crawford who, 15 years earlier, in 1752, had established the town of Portsmouth on a 50-acre tract about a half-mile north of the shipyard site. Town and shipyard were separated by the navigable Crab creek; their relative situations being somewhat similar to those of Portsmouth and Gosport, the two great naval ports of England. The former name had been given by Col. Crawford to his little Colonial Virginia town and the latter was chosen by Sprowle to complete the English analogy. Vessels of the Royal Navy often visited this port and the Scottish shipyard owner became a Navy Agent selected to supply their naval requirements in Virginia.

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Revolution and Virginia Navy

The shipyard was developed and prospered under Andrew Sprowle, a trustee for the Town of Portsmouth, a wealthy merchant and shipowner, a shipbuilder, and the Chairman of Trade in the Colony of Virginia. He was appointed British Navy Agent, but his ambitions in this direction were soon frustrated by the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775. Sprowle was one of a number of British settlers in the Norfolk-Portsmouth area who, having recently immigrated into Virginia, remained loyal to the Crown in the struggle for American freedom, and who fled with Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor, at the beginning of the conflict. All of his lands and property in Virginia were immediately confiscated and title to the Gosport Shipyard was acquired by the newly independent Commonwealth of Virginia.

For the protection of its shores and vast network of inland waters, Virginia built the largest navy among the American Colonies and also operated several shipyards that rendered valiant service during the revolution. The Gosport Shipyard was the largest of these and played a leading role from 1776 to 1782. In May 1779, however, the operation of the shipyard was interrupted by the invasion of a British fleet under Admiral Sir George Collier who was transporting troops commanded by General Matthews. Debarking his men from their transports anchored in Elizabeth River, Matthews occupied Portsmouth and burned the Gosport Shipyard, although his action was vigorously protested by Admiral Collier, who wished to retain possession and make use of the yard's facilities. Of the yard and its destruction at this time Collier wrote: " . . . the marine-yard was the most considerable one in America . . . large and extremely convenient . . . . Five thousand loads of fine seasoned oak-knees for shipbuilding, an infinite quantity of plank, masts, cordage, and numbers of beautiful ships of war on the stocks, were at one time in a blaze . . . ." Their mission accomplished, the British evacuated the area shortly after.

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Federal Government Selects Site

With the close of the Revolution both the Virginia Navy and the Continental Navy were disbanded. Personnel were dismissed and the remaining ships were disposed of. The shipyard at this period was inactive insofar as its services to naval vessels were concerned. The growing merchant marine, however, was carrying the American flag to the ports of the world. The appearance in the Mediterranean of the merchant ships of a young nation, unprotected by a naval force, encouraged the corsairs of the Barbary States to seize American ships, cargoes and men. Public opinion, aroused by these acts of piracy, brought the subject of an American naval force to the attention of Congress as early as 1791, but it was March 27, 1794 before Congress passed "An Act to Provide a Naval Armament".

This act authorized the construction of six frigates, the first American naval vessels built since the Revolution. The act founded the Navy of the United States, although, there being no Navy Department at this time, the work was entrusted to the Secretary of war. The National Government owned no shipyard; consequently it was decided to lease the necessary facilities and build the ships under the supervision of their captains and government-employed naval contractors. Navy agents in charge of the shipyards and yard clerks were also appointed.

The names eventually given the frigates and the places selected for their construction were as follows:

  • UNITED STATES – at Philadelphia
  • CONSTITUTION – at Boston
  • PRESIDENT – at New York
  • CONGRESS – at Portsmouth, N.H.
  • CONSTELLATION – at Baltimore
  • CHESAPEAKE – at Gosport, Virginia

The vessels were first designed as 44-gun frigates, but it was finally decided to build the last three as 36-gun frigates.

In 1794 the Gosport Shipyard was leased from the State of Virginia, Mr. William Pennock was appointed Navy Agent, and Captain Richard Dale, who was to have assumed command of the frigate Chesapeake, was appointed Superintendent. Mr. John Morgan had been provisionally appointed constructor or master builder but was succeeded by Mr. Josiah Fox. Timbers of white oak, cedar, and pitch pine were cut and shaped for the new frigate, but its keel, due to many delays, had not been laid when peace was declared early in 1796 and further work on the vessel was suspended. However, the renewed naval interest brought on by the threat of war with France resulted in the creation by Congress of the U.S. Navy Department on April 30, 1798 and the laying of the keel for the CHESAPEAKE on December 10, 1798. This vessel was launched the following year on December 2, 1799, commissioned in May 1800, and was commanded by Captain Samuel Barron during the quasi war with France.

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Federal Ownership

Continued naval activity caused the Federal Government to purchase the Gosport Shipyard from the State of Virginia. The deed was executed on June 15, 1801 by James Monroe, Governor of Virginia, and conveyed approximately 16 acres to the U.S. Government for the sum of $12,000. This tract was situated in the northeast corner of the present shipyard and erected upon it, prior to 1827, were the following structures: an office, a commandant's house, Marine barracks, brick storehouse which stood near the First Street Gate, a powder magazine, a "smithery", and two large covered building-ways known as "ship-houses". In the center of the yard stood a large frame two-story building used as a marine hospital, and also as a rigging-loft and gunners storeroom. A brick wall, begun in 1803, marked the northern and western boundaries, while wooden docks, requiring frequent repairs, stood along the waterfront. A Marine guard, ordered to the yard in October 1801, was detached in August 1804, but was reestablished in November 1807.

Squadrons under Commodores Dale, Truxton and Decatur frequently were repaired or fitted-out here, and other vessels, renowned in their day, were built or reconstructed here during this early period.

Prior to 1810, the yard's administrative officers, who were sometimes civilians, were styled "superintendents" or "navy agents" but, on July 7, 1810, Commodore Samuel Barron, who, in 1799, had previously served as superintendent, was appointed as the first commandant. He has been followed by a long line of distinguished naval officers, many of whose names are found as street or place-names throughout the yard as well as in the adjoining communities.

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War of 1812

The War of 1812 found the Gosport Navy Yard with but little protective force except that afforded by a flotilla of small gun boats inadequately manned. Fortunately, however, the frigate CONSTELLATION, sailing from Washington, had been prevented from putting to sea through the Capes by a large British blockading squadron. With great difficulty it was kedged to a position in the Elizabeth River opposite Fort Norfolk the ship furnished detachments of seamen and marines to reinforce the harbor's weak defenses. Capture of the yard, which would almost certainly have followed the fall of Portsmouth, was prevented with the aid of these men when local militia and regular forces defeated a determined landing attack at the battle of Craney Island, June 22, 1813. The yard furnished sailors and Marines along with large quantities of stores and ordnance to the war effort, but the harbor continued to be blockaded until the close of the war.

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Expansion and First Drydock

Expansion and improvement changed the Navy Yard after the War of 1812 and the period was marked by a number of events, outstanding in their day. The keel of the ship-of-the-line DELAWARE, the first of its type ever to be built here, was laid in the summer of 1817, and it was launched October 21, 1820, with due ceremony attended by the local populace. The ALERT, first British man-of-war captured in the War of 1812, was assigned to this yard in June 1818 as its first receiving ship. Three years later, in August 1821, a school for midshipmen was established here on board the 44 gun ship GUERRIERE, with Chaplain David P. Adams in charge. During this period the Gosport Navy Yard supplied other naval establishments with timber, cordage, and other naval stores readily available in this locality.

As a result of "An Act for the Gradual Improvement of the Navy of the United States," passed by Congress, March 3, 1827, there was constructed in this Yard one of the first two drydocks in the United States. Begun in 1827 and finally completed in 1834, the dock was built of huge blocks of Massachusetts granite and cost $974,365.65, a fabulous sum for those days. Now more than a century old, the drydock is still in daily use, only the caisson having been replaced as required. Before the drydock was formally completed, it was christened, June 17, 1833, by the reception of the ship DELAWARE, the first vessel to be drydocked in the United States. The ceremonies, in keeping with the importance of the occasion, were attended by many national and local dignitaries and attracted widespread attention.

The tract of land on the eastern side of Southern Branch, known as Saint Helena, was originally purchased for the storage and repair of ordnance and was added to the Navy Yard August 26, 1846. In 1855, an epidemic of yellow fever, which ravaged and decimated the population of Portsmouth and Norfolk, seriously arrested the yard's activities for a brief period. The infection, the cause of which was then unknown, was brought here by mosquitoes trapped in the hold of the Ben Franklin, a merchant ship from the West Indies docked at a private shipyard in the Gosport area. The same year, 1855, saw the inauguration of gas light in the Navy Yard, while the whole period, beginning with the construction of the first drydock to the year 1860, was marked in the yard by expansion, extensive improvements, and naval construction of varied types.

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Federal Evacuation - Confederate Navy

When war between the Government of the United States and the seceding southern states appeared to be imminent, the Federal authorities evacuated and set fires in the Gosport Navy Yard on the night of April 20, 1861. The torch was applied to many buildings, equipment and stores, and 11 ships of war were either burned or scuttled at their moorings. At the same time, an unsuccessful attempt was made to blow up the drydock. Although Virginia had passed an ordinance of secession she had not yet joined the Confederacy, and for a brief interval the flag of Virginia was unfurled when the re-created Virginia State Navy seized possession of Gosport.

When Virginia united with the Confederate States her military and naval forces were transferred to that government, and accordingly the Confederate flag was raised over the Navy Yard on July 1, 1861. Large quantities of salvaged stores and equipment from the partially destroyed yard, including 1085 pieces of heavy ordnance, were used to equip and fortify the many land batteries hastily erected in this vicinity as well as the defenses in other southern states. Batteries of canon were mounted at strategic points within the yard against possible land attack while the brick walls were pierced every few feet for the use of riflemen. These embrasures, the remains of which may still be seen in parts of the west wall, were manned by workmen who were drilled in their military duties every Saturday afternoon.

The steam frigate MERRIMACK, 40 guns, which had been under repair at the yard, was burned to the water-line and sunk. This vessel was raised, placed in the old stone drydock, and from designs drawn by Naval constructor John L. Porter, a native of Portsmouth, converted into the famed ironclad CSS VIRGINIA. It was the first armored vessel of this type ever built, and while on a trial trip in Hampton Roads, engagements with the Federal wooden vessels on March 8, 1862 and, on the following day, with the ironclad MONITOR, changed the course of naval history.

The Navy Yard was set ablaze by the third destructive torch on May 10, 1862, when it was evacuated by the Confederate States Navy. Reoccupation by Federal forces followed at once, and the flag of the United States was again made fast to the staff.

Reconstruction of the yard along more modern lines together with some innovations of present-day interest, followed the close of the War of 1861-65. The "9 o'clock gun", a time honored institution in the local community, was fired again in 1866; and the following year a large bell was hung in the cupola which surmounted the First Street Gate. An electrical fire-alarm system was installed in 1886, and in 1887, the celebrated Naval Post Band, which for many years played for the community's festive and social occasions, gave its first concert. The telephone system was installed in 1888, followed in 1889 by the first use of a railroad car in the yard, which also completed a second dry dock. The Labor Board was instituted in 1891.

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Steel, Steam, and the White Fleet

As the war with Spain approached, and wood and canvas gave way to steel and steam, the yard built two of the first ships of the modern Navy: the USS RALEIGH, a protected cruiser, and the USS TEXAS, a second class battleship, both launched in 1892. The RALEIGH was the first ship of the new navy to be completely built by the Government and the TEXAS was the Navy's first battleship. Public interest in the Navy Yard and in naval affairs, already aroused by the launching of these vessels, was increased to a marked degree the same year by the International Columbian Naval Rendezvous in Hampton Roads, which was in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.

During the Spanish-American War the Navy Yard was the scene of great activity. Many ships were converted, repaired, and fitted-out for war service, while the harbor approaches to the yard were protected by mines. At the close of the war, the captured Spanish cruiser REINA MERCEDES, the only vessel of any size which was saved from the wreck of Admiral Cervera's fleet in Santiago, was brought to the Navy Yard. The captured vessel arrived on May 27, 1899, under escort of 22 tugs, all with flags flying and whistles tied down while thousands of local people lined both sides of the river. Two torpedoes and other ordnance were removed from it and placed in the yard's Trophy Park where they can still be seen with naval relics of other wars.

The yard's third dry dock was begun in 1903 and completed in 1911. Constructed of granite and concrete, this dock was only one of many new shipbuilding facilities, necessitating expansion to the south and west. A large area containing 272.35 acres, known as the "Schmoele tract" was purchased in 1904, this being the most extensive growth in the area the yard has yet experienced.

Two memorable events of 1907 attracted widespread attention to the Norfolk Navy Yard and also to this locality as a great naval port: the Jamestown Exposition and the sailing of the famous "Great White Fleet" (or the Atlantic Squadron) on its world cruise from Hampton Roads. Furthermore, both served to announce to the world that the United States, through its fleet, had become a world power. Only seven short years afterward Europe was plunged into World War I.

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Expansion and World War I

In 1915, before the United States entered the war, the yard became the reluctant host to two interned German sea-raiders, the KRONPRINZ WILHELM and the PRINZ EITEL FREDERICK. The crews of these vessels, numbering about a thousand officers and men, built in the yard, from scrap materials, a typical German village named "Eitel Wilhelm," which attracted many visitors.

During World War I, the Norfolk Navy Yard was greatly expanded. Dry docks 4, 6 and 7, begun in 1917-1919, were completed in 1919, and many new shop facilities were added. Employment reached its peak in February 1919, attaining the record figure of 11,234, as compared with 2,718 workers in June 1914. To accommodate the hundreds of yard workers and their families, many of whom had migrated from distant places, two war-housing projects, Cradock and Truxton, were built on the outskirts of Portsmouth. Numerous vessels were repaired, converted, and fitted-out, and four destroyers were built: the CRAVEN, launched in 1918; and the HULBERT, NOA, and WM. B. PRESTON, launched in 1919. A battleship of 43,200 tons, the USS NORTH CAROLINA (BB-52) was constructed at the yard, and although more than a third completed, this ship, more powerful than any then possessed by the fleet, was scrapped in 1923 as a result of the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty. During the years 1919 to 1922 the yard converted the collier JUPITER into the U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier, the USS LANGLEY.

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Depression and Six Battleships

From 11,234 in 1919, employment in the yard dropped to 2,538 by the end of 1923, less than it had been in 1914. During the twenties and early thirties no new ships were built and little improvement was made to the yard itself. But the long naval holiday and economic depression were alleviated by a battleship modernization program which began in 1925. Six of the fleet's older battleships were modernized at the Norfolk Navy Yard: the TEXAS in 1925-26, the NEW YORK in 1926-27, the NEVADA in 1927-29, the ARIZONA in 1929-31, the MISSISSIPPI in 1931-33, and the IDAHO in 1931-34. In the spring of 1933, Navy Yard employees, along with other government workers, were given a 15 percent cut in pay in a last-ditch economy move against the depression, while apprehension over lay-offs plagued the community.

The crisis was reached and relieved in July 1933, however, with the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which included a naval construction program. From this and succeeding programs, the yard was allotted a total of nine destroyers, built and launched during the years 1934-1939. With its battleship modernization program, yard employment had risen by the end of 1932 to 3,819, but, with a work-load of nine destroyers, there began a steady climb in employment which reached a total of 7,625 by September 1, 1939, the day World War II began in Europe.

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World War II and Aftermath

The part played by the Norfolk Naval Yard in World War II, its services to the U.S. Fleet and to ships of many allied navies, its expansion in size and development of shipyard facilities surpassed to an incredible degree the experience of this yard in any former war.

From January 1, 1940, four months after the outbreak of war in Europe, to the end of the war with Japan, on September 2, 1945, a period of five years and eight months, the yard repaired, altered, converted, or otherwise accomplished work on 6,850 naval vessels, aggregating more than 27 million tons. At the same time, 101 new ships and landing craft were built for the fleet, and millions of dollars worth of manufactured products were turned out for the forces afloat and for other naval establishments. The yard's productive work in World War II reached the staggering total of well over one billion dollars.

To accomplish its huge and difficult task, the yard more than doubled its physical size and increased its productive capacity many fold. The size of the reservation expanded from 352.76 acres to 746.88 acres with nearly four and a quarter miles of waterfront. A drydock 1,100 feet in length, capable of taking the largest ship afloat, was constructed, and 685 new buildings, both permanent and temporary, were erected, while the dollar value of the plant increased from 42 million to nearly 136 million.

At the period of its heaviest work load, the yard's manpower requirements were more than five and a half times greater than they were at the beginning of the war in Europe, when the payroll listed 7,625 names. This was pushed to 42,893 in February 1943, the peak for World War II. This was nearly four times the maximum employment of World War I. Portsmouth and the entire local area were hard-pressed to accommodate the thousands of civilian workers and naval personnel concentrated here with their families from almost all of the 48 states. Housing facilities in the community, hopelessly inadequate, were supplemented on the Portsmouth side of the river by the construction of no less than 45 public and private war-housing projects, totaling 16,487 family units.

Including the nine destroyers constructed in 1934-39, the yard built and launched 30 major vessels during the World War II period. This number , however, does not include 20 LSTs of 3,776 tons each and many other smaller craft built during this period.

The DOWNES, LANGLEY, TUCKER, BLUE, ROWAN, FECHTELER, OSPREY, and NOA, in addition to four LSTs also built here, were lost during the War.

With the closure of World War II the shipyard resumed a peace-time status when its activity and personnel were substantially reduced. Indicative of the shipyard's record of efficiency and strategic importance, however, the working force did not fall below 9,025, a figure reached in March 1950.

With the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, in June 1950, the rebuilding of our national defenses began. The shipyard was again assigned a heavy work load and operated under war-time conditions. During the three-year period of fighting in Korea the shipyard completed repairs or other work on more than 1,250 naval vessels and in addition built two new vessels, USS BOLD and USS BULWARK, non-magnetic minesweepers of laminated wood construction. The working force was expanded far beyond the World War I figure and reached a peak of 16,100 employees in July 1952. With the cessation of fighting in Korea the work load was reduced, and by December 1953 the total number of employees had dropped to 14,158, and by August 1956 to 12,600. Employment fell off to a low of 9,100 in early 1965.

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