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.


Unknown said...

Katherine Renfrew by her research along with the use of these rare photographs obtained in Washington (some that I had not ever seen) has given the reader an excellent overview of the seven Dry Docks at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Another well presented article by my friends at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) to honor America's Shipyard.

onehstrybuff said...

Katherine, great article, keep up the good work !!