By Michael Brayshaw, NNSY Lead Public Affairs Specialist
For a ship that sat dormant for nearly seven years after it was completed, it’s remarkable that USS Delaware would ultimately become one of the most noteworthy ships of the United States Navy. This 74-gun ship-of-the-line became the first ship in the Western Hemisphere to be dry docked, on June 17, 1833, at Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) in Portsmouth, Virginia.
Appropriately enough for a ship that was altogether inactive from late 1820 to early 1827, this large and powerful vessel was constructed from timbers that sat in shipyard storage for almost two decades. NNSY, then known as Gosport Navy Yard, spent more than three years constructing Delaware before it was launched on October 21, 1820. And then, it sat. And sat. It seems borderline inconceivable to consider, two centuries later in the Optimized Fleet Response Plan era, that a ship could spend so many years awaiting its naval destiny. The ship was borne of a possibly overzealous flurry of post-War of 1812 naval construction authorized by a Congress driven to protect national interests. Fortunately, copper sheets were installed to preserve the hull from the ravage of Teredos Navalis, a species of shipworm.
March 1827 proved a significant month for both the ship and shipyard. Legislation entitled “An Act for the Gradual Improvement of the Navy of the United States” passed on March 3, 1827, which would considerably expand the shipyard and provide an ideal location for the dry dock’s construction. Then on March 27, 1827, Delaware was ordered to be repaired and readied for sea duty.
Compensating for its quiet beginnings in waiting at the shipyard, Delaware became the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron for two years before returning to Portsmouth. The intent of the Mediterranean Squadron was to combat piracy and demonstrate America’s naval might, something this grand 74-gun ship-of-the-line was well-equipped to do. For perspective, early Mediterranean Squadron ships at the dawn of the 19th century could have as few as 12 guns.
By November 1827, Dry Dock 1 construction began under the appointed engineer in charge, Colonel Loammi Baldwin, one of the nation’s finest civil engineers who keenly studied Europe’s dry docks prior to overseeing construction of America’s inaugural one. Upon completion, it measured 320 feet long at ground level and 85.5 feet wide at the coping. Delaware’s docking actually preceded the completion of Dry Dock 1 by nine months.
The docking of Delaware on the anniversary of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Bunker Hill occurred with great pomp and presence, drawing local and national dignitaries, including Vice President Martin Van Buren. President Andrew Jackson, who during his presidency wrestled with everything from chronic headaches to frequent stomach pains, was ill and unable to attend. However, Jackson had paid at least one visit to the shipyard to observe the dry dock while under construction. The era of drydocking U.S. Navy vessels had now begun, replacing the inelegant and strenuous process of laying ships on their sides to perform maintenance.
While prototypes are often riddled with design flaws, Dry Dock 1 is a paragon of sound construction, comprised of precisely set large granite blocks. Designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1978, it’s the oldest existing structure in the shipyard. Indeed, its only shortcoming today is its length, a fraction of NNSY’s carrier drydock, Dry Dock 8, at over 1,100 feet long. But then, Dry Dock 1’s completion predated the Navy’s first aircraft carrier by over 75 years. Completed at a cost of $974,365.65, it has undoubtedly proved its worth to the Navy and nation. Indeed, it is still in limited use today and just received a new caisson last year.
“It’s awesome to say we still use it,” said NNSY Dockmaster Chris Adams. “What capabilities did they have to dig a giant hole in the ground and then line it with granite? A lot of engineering thought went into it, and they didn’t have the technology we have today to do major construction like that.”
As the nation’s oldest continuously operating shipyard, today Norfolk Naval Shipyard repairs, overhauls and refuels the most technologically advanced warships in the world.
It’s one of the nation’s four public shipyards, which include Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (IMF) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine; and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Washington.
NNSY’s long standing motto of “Any Ship, Any Time, Anywhere” underscores the capability of its personnel to operate around the world. Each day 600-900 NNSY employees are supporting United States Navy ship repair requirements all over the globe.
As the fourth largest employer in the Hampton Roads region, NNSY employs more than 10,000 civilian personnel and is the only federally owned shipyard on the East Coast able to dry dock an aircraft carrier.