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Brooklyn Navy Yard: Cradle of the Navy

Jeffrey Syken

Situated between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridge/s, on the eastern (Brooklyn) shore of the tidal strait known as the East River (which separates Manhattan from Long Island), is an inlet known as “Wallabout Bay,” itself a corruption of the original Dutch place-name. There existed on the mud flats of this small bay a 42-acre shipbuilding/repair yard owned by one John Jachom (a/k/a John Jackson) who, at the behest of POTUS John Adams, sold it in 1801 to the U.S. Government for the princely sum of $40,000. Sadly, it was also the site of one of the ugliest episodes of the Revolutionary War whereby thousands of American patriots held prisoner on British hulks perished within sight of the Brooklyn shore. For a fledgling United States Navy, it was manna from heaven and, by the end of the 19th Century, it would be the main repair base of the USN’s North Atlantic Squadron and, by the beginning of the 20th Century, home to Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet.”

From its humble beginnings, the New York Naval Shipyard (a/k/a “Brooklyn Navy Yard”) would serve the nation in both war and peace. It’s “coming out” was during the War of 1812, when American men-of-war were built, fitted-out and/or repaired. During the American Civil War, the Navy Yard’s Brooklyn Naval Hospital treated fully 25% of Union casualties. The catalyst that sparked the Spanish-American War – the USS MAINE, was built at the BNY and commissioned there in 1895. She met her fate in Havana Harbor in 1898. By the end of the 19th Century, the BNY was a full-service shipbuilding/repair facility and a “city-within-a-city,” being the greatest industrial enterprise in the sprawling metropolis and its biggest employer. America’s entry into WWI and the important role the BNY played in “Servicing the Fleet” demonstrated its value to sceptics and supporters alike and motivated its further expansion.

But it would be in the buildup to and during WWII that the BNY would have its “Finest Hour.” With a workforce expanded seven-fold, to +70K, it was a beehive of activity and a critical component of America’s successful war effort. Not only were battle-damaged ships given new life, brand new ships, including two Iowa-class battleships and five aircraft carriers would slide down the BNY’s ways. The “Can-Do Shipyard” had earned its nickname. With the Age of the Battleship over and the dawn of containerized shipping by the mid-1950s, the immediate postwar years would not be kind and by November 1964, the BNY was on the DOD’s chopping block, formally closing in June 1966. The City of New York took control of the property from the Federal Government and, by 1969, NYC had established the former birthplace of battleships as a fledgling industrial park. At first, this initiative met with little success, but by the 1990s the tide had started to turn. With significant, on-going investment the BNY has had a rebirth and is, once again, the beating heart of Brooklyn.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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