Building Success – How the Brooklyn Navy Yard Constructed the United States Navy

by Jennifer Steinhardt, NMAS Archivist

When you hear “Brooklyn,” what jumps to your mind?  The Brooklyn Bridge? Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers? Coney Island? Brooklyn Lager? What about the United States Navy?  For over 150 years, Brooklyn, New York was home to an active shipyard, the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  The yard played a crucial role in the construction of naval vessels that carried hundreds of thousands of enlisted sailors into key conflicts throughout the USN’s history.  

Before it was the Brooklyn Navy Yard (also known as the New York Navy Yard), the land by the bay was inhabited by the Canarsee, a tribe of the Lenape, which translates to “the People.” They planted corn and tobacco while fishing in the rivers.  In 1637,  Dutch settler Joris Jansen de Rapelje purchased 335 acres of land, located on Wallabout Bay, from the Lenape.  The Rapelje family farmed the land for over a century before the American Revolution. President John Adams, who foresaw the advantages of creating a navy that could defend the United States’ and its commercial interests, established the country’s first five naval shipyards, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1801.

USS Indiana  (BB 50)sailors performing a musket drill, Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City, undated. From the George E. Stonebridge Photograph Collection, 1897-1918 (bulk 1899-1904). Courtesy of New York Historical Society.

The Yard grew rapidly in the first half of the nineteenth century, including the completion of the Commandant’s House in 1806 , which still stands today. The Navy also constructed other important buildings, including the Yard’s hospital, during this era. Dry docks were built using a state of the art steam-powered pile driver. The Naval Magazine, the first professional naval publication, was published at the Yard in 1836. All the while, the Brooklyn Navy Yard produced ships. One such ship was the USS Niagara, which served admirably during the War of 1812’s Battle of Lake Erie. In 1858, the Niagara, along with the HMS Agamemnon, laid the first undersea telegraph cable.

House for Commandant – Elevations and Sections. Rendering of BLDG 92, the Marine Commandant’s House circa 1858. The building is now the Yard’s visitor’s center. Courtesy of BNYDC Archives.

By the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the Brooklyn Navy Yard had established itself as a a bustling hub for the United States Navy. The USS Monitor, the first ironclad warship in the Union Navy, was outfitted at the Yard in 1862, just in time to meet the new Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia, at the Battle of Hampton Roads. Armed with two guns placed in a revolutionary revolving turret, the Monitor arrived in the nick of time to shield the Union’s wooden fleet from the CSS Virginia. Both the Union and Confederacy claimed victory at Hampton Roads even though the battle was a draw.

James River, Va. Deck and turret of USS Monitor seen from the bow, published 9 July 1962. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.

Another famous ship to come out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the Civil War was the USS Tecumseh, an iron-hulled, single-turret monitor. The ship helped plant obstacles in the James River to prevent Confederate warships from utilizing the waterway. With this mission complete, the Tecumseh continued south to join the forthcoming operations against Confederate fortifications guarding Mobile Bay. While attempting to sink the CSS Tennessee on 5 August 1864, the Tecumseh struck a “torpedo” in the water.  Ship Commander Tunis A.M. Craven allowed his pilot – John Collins – to climb up the ship’s ladder to escape. This act of chivalry ultimately cost Craven his life. The Tecumseh sank in under twenty-five seconds, taking Craven and ninety-two of the crew with it.

“After you, sir.” Sketch of Captain T.A.M. Craven and his pilot, climbing a ladder on the Tecumseh. From Morgan collection of Civil War drawings (Library of Congress). Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

After the American Civil War, the United States Navy turned its focus to producing fearsome dreadnoughts, such as the USS Maine (ACR-1). The Maine was laid down in the Brooklyn Navy Yard on 17 October 1888. She served with the North Atlantic Fleet before heading to Havana, Cuba in a show of force for American citizens caught in potential violence between the Spanish and Cuban revolutionaries. While in the harbor on 15 February 1898, an explosion tore the ship apart, resulting in  252 out of the 350 officers and men on board  reported dead or missing. “Remember the Maine!” tattoos surged in popularity even though the court of inquiry could not obtain evidence linking the destruction to any specific person(s). The American public were so incensed that the United States eventually declared war on Spain on 21 April 1898. Over 280,000 sailors served in the Spanish-American War.

Sailors and the USS Maine (ACR-1), Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City, undated. From the George E. Stonebridge Photograph Collection, 1897-1918 (bulk 1899-1904). Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.
NH 117794 Navy Yard, Brooklyn. New York. 1918. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Following the Spanish-American War, the Brooklyn Navy Yard continued its duty of building ships on which enlisted sailors served. The USS Arizona (BB-39) was laid down on 16 March 1914 at the Yard and launched just over a year later on 19 June 1915. She served as a gunnery training ship out of Norfolk throughout World War I. The Arizona spent the next fourteen years as a flag hip throughout the Caribbean and southern California before heading back into the docks for modernization in 1929.  Post-modernization, the Arizona continued to operate in the Battle Fleet in the waters of the northern Pacific, Alaska, and the waters east of the Lesser Antilles. She became part of the fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor where she was moored on the morning of 7 December 1941. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor cost the lives of 1,177 of the 1,512 on board the Arizona, accounting for over half of the causalities suffered by the fleet during the attack. Today the Arizona lays at the bottom of Pearl Harbor as a memorial to the Sailors lost during the attacks.

USS Arizona launch, c. 1910-1915. From the George E. Stonebridge Photograph Collection, 1897-1918 (bulk 1899-1904). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to the United States’ entry into World War II and launched an unprecedented increase in the Navy’s ranks.  Over three million enlisted sailors served in the United States Navy during World War II, and navy yards around the country swelled their workforces to support the growing Navy. The Brooklyn Navy Yard’s workforce expanded to an all-time high of 70,000 employees. These new employees included women for the first time, to work as mechanics and technicians to help keep the Yard productive while building ships such as the USS Missouri (BB-63). It is almost fitting that the Yard would produce the ships best known for both the start of the war and the war’s end. It was on the decks of the Missouri on 2 September 1945 that Japan unconditionally surrendered to the United States, thus ending World War II.

NH 45924 USS Missouri (BB-63) ready for launching, New York Navy Yard, January 29, 1944. Note shape of bow, anchors and launch drag chains. “The USS Missouri, World’s Mightiest Battleship, photographed at the New York Navy Yard prior to her launching on January 29, 1944.” Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

After World War II, the Brooklyn Navy Yard saw a drastic decline in production and workers. By the time Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed the yard – along with ninety other military bases and installations – in 1966, the Yard was down to approximately 9,000 workers from its World War II high of 70,000. At the time of its closing, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was the oldest continually active industrial plant in the state of New York.

The final issue of the Shipworker, commemorating 165 years of service to the fleet. Courtesy of BNYDC Archives.

Decommissioning the Yard could have spelled the end of its significance to enlisted sailors; history, however, had other plans. The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation (BNYDC) took over the Yard from the Commerce, Labor and Industry in the County of Kings (CLICK) in 1981. Although times were tough, BNYDC powered on and implemented a new leasing strategy to focus on small industrial firms and niche manufacturers instead of large ones. Its strategy paid off, and the yard’s list of tenants began to grow.  BNYDC turned BLDG 92 (the Commandant’s House from 1858) into the Yard’s Employment Center. Through this center, BNYDC aims to place job seekers – with a particular emphasis on veterans – in well-paying industrial jobs at the Yard. 

Aerial image of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 7 June 2019. Courtesy of BNYDC.

In addition to acting as an employment center, BLDG 92 offers access to the Yard’s history through exhibits, tours, educational programs, and archival resources. The BNYDC offers access to the Yard’s long naval history while providing jobs to Navy veterans to this day.


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