DAHLGREN, Va.— Nestled adjacent to the Potomac River near George Washington’s birthplace is home to one of the military’s best kept secrets. It is here at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) that some of the most innovative naval warfare systems and development solutions have evolved over the past 100 years.
As the Centennial Celebration kicks off on Friday, Oct. 19, base officials are opening the gates to military and government ID holders for Dahlgren Centennial Station Tours from 2:30 – 4:30 p.m. The tours take a journey through some of the major touchpoints of Dahlgren’s history. General public tours will continue on the third Saturday of each month after Centennial.
"The significance of the Dahlgren Centennial Historic Station Tour Stops rests in the preserved legacy of buildings, artifacts, guns and landscape that the public – even those who work on base in some cases — know little of,” said Joseph Fordham, NSWCDD Centennial organizer.
“Strategically, we have worked with historians, former employees, graphic artists, writers and editors, to forge a tour with six station stops on the base and the seventh is the museum off the base,” Fordham added. “This tour enables our visitors to really grasp the full meaning of the work accomplished at Dahlgren, how it relates to the Navy, how the mission here dovetailed with the most challenging conflicts our country has faced, and how Dahlgren remains unique and relevant through response, reinvention, and innovation."
Station Tour Stop 1 – Gate A Area
At the Main “Gate A” Area attraction, the bust of Rear Adm. John Adolphus Dahlgren, “the father of American naval ordnance,” and 12-pounder boat howitzers captivate the attention of tour participants. The bronze bust was cast from a marble one borrowed from the U.S. Naval Academy Museum and dedicated on May 27, 1954. On both sides of the statue of Dahlgren are two of his muzzle-loading 12 pounder boat howitzers, manufactured at the Washington Navy Yard in 1864.
Displays around the Dahlgren bust also include the nine-inch Dahlgren gun, eight-inch cannon, 19-inch armor plate, 18-inch projectile, and 16-inch armor plate projectile. Dahlgren designed the nine-inch shell gun, which was used extensively throughout the Civil War, including the historic duel between the ironclads during the Battle of Hampton Roads. USS Monitor had two eleven-inch Dahlgren guns, and the South’s ironclad, CSS Virginia (also known as Merrimack), was outfitted with nine-inch Dahlgren guns. Their contest, ending in a draw, was the first battle ever fought between armored warships, a radical turning point in naval warfare history.
"Most employees pass by the Station Stop One daily. There are so many historic treasures to examine, yet few even know what lies 15 feet beyond their cars. The whitish plate with two holes in it, marks a special day of testing against a 16" 45 caliber gun on May 7, 1945,” explained Fordham.
“Then there’s the bust of Admiral Dahlgren, the two Howitzers and nine-inch Dahlgren Gun used in the epic naval battle at Hampton Roads between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia,” he said. “Right from the outset when you come onto Dahlgren, you are greeted by the man who changed Naval ordnance and its testing forever."
Station Tour Stop 2 – Parade Field
Tour participants will find the USS New Jersey gun at this tour attraction. Manufactured at the U.S. Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C., this 16-inch, 50-caliber battleship gun was shipped to Dahlgren for proof testing before being installed on USS New Jersey (BB 62) in the center of the Number Two turret. The gun was first fired on July 23, 1943, and was used during both World War II and the Korean War. The gun was removed from USS New Jersey and returned to Dahlgren in 1969, and was used for test firings until 1991.
Station Tour Stop 3 – Range Table
In 1918, Dahlgren was chosen for the Navy’s new proving ground because its Potomac River position made the site ideal for long-range gun testing. The Navy has authority to use the river for more than 50 miles downriver, but most tests today extend only five to 15 miles downriver.
The bronze range table was designed for plotting gun fire trajectories, and the map’s triangles signify range stations and other geodetically surveyed sites where instruments monitor and record the test data. Observers in downriver range stations would spot projectile splash points and inform Main Range personnel who used triangulation to plot the projectiles’ precise landing locations.
"The base would not exist had it not been for the Main Range chosen for its ideal testing distance of more than 50 miles all the way to the Chesapeake over water,” said Fordham. “Today you can visit the Bronze map table fabricated in 1922 which used to sit inside one of the range buildings, for which trajectories were evaluated with the vector lines engraved in the bronze from one end of the map to the others.
“Rubbings were taken with large trace paper and thick rectangular lead pencils to mark the locations of ordnance splash-down,” he added. “Surrounding the map table are several significant pieces of ordnance that were tested at main range with their size, weight and girth for the visitor to view. It is a great place to be oriented to the rest of the base and was historically the heart of operations for the base."
Station Tour Stop 4 – Plate Fuze Battery
By August 4, 1941, fuze work had grown beyond the capacity of the main Plate Battery’s personnel, equipment, and schedules, so a Plate Fuze Battery was established. By February 1942, a small Fuze Battery was added. During World War II, acceptance testing often overtook experimental work, but by March 1944, rockets were tested at the Plate Fuze Battery until that work required its own facility. At the Fuze Battery tour location, the Elsie Project is also highlighted.
NSWCDD historian Sara Krechel worked with the team as a researcher and planner for the Centennial tour experience, which includes a trip back in time to the “Elsie Project”. As a part of the NSWCDD Centennial Blog Series, Krechel wrote about her discovery of “Elsie Blocks,” large concrete masses in the woods which was a part of a testing facility for the ELSIE Project.
After World War II, around 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission tasked the Bureau of Ordnance —which in turn handed the case to Dahlgren — to develop a light case (LC or Elsie) for the atomic bomb. It had to be light enough for a Navy carrier-launched aircraft but still ground-penetrating for tactical strikes on hardened underground targets.
“Dahlgren was the obvious best choice for the actual testing of the case,” Krechel wrote in the blog. “It was the premier organization for gun and bomb testing, and the team there had proven itself with the development of the `sewer pipe’ bomb.”
Station Tour Stop 5 – Building 492
Another tour feature is Building 492, a special 40-foot by 100-foot windowless, prefabricated "Butler" hut. In 1949, the building was assembled at Dahlgren to support the top-secret work of the Elsie Project, which is a part of the Plate Fuze Battery portion of the tour. By Aug. 4, 1941, fuze work had exceeded the capacity of the main Plate Battery’s personnel and equipment. A Small Fuze Battery was added in February 1942 and by March 1944, rockets were tested at the Plate Fuze Battery until that work required its own facility.
Also at this stop, tour participants will find the following:
This gun was originally manufactured as the 13-inch, 35-caliber Mark II Gun in 1898. Although not in its original configuration, it is the oldest American battleship main battery gun in existence. The gun was originally part of the four-gun main battery aboard one of the Kearsarge (BB-5)-class or Illinois (BB-7)-class battleships. All five American battleships, armed with 13-Inch Mark II guns, participated in the 1907–1909 Great White Fleet world tour. The gun was converted to its present configuration so that Dahlgren would have a dedicated 16-inch gun for use at Plate Battery for testing armor-piercing projectiles, base fuzes, and armor plate. The gun was also used to test 970-pound experimental bombs in 1955. During its career as a test asset, this rifle fired a total of 26 rounds.
These eight 16-inch battleship gun barrels testify to the days when such ships were the epitome of naval firepower. When Dahlgren tested the 16-inch guns and projectiles, the rest of the base and nearby areas heard and felt these shots and the accompanying reverberations.
This eight-inch Mark 15 gun was manufactured in 1943. Its unusual mounting is a test mount originally used for proving and test firing the Navy's last 10-inch guns. This test configuration was used to proof fire eight-inch Mark 15 “Bag Guns” from the 1930s through the Vietnam era. The mount served to proof literally hundreds of eight-inch guns and supported a number of special projects to improve eight-inch ammunition fired from those guns.
Station Tour Stop 6 – The Administration Building
The Administration Building completed in 1920, was the first permanent brick structure on the base. It is the most photographed and prestigious, considering that it has always housed the offices of base commanders and their staff. Currently, the host command, Naval Support Activity, South Potomac, uses the building. During this stop, tour participants are also getting a history lesson on the railroad station — which not only provided the means to transport large equipment during World War II, but offered employees a more convenient commute between Fredericksburg and Dahlgren.
Here at this stop, there are three very significant buildings to Dahlgren. For one, the admiral's quarters can be seen from the front vista by the flag pole in front of Building 101. As one of the first buildings to be constructed at Dahlgren, it garnered unwarranted attention for government spending in 1917 because of the construction budget. This led to a congressional inquiry. Building 101, the Administration Building constructed in 1920, has always been the command headquarters of the base. Like the admiral's quarters, the building design is in the neoclassical style.
Lastly at Station Stop 6, the Railroad Station, completed in 1943, was unique to Dahlgren and a great place to talk about employee commutes to Dahlgren. Many of them traversed extremely rough and muddy roads, others came by ferry, and some walked. Rail traffic to the base started in WWII era and was out of service by 1957. The railroad was removed in 1991.
Visit the NSWCDD Centennial website to learn more about Dahlgren history: https://www.navsea.navy.mil/Home/Warfare-Centers/NSWC-Dahlgren/Dahlgren_Centennial/ .
For military and government ID holders, tours will take place during the Centennial event Friday, Oct. 19, from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in 30-minute intervals. The general public can register for a Saturday tour at this link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/october-dahlgren-heritage-museum-centennial-base-history-tour-tickets-41830293534