Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Home Ports: Brooklyn Navy Yard

The old Navy Yard on Wallabout Bay has a unique and colorful history dating back to the original Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. The story goes that Sarah Rapelje, perhaps the first European born in North America, came into the world here in a place the local Lenape natives called Rennegachonk. A few years later her relative, Walloon, bought a 300 acre parcel on the bay from the Lenape and called the area Waal Boght; Bay of Walloons. The name passed into English as Wallabout, and the area above it, even before then, became known as Brooklyn.

Ship building proper did not begin in the area until after the American Revolution. In 1781 John Jackson bought land from one of Rapelje’s descendants, Cornelius Remsen, and set up a shipyard on the marshy, narrow bay. Jackson’s first major commission came after the Irish rebellion in 1798, when the U.S. was again mounting a naval force to deal with the pirates of the Barbary Coast. USS Adams, a frigate of 28 guns, was built and launched that same year. She would remain in commission until her destruction during the War of 1812.

The government purchased the yard from the Jacksons in 1801 and the first Commandant, Jonathan Thorn, was appointed in 1806. Ship building was a major undertaking for the U.S. at the time as her navy was considerably short of vessels, particularly when compared to the might of sheer numbers mounted by the Royal Navy. The Navy Yard thrived although much of her work was piecemeal with parts sent to other ship builders for finishing ships. In fact, aside from the disappointment of the Fulton Steam Frigate that made only one short voyage in 1814, the yard did not turn out a fully constructed ship until 1820. USS Ohio was launched from the yard that year.

In 1830 Commodore Matthew C. Perry became attached to the Navy Yard; he would serve as Commandant from 1841 to 1843. The Commodore had a hand in encouraging both good health and education at the yard. He was instrumental in the building of the Naval Hospital in 1837 and he instituted the Naval Lyceum at the yard. This sort of evening extension college for sailors, officers and hands at the yard welcomed famous speakers of the day and turned out the Naval Magazine, first published in 1836. Frequent contributors included Perry and author James Fennimore Cooper.

Granite dry docks were added to the yard and by 1851 there were three such in service. The third was built using the first steam powered pile driver in the U.S. The yard was an active Union hub during the Civil War, turning out the ironclad USS Monitor. The Naval Laboratory at the yard also supplied the vast majority of medicines for the Union Navy.

The Naval Yard continued to thrive throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, turning out such famous ships as USS Maine (the “Remember the Maine!” of the Spanish-American War), USS Arizona, USS Missouri and the super carriers USS Saratoga and USS Constellation. It was not until 1966 that the yard officially closed. Her over 150 years of service made her one of the longest working Naval Yards in the country and the oldest continually running industrial operation in the State of New York.

The Brooklyn Naval Yard is now owned by New York City and operates as a thriving industrial park that hosts companies as varied as design firms, a medical lab and even a sugar manufacturer. But what of her long seafaring history; something like that should never be forgotten.

As noted in this article from the New York Times online, the City of New York agrees. On Friday – Veterans Day – the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at Building 92 will open to the public. The museum has been billed, according to the article, “… as a bridge between the once heavily fortified naval hub and the surrounding neighborhoods that have seen generations pass without a glimpse behind the gates.” More than that, the museum will stand as a link between America’s seafaring past and future.

On display are such diverse items as the 22,500 pound anchor from the amphibious assault ship Austin, a model of USS Maine and a pipe recovered from the ill-fated USS Arizona, sunk during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. There are also exhibits focusing on the bay and Brooklyn itself. A copy of Walloon Rapelje’s 1637 purchase agreement with the Lenape is on display. The women who worked at the yard during World War II, who won the right to a man’s hourly wage of $1.14 have their own niche, too. There are also artifacts from the brothels and ale houses that serviced the yard in the early to mid-19th century, many of them located on Vinegar Hill. Though Daniella Romano, the center’s curator, notes in the article that the “entertainment area” of the Hill was “… the Barbary Coast of New York… Brothels, gambling houses and brawling” I think she may mean the “Port Royal of New York.” Barbary, though full of fierce corsairs, was not noted for its booze, brothels or gambling.

For a long and productive history, the Brooklyn Navy Yard is well remembered. So too are the ships she produced, the people who produced them and, certainly most of all, those who served aboard them.

Header: Circa 1851 engraving of the Brooklyn Naval Yard and Wallabout Bay from the Brooklyn Navy Yard website


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! We will definitely have to visit this museum someday.

Pauline said...

Yes we will; I'm sure the history is palpable there.