Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Historic Gems: Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s Dry Docks

By Katherine A. Renfrew
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Registrar

Essential to the art of shipbuilding, maintenance and repairs is the dry dock. As a rule, these narrow basins are constructed of earthen berms and concrete.  A gate or caisson located at the end of the basin facilitates the flow of water, allowing the vessel to float when the basin is filled or supported on blocks when the basin is drained.  While the vessel rests on the blocks, inspections and repairs can be freely made to the normally submerged hull.  Afterwards, the vessel can be gently refloated as the water re-enters the basin.    

The mark of a true and proper shipyard is its ability to perform dry-docking, and Hampton Roads has the honor of being home to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  The facility is the oldest and largest shipyard belonging to the U.S. Navy and is located on the southern branch of the Elizabeth River in the City of Portsmouth.  There are seven fully functional dry docks at the shipyard, with Dry Dock No. 1 being the most significant. The dry docks are numbered one through eight, but there are actually only seven.  Dry Dock No. 5 was originally meant to be a mirror image of Dry Dock No. 4., but it was never constructed.  Instead, the land was used for other purposes. These historic gems are not only significant for their inherent historic qualities and showcasing of naval technology, but for their continued service to our country and Navy. 

Following is a diagram and early images of the dry docks at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

This diagram shows the location of the seven dry docks and their accompanying cranes at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Taken from the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) – Dry docking Facilities Characteristics report Number UFC 4-213-12 dated June 19, 2003.

The most well-known and historically significant of the shipyard’s dry docks is Dry Dock No. 1.  Construction commenced on December 1, 1827 and was completed on June 17, 1833, the day USS Delaware, the first ship to be dry-docked in America, entered the dry dock.  Nearly 30 years later, the steam frigate USS Merrimac entered the dry dock on May 30, 1861.  After the shipyard, then known as the Gosport Yard, was taken over by Confederate forces during the Civil War, Merrimac was reconstructed there as the ironclad CSS Virginia.  Dry Dock No. 1 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Three unknown vessels (possibly torpedo boats) in Dry Dock No. 1, February 18, 1908. (National Archives and Records Administration NNSY-1908_01 /RG 71-CA, Box 333, Folder B)

Photo taken from bottom of dock revealing inscriptions carved in the stone for the centennial commemoration of the Drydock in 1933. (National Archives and Records Administration NNSY-1933_01 /RG 71-CA, Box 333, Folder B)


Dry Dock No. 2 opened on September 19, 1889 and was originally built of timber.  In 1933, it was modernized and rebuilt of concrete.

The submarines Severn, Snapper, Tarpon, Salmon & Stingray as well as another unidentified vessel in Dry Dock No. 2, February21, 1911. (National Archives and Records Administration, NNSY-1911_02/RG 71-CA, Box 339, Folder D)


Dry Dock No. 3 opened December 8, 1908 with the docking of the armored cruiser North Carolina (CA-12).  During 1910-11 the dock was extended from its 550-foot length to its present length of 726 feet.

Dry Dock No. 3 under construction, February 3, 1904 (National Archives and Records Administration, NNSY-1904_01/RG 71-CA, Box 333, Folder D)
USS North Carolina (CA-12) in Dry Dock No. 3, December 9, 1908. (National Archives and Records Administration, NNSY-1908_02/RG 71-CA, Box 333, Folder D)


The U.S. fleet’s newest battleships were longer than the current dry docks in the early 1900s.  The Navy’s desire to retain its ability to maintain its ships created a need for a larger dry dock.   The answer was Dry Dock No. 4, the largest structure to date at that time.  It opened on April 1, 1919.  Its length was 1,011 feet, 10 inches. It was 144 feet wide, and was 51feet deep.

USS Nevada (BB-36) in Dry Dock No. 3 and USS Wisconsin (BB-9) in Dry Dock No. 4 on May 9, 1919. (National Archives and Records Administration, NNSY-1919_09/RG 71-CA, Box 339, Folder D)

Dry Docks 3 and 4, looking east, March 29, 1935. (National Archives and Records Administration, NNSY-1935_0 /RG 71-CA, Box 334, Folder A)

Both dry docks were built, it seems, as a pair.  They are 465 feet, 9 inches and 465 feet, 8 inches in length, respectively.  Both opened on October 31, 1919.

Dry Dock No. 6 (top) looking southeast and  Dry Dock No. 7 (above), before and during the opening ceremony, October 31, 1919. (National Archives and Records Administration, NNSY-1919_03 & NNSY-1919_04/RG 71-CA, Box 334, Folder D)
Dry Dock No. 8 has the distinction of being the largest at the shipyard, measuring 1,092 feet, 5 inches long, with a depth of 47 feet, 11 inches.  The battleship Kentucky’s keel was laid on March 7, 1942. The official opening of the dry dock, however, took place in July, 1942.  

Both images show Dry Dock No. 8 under construction, looking south, August 14, 1941 (top) and December 15, 1941 (above). (National Archives and Records Administration, NNSY-1941_03 & NNSY-194_-04/RG 71-CA, Box 334, Folder B&A)
This brief history of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s dry docks is the fourth in a series of blog posts illustrating the development of Naval Station Norfolk and its neighboring facilities.  Unless otherwise noted, the photographs in this series represent the results of a research project seeking images of Hampton Roads naval installations at the National Archives and Records Administration.  This research, performed by Southeastern Archaeological Research, Incorporated (SEARCH) was funded by Commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic as part of an ongoing effort to provide information on historic architectural resources at Navy bases in Hampton Roads.  The Hampton Roads Naval Museum is pleased to present these images for the benefit of the general public and interested historians.  As far as we know, all of these images are in the public domain and none of them have been published before.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

That's News to Me! An Armstrong Gun on CSS Virginia?

By Elijah Palmer & Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educators

A short time ago, while researching a different project, a colleague ran into an interesting vignette which mentioned CSS Virginia several days after the Battle of Hampton Roads. Our interest was piqued by an assertion made within the March 12, 1862 Richmond Dispatch article seen below:

"The Virginia, it is intimated, while up here, has changed her forward and aft pivot guns for two of the celebrated Armstrong guns, which lately found their way into this vicinity."

This statement quickly raised many questions. But first, what was so special about Armstrong guns to make them "celebrated?" Early Armstrong cannon from the mid-1850s were a unique British design that was breech-loading. As was popular technology at the time, there were bands on the breech to reinforce the cannon when it fired, as sometimes the guns burst (as happened onboard USS Princeton in 1843). These guns had an advantage over muzzle loading, smooth-bore cannon as they had a higher rate of fire, greater accuracy, and longer range. By the time of the Civil War, there were naval variants of the Armstrong guns, as can be seen on HMS Warrior. Clearly these cannon were seen as advanced technology, most likely due to the aforementioned advantages.

We knew that the Confederates could have been well aware of Armstrong guns, but the real question was whether it was even possible for the South to have acquired them. Could some of these new cannon have made their way through the blockade to Norfolk? Could these guns have done more damage to the Monitor in a future fight? And if this article were true, why had we not heard of this before? If it was not true, was this an honest mistake or was it propaganda building on the events of the Battle of Hampton Roads? To add to our uncertainty was a report from one of the postwar salvage operations of the wreck of CSS Virginia which mentioned a "large Confederate banded rifled gun."
Could this have been an Armstrong? Or was it a Brooke gun? From The Daily Journal (Wilmington, NC), June 23, 1867. Special thanks to Dr. Anna Holloway for providing this article. 
 Any new guns would have had to come through the blockade, which was an unlikely possibility.  Was there a chance that any Armstrong cannon were at Gosport Navy Yard when it was captured? An examination of the list of guns captured and their disposition quickly put that theory to rest. Strike one! If somehow they had made it through the blockade and been put on the Confederate ironclad, it would not have made much of a difference in a future fight against USS Monitor. Tests from the time showed that, owing to the relatively small gunpowder charge necessary, the Armstrong shell could not penetrate much iron. This would have been especially true of the Monitor's turret, which was protected by 8-inch-thick iron plating. Strike two! But this knowledge was likely not widespread at the time, so reports of the "celebrated Armstrong guns" would have still carried weight.

So could the newspaper report have been an honest mistake? CSS Virginia did replace damaged cannons after the battle, but it seems to be a stretch that someone could have mistaken these guns for the other. While a later triple-banded variant of the Brooke rifle might be confused at first glance, the rounder edges of the Armstrong seem to be quite unique and the Brooke gun was not produced until months after the article. Adding to this doubt was the fact that no Armstrong guns should have been available for purchase. The inventor of the Brooke gun, John Mercer Brooke (also one of the designers of CSS Virginia) wrote in a July 1862 letter that the Confederates did not have any breech-loading guns (alluding to the Armstrong). He continued that "their manufacture is confined to the government shops of England." Strike three! 
An illustration of a single banded Brooke rifle.
A double-banded Brooke rifle mounted on fortifications. (Photo by Joseph Miechle)
Judging from the inspirational language in the rest of the paragraph from the Richmond Dispatch, it appears likely that this was a propaganda piece. Considering that the Armstrong gun was only manufactured in Great Britain, could this have been a trick to show Northern (& Southern) readers that the Confederacy had British support? Indeed, as a New York Times article discussed after the fall of Fort Fisher in January 1865, there were questions about how a large Armstrong cannon was in Confederate possession when the "English Government claims the exclusive right to use [them]."** While the Times writer went on to lay the blame directly on Armstrong himself, he also said that an investigation was needed to fully lay the matter to rest. If there were still questions near the end of the war, how much more so before the Emancipation Proclamation or the Union victories in July 1863? At the very least, the guns were known as new technology, so any Southern reader would likely be excited, while a Northern reader would possibly be dismayed.

In the end, our research put a quick death to some tantalizing possibilities. While perhaps we did not make any significant new discoveries to add to the historiography, we did come away from the experience both more knowledgeable and perhaps a bit wiser. Sometimes the fun of researching history is all about the hunt.

* Letter from John M. Brooke to Stephen Mallory, July 16, 1862, in Ironclads and Big Guns of the Confederacy: The Journal and Letters of John M. Brooke, ed. George M. Brooke, Jr. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), 102.
**"Armstrong Gun at Fort Fisher." New York Times, January 29, 1865.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

"Liberty on Church Street"

By Diana Gordon
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

This vibrant painting by Maizelle Brown hangs in our World War II gallery. The artist, a Hampton Roads local and lifelong Norfolk resident, often illustrates African-American history and culture in her artwork. This particular piece, Liberty, portrays visual information about the struggles of those facing segregation in our local area during World War II. Maizelle uses a thicker acrylic paint as her medium to express African-American experiences on Church Street, one of busy areas in segregated Norfolk. Church Street was where much of the African-American community's shopping, entertainment, and restaurants were located during the war years. This was the only area locally where African-American Sailors could enjoy the night life of Norfolk. 

Brown's choice of acrylic paint and use of lines expresses the wonders of a night out on-the-town. The rich bolder tones of the paint give the mood of an exciting nightlife: lights, movement, bustle, and action. The vibrant colors of yellow, green, blue, and even white add to the excitement. The acrylic paint allows for less defined lines and quicker brush strokes which gives the appearance of activity and movement. Church Street is illustrated as teeming with civilians and Sailors. The artist strategically forms lines, leading the viewer's eyes from the crisp faces in the foreground to the less distinct movements of people in the background. In addition, the lines of the buildings frame the blurred motion of those disappearing from the scene into the night. 

Although the artist paints a bold and colorful painting about night life on Church Street, she also includes a darker part of local history: segregation. Segregation practices grew even with the increase of African-Americans in the military. The number of black Sailors increased drastically during World War II, thanks to the expanding roles made available for African Americans in the armed services. Prior to the war, black sailors were limited to being mess attendants. It took pressure from organizations such as the NAACP to lead President Franklin Roosevelt to pledge that blacks could enlist in the military according to the percentage of their population. Although the true percentage was never actually met, numbers of African-American service members grew drastically across all military branches. 
African-Americans enjoying some night life. The man dancing is a Steward 1st Class. This was likely taken at the Smith Street USO (right off of Church Street). (Courtesy of the Sargeant Memorial Collection, Slover Library, Norfolk VA)
The artwork might seem energetic due to the medium and color choice, but a second look will express the segregation issue faced by many cities around the country during this time. The piece highlights that even during wartime, when the nation was united against common enemies, it was still divided by racial issues. Progress had been made, but there was still work to do. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Artifacts of the Month: "Admirals' Row" Log Books

By Jerome Kirkland 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

In 1917, the U.S. Navy acquired the land that had been developed for the 1907 “Jamestown Ter-centennial Exposition” at Sewells point, just north of Norfolk, Virginia. This land, and many of the buildings that came with it, including numerous private homes, would become the Norfolk Naval Operating Base. Nearly 100 years later, a set of books discovered in the attic of one of these homes would shed light on the comings and goings of some of the most influential figures in naval history, from 1918 to 1941.

Photograph by M.C. Farrington

The Jamestown Exposition of 1907 was held to celebrate the 300 year anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown settlement in 1607. It was held in Norfolk due to its more centralized location and the deep water ports that would allow the modern ships of the Navy’s all steel fleet to shine among those of other nations gathered for an International Naval Review on opening day, April 26.   About two weeks after the exposition’s conclusion on November 30, the “Great White Fleet” set sail for its historic around the world voyage. 

The planners of the exposition had high hopes for this “worlds fair” type event, but they never realized those hopes. After the exposition’s seven-month run, many of the buildings fell into disrepair.  Developers tried to make the area a profitable venture without much luck until the U.S. Navy stepped in, saving many of the buildings that were left. Many of the so-called "State Homes" were privately owned and escaped the fate that befell many of the exposition buildings, many of which simply ceased to exist.  These were converted to house senior officers and their families.

Photograph by M.C. Farrington

Jump forward 96 years, to 2013, and a set of books would be discovered in the attic of one of these state houses that would document the comings and goings of naval officers from 1918 to 1941, some of them quite famous. A representative of Lincoln Military Housing, the contractor that oversees housing for naval personnel for the base, discovered two books in the attic of the Ohio House. She turned them over to Mrs. Sissy Cutchen, resident of the Maryland House and wife of Rear Admiral Bryan Cutchen, who in turn turned them over to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. 

Exhibits Specialist Marta Joiner competes the finishing touches on the latest Artifact of the Month display. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)

One of the notable entries found included “Capt. E. King” occupying the “Commanding Officer Naval Air Station” residence (formally the Connecticut House), from May 4th 1928 to September 30th 1930. Captain E. King would go on to become Fleet Admiral Ernest King.  King started out serving on board USS San Francisco during the Spanish American War, while still enrolled in the Naval Academy. He went on to command submarines before transferring to naval aviation, becoming a pilot and commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington in 1930.

Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. (Wikimedia Commons)

Admiral King’s career almost ended in 1939 with a posting to the General Board but was saved when Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Harold R. Stark appointed King Commander-in-chief, Atlantic Fleet in 1940. A little over a year later, when the U.S. entered WWII, Adm. King was promoted to Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet (COMINCH). Less than three months later, King was chosen to replace Stark as CNO, while still holding the post of COMINCH, making King the only person to hold the posts of CNO and COMINCH at the same time.

Despite reaching the “mandatory retirement age” of 62 in November of 1942, King would stay another three years, seeing the U.S. Navy through the war.  Admiral King was so well respected that even after his retirement in 1945, and several years of bad health, he was recalled in 1950 as an advisor to Secretary of the Navy Francis P. Matthews.

Photograph by M.C. Farrington

The occupancy log books contain many other famous names, such as: Admiral George Murray who commanded USS Enterprise during the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and during the Battle of Midway; Adm. William Parsons, who helped develop the atomic bomb and flew in the “Enola Gay” to arm the bomb after successful takeoff; and Adm. Robert Coontz, executive officer of USS Nebraska during the “Great White Fleet” tour of 1907-1909.  He became CNO in 1925 and a powerful advocate for naval aviation, leading the charge to have the battle cruisers Lexington and Saratoga converted to aircraft carriers.  Another notable former resident was Adm. Joseph Taussig, who served from the Spanish American War to WWII, receiving major wounds while leading land action during the Boxer Rebellion in China, commanded Norfolk Navy Yard like his father before him, and was forced to retire in 1941 only to be called back in 1943.  Even Naval Aviator #1, Captain Theodore Ellyson, who was taught to fly by Glenn Curtiss, appears within their pages.  

A chance find in 2013, now in the collection of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, has helped illuminate some of the important roles Naval Station Norfolk has played in history by documenting the comings and goings of some of the most respected and influential figures in naval history.