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The Charleston Navy Yard marine railway looking northeast showing U.S. Tug Sebago on ways cradle about 3/4 way up, July 1, 1919. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

19th Century Naval Shipyard Innovation

By Gina Nichols, Supervisory Archivist/Head of Collections Dept., U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

As the Navy transitioned from wooden sailing vessels to a steam powered fleet, three major innovations – steam power, marine railways, and the shiphouse – changed the tone and development of shipyards during the 19th century. Each of these now seemingly simplistic innovations helped the Navy progress from a few small yards into a global system of naval stations, supply depots, and radio compass stations capable of supporting the burgeoning fleet.

Steam Power

Boiler shop crew at the Mare Island Navy Yard, 1901. The boiler equipment at each main naval station consisted of twelve 600-horsepower water-tube boilers equipped with super-heaters, mechanized stokers, forced and induced draft apparatus, soot blowers, balanced draft regulators, draft gauges, and automatic flue-gas analyzers and meters. Courtesy of the National Archives.

While steam was not used to propel a working naval vessel until 1837, it was used in the operation of labor saving machinery at the navy yards as early as 1805. By the 1820s, the growing use of steam power allowed the Navy to purchase machinery to aid laborers working with metals. The brass and bronze foundries, the molding lofts, and their accompanying machine shops were soon equipped with mechanical lathes, boring machines, hydraulic bellows, drills, circular saws, and forging hammers to increase efficiency and expedite projects.

At the Boston Navy Yard in the late 1850s, naval engineers designed and constructed a steam-engineered building in the shape of a parallelogram. The facility housed a brass and iron foundry, a boiler shop, a blacksmith, and a machine shop in order to make the yard more self-sufficient. The boiler house and chimney were located at the center and contained eight boilers operating in pairs with five donkey pumps. The building also housed two one-hundred horsepower engines to power the complex.

The Navy added storehouses, blacksmith shops with a turning machine, foundries, and plumbing shops at each of the main yards to increase advancements and make them competitive with private yards. All of these improvements showed a cohesive effort by the Navy Department and Congress to create self-sufficient, forward-looking installations that could eventually compete with the main naval powers of the day.

By 1890, the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks) installed the first electrical plant at the Washington Navy Yard to illuminate all streets and gun-shops. By 1900, the yards at Mare Island, Boston, New York, Port Royal, Norfolk, and Pensacola all had electrical plants. The efforts to provide modern shops and mechanized equipment on the waterfront areas resulted in a large number of power plants at the yards each run by the various bureaus. The Naval Act of 1904 provided for centralizing all power plants and distribution systems at each base under the cognizance of BuDocks. In accordance, BuDocks established a central power plant, serving all activities, at each naval yard or station.

The Charleston Navy Yard marine railway looking northeast showing U.S. Tug Sebago on ways cradle about 3/4 way up, July 1, 1919. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Marine Railway

The marine railway became the first advanced technique developed to haul a ship out of water and allow the crew to work on its hull. Prior to this, ships needing hull repairs were hauled on shore at high tide and careened on their sides to expose half of the hull at a time. In 1822, Commodore John Rodgers built the first inclined marine railway in the United States at the Washington Navy Yard. The first ship was run up the railway through the power exerted on a 10” hawser, and the ship moved upwards at the rate of three feet per minute.

In order to take smaller naval vessels economically and conveniently out of the water for repairs or overhauling, a marine railway was essential to their care. Originally, men or horses were used to drag the cradle and vessel up the slipway, but with the advent of the steam engine, most marine railways were converted to steam powered operation. Later, electric or electro-hydraulic winches became standard. At a station where dry docks were not available, the marine railway became an indispensable requisite.


View of the waterfront at the Boston Navy Yard, Charlestown, Massachusetts, from East Boston, c. 1876. Ships at left are the USS Wabash, outboard, with the USS Niagara housed over inboard of her. The USS Iowa is inboard of Niagara with only her four smokestacks and stern visible. The large ships on the building ways in the center and extreme right are USS Connecticut, and USS Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation

The third major innovation during the 19th century was the shiphouse, huge hangar-like covered structures, that provided shelter for ships during their overhauls or when laid up “in ordinary.” They were tall enough to dry dock the entire ship less the top section of the masts. Workers used overhead block and tackle equipment inside the shiphouse for lifting heavy items while they repaired and built ships.

On August 21, 1813, Commodore William Bainbridge proposed to construct shiphouses over the ship’s ways under construction at Charlestown (Boston), Massachusetts, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire (now Maine). It would not only protect the workers from the elements, but increase work speed and efficiency and protect the vessels from material deterioration.  The shiphouse built over the ways at the Charlestown Navy Yard, covered the Independence while under construction and was the first of its kind ever built. Soon shiphouses were part of every Navy yard. By 1850, Boston had four shiphouses and the other yards had at least two each.

Interior view of the Franklin Shiphouse, Portsmouth Navy Yard, Maine, September 18, 1913. The Franklin Shiphouse was completed in 1838, stood 240 feet long, 131 feet wide, and 72 feet high at its ridgepole. One hundred thirty tons of slate covered the roof and it was considered the largest shiphouse in America. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum.

Throughout the 19th century, naval innovation transformed the fleet from a few wooden hulled ships to the ironclads and early battleships. Steam power, marine railways, and shiphouses were crucial to transforming the Navy yard from a few wharves and warehouses into major facilities capable of building and supporting the next generation of Navy ships well into the 20th century and beyond.









Nichols, Gina. The Stone Frigate: a pictorial history of the U.S. Naval Shore Establishment, 1800-1941. Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 2013.