Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Not only is the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, established in 1794, the oldest naval shipyard in the country’s history, but it is distinguished as the oldest continually operated public – that is, government – shipyard in the United States. The history of this sprawling complex is an integral part of both state and local heri­tage, as well as of the founding of the United States Navy.

The origin of the shipyard was closely tied to the growth and economy of the thirteen American colonies, which offered a wealth of raw material to Europe’s industrial nations. Colonists were quick to seize upon exciting opportunities for commerce with Europe that, naturally, spurred the growth of the shipbuilding industry in America. There were drawbacks, however. Many of the industrial nations of Europe, with which the colonies traded, were frequently at war with one another. The menace of pirates, not only on the seas but also in rivers and bays, was a serious threat to trade. Yet the American merchants had no navy for protection. Great Britain was involved with its own conflicts, and British officials were not satisfied with the universal trade policy of the colonies, although they did seem to welcome the opportunity to impose heavy tariffs on American goods.

Such circumstances served to immeasur­ably improve the quality of the colonies’ embryonic shipbuilding industry, not to mention developing the profes­sional quality of American sailors. In order to survive, let alone prosper, they needed swift, stout, well handled, and lightly armed ships. The port of Philadelphia, because of its central location and protected inland harbor, eventually became the largest city and center of commerce in the colonial period. It also attracted pirates who operated in the Delaware River until the 1720s. The most infamous was Edward Teach, commonly known to stu­dents of American history as “Blackbeard.”

Prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, Philadelphia had become well known for its distinctive naval architecture. Its ships were known for their “beauty of form and finish and swift­ness.” The city was recognized for the design and building of raft ships, used to carry logs of live oak from the southern colonies for ship construction. These ships were heavy lift, single purpose, ship-rigged vessels, which were built until the Revolutionary War. One was reported to carry more than eight hundred logs – enough to build several medium-sized ships.

Prominent individuals played important roles in the shipbuilding industry. Founding father Benjamin Franklin wrote of the concept of water-tight compartments. Philadelphia inventor Thomas Godfrey greatly improved the reflecting quadrant, a forerunner of the sextant (although the invention was carried to England for trials, and a man named Hadley patented and received credit). Sculptor William Rush was a ship’s carpenter who developed the full length “walking figurehead”; his work became so famous that sculptors and ship carvers from around the world traveled to Philadelphia to study his works. Arthur Donaldson developed a dredging machine, which he christened the “Hippopot­amus,” to remove the accumulation of mud in the Delaware River, a constant problem. Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox, both Philadel­phia Quakers, became noted ship architects and builders.

Upon the foundation of lucrative trade with Europe and the talents of seemingly countless individuals, the United States Navy was born. After the events of spring and summer of 1775, the delegates meeting in Philadelphia realized that the time for the creation of a navy had come. On October 13, 1775, Congress appointed a Naval Committee, which purchased (the following month) four Philadelphia merchant vessels to be outfitted and armed as men of war. These vessels­ – the Alfred, Columbus, Cabot, and Andrew Doria – were altered under the direction of Joshua Humphreys at his yard. Ironically, the Alfred was named after King Alfred, the founder of the British Navy.

Three days later the Naval Committee appointed Esek Hopkins, an experienced captain from Rhode Island, as commander of this small fleet. In a brief ceremony on December 3, 1775, the first Continental Navy ship, the Alfred, was commissioned. The officer who raised the ship’s flag was none other than John Paul Jones. Later in December, Congress authorized the building of thirteen frigates to be constructed in seven cities. Philadelphia shipyards built the Randolf, Washington, Effington, and Delaware.

In 1776, Congress ordered three ships of the line, the battleships of the day which dominated naval battles, but the contract was not executed because the British captured Philadelphia. A sloop, possibly the Saratoga, was eventually built at Joshua Humphreys’ yard four years later.

Although the shipbuilding industry was virtually destroyed during the latter half of the American Revolution, Philadelphia’s maritime commerce experienced unprecedented growth once the war ended. To survive, the former colonies again became a maritime nation. It was obvious to all that they needed ships and a navy to protect them. Spurred by the terrorism of Algerian pirates, Congress passed an Act for Naval Armament on March 27, 1794, which provided for the building of six frigates at six cities, including the United States (with forty-four gun) in Philadelphia. On June 28, Joshua Humphreys was appointed the first Naval Constructor. Both he and Josiah Fox submitted plans for all the frigates, although it remains unclear whose plan (or if a combina­tion thereof) was used.

The Naval Committee decided that the shipyards selected would be leased by the government to ensure security and efficiency. The yard leased in Philadelphia was owned by Joshua Humphreys. It was located about one mile from Independence Hall, between Christian Street and Prime Street (today Washington Avenue). The Coast Guard’s Fifth District Headquarters currently occupies this site, adjacent to I-95.

The yard became the focal point for the construction of all six frigates. Humphreys’ and Fox’s plans were sent to the five other shipyards as was much of the construction material. Also, several Continental Navy ships were repaired and maintained at this yard. And the frigate City of Philadelphia (with thirty-six guns) was built here with funds donated by city merchants. Humphreys, in correspondence with Secre­tary of War Henry Knox, referred to his complex as the “Navy Yard” and the “Philadelphia Navy Yard” as early as January 1795. It was not long before it became commonly known as the United States Shipyard.

In 1796, President George Washington reminded Congress that the Act for Naval Armament dictated suspension of construction if peace were reached with Algiers, which in fact had occurred. He requested that Congress reconsider the situation before he ordered construction halted. Two days later the president was autho­rized to continue construction of three frigates at Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston, but the others at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, New York, and Norfolk remained unfinished until 1799. The first, the United States, was launched in May 1798.

In April 1798, Congress created the Navy Department and appointed George Cabot as secretary early the following month, but he declined the appointment, and Benjamin Stoddard was named secretary in mid-May. Congress had passed three acts of appropriation for the Navy Department several months earlier, two of which designated one million dollars for the building of six ships of the line and six sloops of war. An additional fifty thousand dollars was appropriated for the construction of two docks for maintenance and repair of Navy vessels.

Secretary Stoddard purchased land in Portsmouth, Charlestown (near Boston), New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Norfolk. Expenditures for the properties and initial improvements totaled nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Several members of Congress believed that he had inappropriately spent these funds purchasing property. After debate, however, Congress realized the rationale of the pur­chases, which it sanctioned in 1801.

In Philadelphia, Secretary Stoddard purchased three lots immediately south of Humphreys’ Navy Yard. The tracts were interlaced with several public streets, and Stoddard petitioned the General Assembly of Pennsylvania to vacate these thor­oughfares. Although supported by many local residents, he was opposed by a local businessman, and the state legislature did not act until March 1818. Federal Street was left intact as the yard’s main street.

Initially, several temporary buildings were constructed so that the Philadelphia Navy Yard could continue the task of maintaining the fleet. The frigate Constellation was the first ship repaired at the Federal Street yard in 1801. As funds were appropriated, permanent structures were erected, including the Marine Barracks in 1807, and the blacksmith shop in 1813.

The ship of the line, the Franklin, originally ordered in the late 1790s, was completed at the Federal Street yard and launched with great fanfare in August 1815. The ship of the line North Carolina, an improved version of the Franklin, was constructed in a year and a half and launched in September 1820. The first frigate house, a building designed to house a ship under construction or repair, was completed two years later. The Raritan, the first frigate built in this structure, was launched in early summer 1843.

The second frigate house, erected in 1822-1823, housed the Pennsylvania, the first vessel constructed in this building. The Pennsylvania was the largest ship built by the Navy until that time, and its completion called for great celebration. Hotels, boarding houses, and residences overflowed with throngs of spectators who came to witness its launching in July 1837.

The Mississippi, the Navy’s first side-wheel steamer, which was launched in March 1841, served with the Home Squadron for a few years, conducting various tests which were crucial to the development of the steam navy. The steamer participated in the amphibious operations against Vera Cruz in 1847, then served as Admiral Perry’s flagship during his historic cruise to Japan in 1853. The Mississippi was placed in ordinary in 1860, but recommissioned to serve Admiral David G. Farragut during the Civil War.

The Navy’s first screw propeller frigate, the Princeton, launched at Philadelphia in December 1843, raced against fast clipper ships and averaged between ten and twelve knots during trials. Unfortunately, the Princeton was the scene of a great tragedy. Shortly after its commissioning, the frigate was equipped with two experimental breach loading eleven inch guns, nicknamed the “Oregon” and the “Peacemaker.” On June 29, 1844, President John Tyler, accompanied by cabinet members and numerous guests, embarked on a demonstration cruise. Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmore instructed Captain Robert F. Stockton to fire the “Peacemaker” for a demonstration, over the captain’s objections (because the gun was still hot from previous firings). The gun was fired and burst, killing Gilmore, the secretary of state, two members of Congress, and two guests. Twenty others aboard the vessel were wounded.

According to documents, the Philadelphia Navy Yard constructed in 1851 what may have been the world’s first floating dry dock. It measured three hundred by one hundred and five feet, with a lifting capacity of nearly fifty-nine hun­dred tons.

During the Civil War the pace of activity increased dramati­cally; eleven ships were constructed, including a steam propeller gunship, the Tuscarora, launched in August 1861, just sixty days after its keel was laid. The four-gun Tonawanda, the only ironclad completed at the Federal Street Yard, was launched three years later. It became evident with the advent of steel ships that the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard needed to be greatly expanded. Three small additional lots adjoining the south end of the property were purchased in March 1865 for ninety thousand dollars. This acquisition added about three acres to the complex, but proved to be insufficient. On December 2, 1872, the Federal Street Yard was sold at auction at the Merchants Exchange for one million dollars to the Pennsylvania Railroad, even though the government did not vacate the property until 1876. During its history, the Federal Street Navy Yard had been commanded by some of the most memorable individuals in American naval history, such as Captain James Biddle and Commodores William Bainbridge, George C. Read, and J. B. Hull.

After the Civil War, the Philadelphia Navy Yard became a crucial maintenance facility for the government. Both the Norfolk and Pensacola Navy Yards were destroyed during the war, and the Washington Navy Yard was dedicated to ordnance and steam machinery, thus leaving only the Philadelphia Navy Yard to represent the middle states. Additional expansion of the Federal Street Yard was impossible, because the city’s growth had hemmed it in. A new location was needed for the establishment of a large primary shipyard to service the country in the new, promising era of steam and iron ships.

The government considered two locations: New London, Connecticut, and League Island near Philadelphia. The primary considerations, given in a report by the Secretary of the Navy on December 1, 1862, were security from attack from the sea, and a freshwater location for the preservation of iron vessels. Proximity to sources of coal and iron would be an additional advantage.

Not wanting to lose the Navy Yard, the city of Philadelphia purchased League Island in the Delaware River for three hundred and ten thousand dollars in 1862. The property was an uninhabited oval shaped island, a league in circumference, situated on an east-west axis, approximately three miles south of the Federal Street Yard, and separated from the mainland by the relatively narrow Back Canal. It was a mud island formed by the accumulation of sediment from the swirling waters at the confluence of the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers.

League Island offered what government officials required: excellent protection from attack from the sea and a freshwater location. Iron and steel mills and other heavy industries on the banks of the Schuylkill River further enhanced the location. The island could easily be dredged for docks and wharves, and offered a sound foundation for pilings, because of an underlying granite stratum. League Island offered a decided advantage.

Within a year, the state legislature passed an act to cede League Island to the federal government. A supplemental act was passed in April 1866, ceding land on the north bank adjacent to the island for security. The city of Philadelphia officially transferred title to the property to the federal govern­ment for the token sum of one dollar on December 12, 1868.

In 1871, the first steps were taken to develop League Island, the present-day site of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. One of the first permanent buildings erected, Quarters A, has been named to the National Register of Historic Places. Completed in 1875, the three story brick house is located near the main gate on Broad Street and was originally designated for the commandant. Affectionately called the “White House,” it is used to house visiting dignitaries.

Construction continued, and several large brick buildings were built between 1875 and 1877. Building 4, which houses the yard’s Engineering Management Center, has been recently restored. In 1883, during the post-Civil War era of military budget reductions, an order was issued to close the yard. The directive temporarily stalled additional development, but it was rescinded before it could be actually implemented. In 1891, Dry Dock 1 was constructed by Admiral Robert E. Pea1y. Built of wood and concrete, and reconstructed in 1956, it was used for frigates and destroyers until closed in 1991.

The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard at League Island was primarily designated for the maintenance of the “steel” navy, and appropriate facilities for ship construction were not initially provided. Because the Delaware River was a prime location for shipbuilding, the Navy contracted two nearby private yards for construction. The Navy’s first battleships were built in the 1890s at the yards of Cramps and New York Ship at Camden, New Jersey – the Indiana, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Alabama.

In 1901, the Marine Barracks was built on Broad Street, two blocks from the main gate. This building, which has been named to the National Register of Historic Places, serves as a Marine home and training center. Seven years later Dry Dock 2, the yard’s first concrete facility, was completed; it remained in use until recently for ships of Ticonderoga (Aegis) Class cruisers. In 1910, the amalgamated foundry opened, which today is the government’s only foundry on the East Coast.

The mission of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was dramatically expanded in 1914 with the building of Marine Railway 1. The first ship constructed was the Navy’s first attack transport, the Henderson, Launched in June 1917 from this railway. The Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF) – the only aircraft factory ever owned by the government – was authorized that year and constructed at the eastern end of League Island, at the airfield christened Mustin Field. Between 1917 and 1950, nearly two thousand government-owned aircraft were manufactured at League Island, of which nearly half were designed by the Navy. The NAF (which later became the Naval Air Development Center) was instrumental in the development of catapults and arresting landing gear for the Navy.

And still expansion of the League Island facilities continued.

Temporary barracks for wounded soldiers returning from World War I were erected. This was the beginning of the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, which was soon moved to the site of the Naval Asylum on Greys Ferry Road on the east bank of the Schuylkill River. (This building later became the Naval Home when the hospital moved to its present-day location at League Park, off Broad Street, in the 1930s.) In 1921, Dry Dock 3 was completed.

To comply with the Washington Naval Treaty, five battle­ships – the Kansas, Minnesota, South Carolina, Michigan, and Delaware – were broken up in dry dock in 1922. Under this treaty five battleships were also extensively modified between 1925 and 1932, the Arkansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico.

In 1935, two destroyers of the Mahan Class, the Cassin and the Shaw, were constructed and launched together in the same dry dock. Both were heavily damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941. In 1936, four Coast Guard cutters were also built together in the same dry dock. One of the ships, the Taney, was also at Pearl Harbor and became the first Coast Guard vessel to fire on the enemy. The last survivor of Pearl Harbor, the Taney is preserved at Baltimore.

In the late 1930s the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard launched an even more ambitious expansion program in response to the threat of hostilities mounting in Europe. The keel was laid for the battleship Washington, launched in June 1940. She was one of the two of the North Carolina Class, the first of the Navy’s new fast battleships. By 1942, two larger dry docks, each measuring nearly eleven hundred feet in length, had been constructed. They are so large that they are capable of docking even the large conventional aircraft carriers of today.

During World War II, activity at League Island became even more frenzied. Between 1939 and 1946, forty-eight ships were constructed, including battleships, carriers, and landing ship tanks, in addition to many smaller vessels. The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard also converted twenty-nine ships and modern­ized or overhauled more than three hundred and seventy ships, including ninety submarines (of which twenty were British, eleven French, and five Dutch). Many warships were built at the private yards of Cramps and New York Ship. Most of these eighty-five warships were towed to the Navy Yard for completion after launching. Nearly four hundred smaller vessels, from landing ship tanks to harbor tugs, were also built and launched during this period.

In September 1945, Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal issued an order which placed all navy yards under the admin­istration of a naval base, at which point Philadelphia became the Philadelphia Navy Base which included the Naval Shipyard. Even to this day – a half century later – many refer to it by its old and familiar name.

Although the pace of activity slowed after the end of World War II, much work was undertaken at the yard during the late 1940s. Many ships were decommissioned and mothballed or stricken, as the Navy downsized. New construction plummeted – only five new ships were built. The Philadelphia Navy Yard reverted to its primary mission of maintaining the fleet.

During the Korean War activity increased and more than one hundred and fifty ships were overhauled or modernized, in addition to modifying three submarines. Under the Military Assistance Program (MAP), six Brooklyn Class light cruisers were reactivated, overhauled, and turned over to the South American countries of Chile, Brazil, and Argentine. The Phoenix reemerged as the General Belgrano, the pride of the Argentine fleet, which was later sunk during the Falklands War. From 1954 until 1959 one hundred and fifty-three ships were main­tained, submarine conversions continued, and keels were laid for the Farragut Class destroyer leaders launched in 1956, the Dahlgreen and the William V. Pratt.

Throughout the sixties, the yard constructed four of the seven Iwo Jima Class amphibious assault ships (helicopter carriers), the Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Guam, and New Orleans. The yard was also responsible for the design and construction of the first three of the new Class of Landing Ship Tank: the Newport News, Manitowoc, and Sumter. This new class is considered the ultimate design for a beaching ship, with high speed (of up to twenty-two knots), modified clipper bow, and over-the-bow ramps for off-loading of cargo. The first Amphibious Force Flagship built from the keel up, the Blue Ridge, was the last ship launched at the Philadelphia yard; the date was January 4, 1969. During this decade, the Navy also designed, tested, and evaluated techniques to quiet both conventional and nuclear submarines. This research led to the design and manufacture of special propellers for an innovative silencing system. More than one hundred ships were repaired, overhauled, or convert­ed. The Long Beach, a nuclear cruiser, received a complete electronic suite, as well as a pair of five inch guns specially ordered by President John F. Kennedy. The Navy also instituted a program called Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) through which several destroyers were updated. However, construction and maintenance were slowed in the late 1960s to reactivate a number of ships for the Viet Nam War, including the battleship New Jersey.

In the early 1970s, activity increased further; during this decade, nearly one hundred and fifty ships were maintained, including the Anti-Air Warfare (AAW ) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) destroyer conversions. The missile cruiser Albany and various amphibious ships were extensively overhauled, as well as the carriers Saratoga and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Submarine overhauls continued, for both U.S. and allied countries, and the foundry continued to manufacture specialized propellers for both conventional and nuclear submarines. In addition to modernization and conversion programs, the yard deactivated a number of older ships including the carrier Intrepid, which now serves as an Air and Sea Museum in New York.

Even though the Navy expanded, with newer and more sophisticated ships, work at the Philadelphia facility declined during the 1980s. However, an innovative program was developed and implemented. Instituted in 1980 to extend the service of conventionally powered carriers, the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) called for more than the customary comprehensive overhaul of vessels. Machinery, catapults and arresting gear, electronics, communications, wiring, and plumbing were either updated or replaced. SLEP was con­ceived to convert older ships into new modern carriers and extend the normal thirty year life span by an additional fifteen to twenty years.

In 1990 and 1991, activity increased as ships were reactivat­ed and modified for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. But despite its long history of service to the Navy, the Philadelphia Naval Yard faced its greatest blow.

In 1991, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission officially recommended the dosing of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. This decision was made in spite of the fact that the yard has consistently maintained the lowest man day rate of any of the nation’s Navy yards, and has completed a number of vessels before the contract date. The decision has been contest­ed by members of Congress representing Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania filed suit in federal court, alleging that crucial documents proving both the quality and efficiency of the shipyard were deliberately withheld by the federal government.

Nevertheless, life and work at the shipyard go on.

In 1992, the Forrestal arrived for repairs and modification preparing it to replace the retired Lexington as the Navy’s training carrier but budget cuts sealed the ship’s fate; the Forrestal has been placed in mothballs. The John F. Kennedy is scheduled to receive a comprehensive overhaul, expected to be completed in September 1995. Despite heated opposition, the government plans to deactivate the shipyard, although the amalgamated foundry and the propeller shop (the sole supplier for the Navy’s submarines), and the Naval Surface Warfare Center will remain in operation. The Navy signed an agreement on November 22, 1994, with Philadelphia to lease sections of the shipyard to local industries.

On September 15, upon completion of the John F. Kennedy, the shipyard will be closed, which may well mark the end not only of a prestigious marine facility, but the end of a truly distinguished American heritage. Sadly enough, the closing of the historic Philadelphia Naval Shipyard will mark the passing of an enterprise that served the United States so well for more than two centuries.


For Further Reading

Miller, Nathan. Sea of Glory. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1992.

Morison, Samuel Elliot. The Two Ocean War. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.

Roosevelt, Theodore. The Naval War of 1812. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988.


Donald A. Wambold Jr. of West Chester is a graduate of the Baptist Bible College of Pennsylvania. He is a naval history enthusiast, freelance writer, and photographer. His work has appeared in Naval History magazine, which will publish a pictorial essay on the shipyard later this year. He is currently employed as a quality control technician.