There has always been a warm spot in my heart for the Brooklyn Navy Yard. First because, as I child, I revealed in hearing the tales of how great-grandpa Lawrence worked on the building of the Ironclad Monitor during the Civil War. Later on, a friend of my fathers kept my brother and I entertained with stories of the great WWII ships he helped build at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Then patrolling with the NYPD harbor unit, I had the opportunity to see one of the giant granite drydocks where so many famous ships were built.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard, officially known at the United States Navy Yard and the New York Naval Shipyard (NYNS) is located about a mile and half east of the Battery on the East River in Wallabout Basin. At one time, it covered 200 acres, which, in crowded Brooklyn is a very large chunk of real estate. The waters off Wallabout Bay are sacred. It is where the infamous prison ships were anchored. Ships like the HMS Jersey, were used to imprison American revolutionary soldiers, who were left to die in unbelievably inhumane conditions. It is estimated the 11,500 souls were imprisoned and allowed to die aboard British prison ships.
The East River had always been a busy hub of sailing ships. My great-grandfather Captain Patrick Sweeney sailed to ports all over the world from the docks at South Street. After the American Revolution, the site was a busy shipbuilding center. In 1801 the Federal Government purchased 40 acres of land that included docks and shipyards, for $40,000. President John Adams wanted the United States to have a strong Navy capable of defending the country and its merchant fleet.
By 1806, NYNS had become a busy shipyard for the U.S. Navy. By then it boasted offices, storehouses and barracks buildings sturdily built of brick. One of the more attractive buildings appeared in 1807. It was a home for the commandant, designed by Charles Bulfinch, the same architect that had designed the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Robert Fulton’s famous steam frigate, Fulton, was launched from the NYNS in 1815.
In 1851, after 10 years of construction, Dry Dock #1 was completed. When the water is out it looks like some kind of an ancient Roman structure. In fact, it is constructed of granite and has survived better that more recent and larger dry docks. Dry Dock #1 was used for the fitting of the iron cladding on the famous round-turreted Monitor. The Monitor fought with the Confederate iron clad Merrimac during the Civil war at the Battle of Hampton Roads in VA. This clash of iron clads changed the way naval ships were built from then on and possibly changed the course of the war.
In 1820, the first ship built at NYNS, the USS Ohio, was launched. Many more ships followed. Commodore Mathew C. Perry, veteran of many naval battles, opened the Naval Lyceum at NYNS in 1833. His goal was to “promote the diffusion of useful knowledge, foster a spirit of harmony and unity of interests in the service, (and) cement the links which unite us as professional brethren.” The Naval Lyceum preceded and lead to the establishment of the U.S. Naval Academy.
A hospital was built at NYNS between 1830 and 1938. In it, a naval surgeon named E.R. Squibb, perfected the manufacture of anesthetic ether. Even to this day in its state of disrepair, it is an impressive building. The good news is that it will survive. Steiner Studios is planning to turn the crumbling old hospital into a bright, modern media hub. The hospital was rebuilt in 1841. The same year the third granite drydock was started. It took ten years to build the drydock despite the fact that a steam powered pile driver was used at the site for the first time.
The cable laying ship USS Niagara was built at the yard in in 1858. It went one to meet the HMS Agamemnon in midocean to establish the first trans-Atlantic undersea cable. On August, 1858, Queen Victoria transmitted the first Morse code message to President James Buchanan of the United States. It read as follows:
“The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest. The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the two places whose friendship is founded upon their common interests and reciprocal esteem. The Queen has much pleasure in thus directly communicating with the President, and in renewing to him her best wishes for the prosperity of the United States.”
The USS Maine, the ship that ushered in the “battleship era”, was launched at the NYNS and went onto to be sunk in the Havana Harbor some nine years later. “Remember the Maine” became the battle cry of the Spanish American war. Ships were being built at the yard at a high rate. Between 1907 and 1909 the yard built the USS Connecticut. It became the flagship of the “Great White fleet created by President Theodore Roosevelt. The idea was to have twenty-six American ships sail around the world on a two-year tour to establish the US as a global power.
An exciting historical thing happened at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1907, the first ever song broadcast over wireless was performed from a boat docked at the yard. Opera singer Eugenia Farrar sang “I Love You Truly” as a test of the broadcast capability of the new wireless radios. The USS Arizona, the largest ship in the Navy at the time, was launched at NYNS. It was sunk at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 in less than ten minutes after being bombed by the Japanese. The site where it sunk is now the site of the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Between 1939 and 1945 the yard swelled to 70,000 employees and for the first-time women worked as mechanics and technicians. The USS Missouri affectionately called the “Mighty Mo” was built at the yard and hosted the signing of the unconditional surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945. Tragedy struck the yard in 1960 when a fire broke out on the USS Constellation under construction at the yard, 50 people were killed and 323 were injured. The fire, I was told by an eyewitness, was caused by a forklift driver, that rammed into a fuel tank causing 502 gallons of gasoline to flood the ship then be ignited by welding torches. The last ship built there was the USS Duluth. In 1966 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed the yard and several others as a cost cutting measure.
That was not the end of this venerable historic facility. The NYNS houses more than 200 businesses that employee roughly 5,000 people. Among its tenants are a motion picture studio, one of the largest production studios outside of Los Angeles, and a commercial farm on top of building #3. There is a lot going on right now and a lot is planned for the future. Looks like the Brooklyn Navy Yard is still the “Can Do Yard” still doing incredible things.
You may learn more about what is planned for the property at http://www.brooklynnavyyard.org. A visitor may also review the past at building 92, dedicated in November of 2011, it showcases the history and innovation of the Brooklyn Navy Yard from the Revolutionary War to the revolution in jobs which is taking place right now. In 2014, the entire yard was declared a Historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
There are very few places across this country that have had as big a part in the maritime history and defense of these United States. From the steam frigate Fulton to the USS Maine and the “Mighty Mo.” It has been happening at the “Can do yard”, the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It is a great place to visit and discover the history of one of the most important places in the history of the US Navy. For more information go online to: bldg92.org/ There is a great tour of many of the historic sites available as well.
For information on tours, visit http://www.turnstiletours.com
There is a wonderful collection old stereopticon slides at https://www.flickr.com/photos/brooklynnavyyard