Ironclad legacy: Norfolk Naval Shipyard, older than the nation and the Navy, turns 250
By Robert McCabe – The Virginian-Pilot
As you drive south over the Berkley Bridge, you can’t miss the cranes. They’re everywhere.
In the distance, a cluster sprouts on the west side of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River.
A little to their north is the Erector-set-like Hammerhead Crane, a waterfront icon since 1940.
They all stand guard over Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, the oldest and largest of the Navy’s four public shipyards. It celebrates its 250th birthday on Wednesday.
Blocked from view, in part, by industrial development on the east side of the river, it’s a hidden city within a city.
A highly secure facility where nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines are maintained, it employs more than 10,500 civilians and 750 members of the military.
The carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is there now; so is the submarine USS Rhode Island.
A place unlike any other in the Navy, it’s an operating shipyard that predates the Declaration of Independence and the Navy itself.
It’s 150 years older than Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest Navy base, which marks its 100th anniversary this year.
And it has an attic filled with so many anecdotes and “firsts” that it’s hard, if not impossible, to get one’s arms around all of them.
Just inside its northernmost gate – Gate 3 – built in 1851, is a small 2-acre tract known as Trophy Park, which looks like a town square, complete with a gazebo.
It is strewn with history, dotted with pieces of naval memorabilia that stretch back decades, even more than a century.
There’s a 16-inch gun barrel from an Iowa-class battleship, a 2-ton-plus shell sitting alongside it.
Over there, torpedoes from a World War II German U-boat, not far from their American counterparts.
A short walk away is a propeller from the first USS John Kennedy carrier, near a World War II-vintage anti-aircraft gun.
Two of three surviving bars of iron from the CSS Virginia are there; so is a British one-man sub and a mine and an array of too many other things to list.
The park is closed to the public, behind the secured gates of the facility, but it in some ways serves as a metaphor for the rich history of a place few know much about.
Over the years, it’s become known as “America’s Shipyard,” and with good reason. One of the nation’s first half-dozen frigates – the USS Chesapeake – was built there.
The Navy chose the yard as the site of one of the first two dry docks in North America – the other was Boston – allowing workers to repair and maintain the underbellies of vessels by removing them entirely from the water, instead of “careening” or tipping them over.
In that dry dock in 1861, Confederate shipyard workers began converting the captured steam frigate USS Merrimack, burnt to the waterline during the Union evacuation of the yard, into the ironclad CSS Virginia.
A year later, it changed the history of naval warfare in its standoff with the USS Monitor in the Battle of Hampton Roads.
During its peak in World War II, the yard employed nearly 43,000 people and repaired and modified 6,850 ships while building 101 vessels of all kinds, including the battleship USS Alabama and three carriers: the USS Tarawa, USS Shangri-La and the USS Lake Champlain.
“We were the premier yard; we were the yard of choice,” said Marcus W. Robbins, the shipyard’s command historian and archivist, who began a nearly 40-year career there as an apprentice welder and spent several years blogging about its history at https://tinyurl.com/ybaycf4q.
The shipyard’s beginnings suggest that it was meant to be what it became.
Andrew Sprowle, a prominent merchant and British loyalist, established the yard on Nov. 1, 1767, on lots he had purchased from Col. William Crawford, who founded the town of Portsmouth in 1752.
It was all about “location, location, location,” according to Robbins, adding that Sprowle just connected the dots: an adequate labor pool, deep water, an ice-free harbor and strategic protection simply because of where it was.
Crawford chose the name “Portsmouth” after the city of Portsmouth, England, the great naval port and home to the Royal Navy, which sits across Portsmouth Harbour from the naval town of Gosport.
Sprowle made it a matched set by choosing that name for his yard – Gosport is short for “God’s Port” – which eventually took shape just a short walk south from what is today the Portsmouth Pavilion.
Even before Portsmouth was established, some could see the promise it held as a maritime center.
As far back as 1620, a shipbuilder named John Wood asked a court for eight shares of land on the Elizabeth River because it had enough timber and water to support the launching of ships, according to Portsmouth historian Marshall Butt.
Deeds recording the sale of the first lots in the city show that more than three-fourths of their owners were engaged in or somehow connected to the maritime trade, according to Butt’s 1971 book titled “Portsmouth: Under Four Flags 1752-1970.”
“You can’t talk about the city and the town of Portsmouth and the Gosport/Norfolk Shipyard without talking about the other because they’re both intertwined,” Robbins said. “It’s like threads in a tapestry. This institution and the town and the city have grown together.”
In roughly the same area where Crab Creek once flowed, separating Gosport and Portsmouth, the city’s “Path of History” walkway highlights the bond between the shipyard and the city.
Among other artifacts on display: the gun that fired the first shot from an American vessel during World War I, off the stern of the merchant ship S.S. Mongolia, engaging a German submarine in the English Channel 13 days after the U.S. entered the war.
The city’s growth surged once the nation entered the war effort, as thousands of workers were hired to meet the production demands at the shipyard, the focus of a recent exhibit at the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center.
It highlighted how the neighborhoods of Truxtun, for black workers and their families, and Cradock, for whites, were planned communities built to meet those needs.
“Portsmouth and the shipyard are there because the water meets the land in a useful way and there’s no getting around that – and it’s been true for 300 years now,” said Diane L. Cripps, curator of history for the Portsmouth Museums.
Despite Portsmouth’s close ties with the yard, it took its name from Norfolk; it’s a Navy tradition to name a station or yard after the largest city in a given area. But if you really want to know what Portsmouth’s about, you have to begin with the fact that it was envisioned early on as a sweet spot for maritime activities, Cripps added.
Stephen Decatur Jr., a member of the Board of Navy Commissioners in the early 1800s, saw the possibilities, lobbying that Gosport become the nation’s major naval base because of the port’s deep water and midpoint location on the East Coast, said John Quarstein, director of the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News.
“The most important thing is it grows step-by-step with how the Navy evolves and grows,” he added. “So that gives it this huge importance in terms of the evolution of ship construction, ordnance, all of those things are part of the Gosport legacy.”
The shipyard’s rich history is intertwined not only with Portsmouth, but other sites around Hampton Roads, some so common that most people have no idea they’re even there or how they might be connected.
There are stories – family stories, as it were – that have accrued over decades within the shipyard community.
Take Lord Dunmore, for example.
He was the last royal governor of Virginia and by October 1775 he had set up his headquarters at Gosport, where he was treated, well, like royalty by Sprowle, his British-sympathizer friend.
Dunmore “facetiously styled himself ‘Lieutenant-Governor of Gosport,’ and for the time being Gosport was virtually the Royal capital of Virginia,” Butt wrote.
Worried that Norfolk was about to be burned – either by the British or by Virginia troops – loyalists there begged Dunmore to protect them, according to Butt.
He left Gosport and chose the Great Bridge in what is today Chesapeake – ancestor of the current Great Bridge Bridge – as a place to make a stand, building a fort there named for his family, “Fort Murray.”
On Dec. 9, 1775, Virginia militiamen defeated Dunmore’s forces badly there.
In retaliation, on Jan. 1, 1776, ships under his command bombarded Norfolk, where a cannonball landed in a wall at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It’s still there today.
The city was then razed by both British and Virginia troops, as loyalists had feared, and left in ashes and abandoned.
Gosport was taken over by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1775, though troops there would see the British again several times, most notably on May 9, 1779, when a half-dozen ships under Commodore Sir George Collier anchored near what’s now Portsmouth Naval Hospital.
Collier’s troops burned Gosport – the first of three times the yard was torched – and burned or captured 137 vessels in the harbor, according to Butt.
Yet the yard never went completely out of business. A few years after the war, Portsmouth annexed Gosport lands, though the state continued to own the shipyard.
After an initial loan of the yard to the federal government about 10 years later, Virginia sold the 16-acre site to the United States for $12,000 in 1801, setting the stage for its eventual development into the young Navy’s most valued installation.
Among other contributions the yard made to the development of the Navy was the establishment of a school for midshipmen at Gosport, 24 years before the founding of the U.S. Naval Academy.
As Gosport grew, so did an awareness by senior Navy officials of the value it brought to the Navy and the country.
After the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in 1824 asking Navy Secretary Samuel Southard to look into the idea of building a dry dock and where best to do that, Southard argued that Gosport had to be at the top of the list, with Boston.
In 1827, construction on Gosport’s 300-foot-long dry dock began, while a virtual twin would be built at the Navy’s Charlestown yard in Boston.
“The Chesapeake and its waters form a first object in every plan relating to the national defense, and somewhere upon them must be placed an important portion of our naval means,” Southard wrote in 1825, as cited in one of Robbins’ blog posts.
The total cost for the Virginia yard would be less than $1 million: $976,000, or roughly $29 million in today’s dollars, according to one online estimate.
That was about $300,000 more than the Charlestown yard, because the cost of getting the massive blocks of Massachusetts granite to the Boston yard was so small in comparison.
The top walls of the dry dock, which is about 30 feet deep, are 7 feet thick. The intricate layering of the sand-colored blocks conjures images of the construction of Egypt’s pyramids.
“A good bit of Drydock 1 was constructed with slave labor,” said Clay Farrington, a historian at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. “That’s another aspect of the story that has great currency insofar as what historians are paying attention to nowadays.”
While the dry dock’s reception of the USS Delaware in 1833 made history, few would argue that its most famous occupant was the underbelly of the USS Merrimack, which morphed into the ironclad CSS Virginia there.
Yet the war could have played out differently if the shipyard hadn’t been burned and the Merrimack torched, along with 10 other ships, when Union forces abandoned the yard in April 1861, Robbins said.
The Union commander of Gosport – who had been ordered to get the Merrimack under way and out of the port – failed to act.
“He could have sailed it,” Robbins said. “They had enough cannon that they could have blasted anything. But they chose not to. He froze.”
The South’s takeover of the Gosport yard gave it an invaluable industrial base that enabled it “to send powder, ammunition and cannon west to the Mississippi River and into the deep south along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean shorelines in order to supply fortifications supporting campaigns in the long years to follow,” Robbins wrote.
“Give pause and reflect that Gosport’s loss indeed influenced, if nothing else, the duration of the Civil War.”
What apparently fueled McCauley’s indecision was an elaborate ploy that tricked him into thinking an attack was imminent.
And it worked. It was conceived by a wily railroader whose tracks still connect Norfolk and Petersburg.