In Old Washington (Naval Gun Factory)
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, October 16, 1910 [p. 15]
The site of the United States naval gun factory, for a century or more popularly known as the Washington navy yard, on the Eastern branch, in early days was partially severed by the waters of the bay-St. Thomas. East of the bay reservation No. 14 was laid out in the lines of M, between 7th and 90th streets, on the Eastern branch, 9th streets, on the Eastern branch. This was the site first selected, but during the administrations of Washington and Adams, strong efforts were made to locate the yard at the west end of the city, east of the mouth of Rock creek and it would appear from the investments made in that quarter by the officers and friends of the Marine Corps, and also by the encampment of the marines on Camp Hill, now the site of the Navy Medical School Hospital, prior to quarters being provided in the yard, that the marine barracks would also be sited there. The Eastern branch at that time afforded ample facilities for large vessels, as the water was over twenty feet deep for four miles from the mouth, and it was navigable to small vessels for nearly fifty years afterward. As late as 1840 a steamboat carried several hundred men to a democratic barbecue at Bladensburg. John Adams at the beginning of his administration designated the present site for a navy yard. The Navy Department had just been organized, with Benjamin Stoddert then living in Georgetown, as Secretary. The navy had been reduced to only nine captains being retained in the service. Nevertheless, Congress having provided for building six seventy-four-gun ships, it was determined that one of them should be constructed here.
May 23, 1799, the initial step was taken toward building the ship by the appointment of William Marbury of Annapolis navy agent to contract for all the material needed. It was then found that additional ground was needed, and arrangements were made with the commissioners in October, 1799, for the purchase of the two squares west, 883 and 884, south of M street between 6th and 7th streets, for $4,000, and thus the west line of the navy yard was extended to 6th street. Josiah Humphreys of Philadelphia was ordered here in October, 1799, to locate the wharf and assist Mr. Marbury in its construction and the building of the ship January 22, 1800, Capt. Thomas Tingey, who had been dropped from the list of captains on the reduction of the navy, was ordered here to superintend the construction of the vessel and to give his aid and advice in regard to the arrangement and improvement of the yard. From his acquaintance with foreign shipyards he was regarded s the man for the place. July 9 following Mr. Marbury’s office of naval agent was abolished and his duties devolved on the superintendent. The assembling on material for the ship was entered on the walls located and the reservation was inclosed on the east and north sides, water being on the others. The building now occupied by the inspector of ordnance was built in 1801, and was the home of Capt. John Cassin, who was then in charge of the ships lying in ordinary. The house of the superintendent was not completed until about 180?. Captain Tingey in the meanwhile lived in a house on the northwest corner of 11th and G streets northwest, which had been purchased by him. In 1804 Capt. Tingey was restored to his rank by a special act of Congress and as a commandant he served here for the remainder of his life, until February 23, 1829. Capt. Cassin remained in charge of the ordinary until about 1809, when he was transferred to the Norfolk yard.
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The general plan of the buildings, shops and walls was that of B.H. Latrobe, the architect and surveyor of public buildings, made in 1802, and it included the buildings and walls already in process of construction. He recognized the necessity of reclaiming the ground in Bay St. Thomas, the idea from the first being that this yard be equal to that of New York - first-class and extensive.
Under the peace establishment act of 1801, by which the navy was reduced to thirteen frigates, six to remain in commission and seven to be laid up in ordinary, in that year and the next the following were in ordinary here: The United States, forty-four guns; President, forty guns; Congress, thirty-six; Essex, thirty-six; Boston, twenty-four and General Greene, twenty-four. There were crews of about twenty-five on each. Later the Constitution, forty-four; the Chesapeake, forty-four; Constellation, thirty-six; and Adams, twenty-four were added.
The marine battalion, Lieut. Col. W.W. Burrows, numbering about two hundred, was quartered here until 1804, while the barracks were being built, and the roll of the workmen was less than two hundred, the total, including the ordinary, being about seven hundred.
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It is needless to say the effect of locating the yard was soon seen in the erection of homes and places of business for the workmen. For more than half a century it was nearly completely isolated from the rest of the city, the community mainly getting its support from the yard, having its own market stores, fire and military companies, and Masonic lodge, Naval No. 4, composed largely of officers attached to the vessels in the early days of the century. On either side of the yard there was but slow settlement. Eastward Charles Minifle, a dealer in ship and other timber, occupied the water front east of 9th street, and later Philip Otterback and Charles Miller were butchers on 9th street.
On the west of the Bay St. Thomas, with its marshy border, extended 4th street. Some squares were under water. The square between 4th and 5th streets, No. 826, was covered by a marsh, excepting the northwest and southwest corners. Nevertheless, in the apportionment of 1797 the twenty-six lots were divided, the United States taking those in the east part of the square and Daniel Carroll those in the west half. These were assessed, first at 3 and after at 5 cents a foot. Gen. Van Ness owned part of the sure in 1802. S.N. Smallwood, then a leading carpenter and afterward lumber merchant and mayor of Washington, in 1816 bought the south front of this square and also square 827, lying south and entirely under water. In the ‘20s he was assessed on $1,100 for improvements and $12 a front foot for the water privileges, he having here an extensive wharf and umber yard. The projection of the lines of 5th, Canal or 6th street and Georgia avenue formed square 853 in the bay, and to this Mr. Carroll was given title, being taxed for a number of years on the valuation of half a cent a foot, and in 1829 he conveyed it to trustees to sell.
While the few ships in commission were engaged in the Mediterranean, protecting our commerce there and at war with Tripoli, the work of the yard was mainly on the seventy-four-gun ship, fitting out vessels and sending supplies to the vessels in commission. Under the act of 1805 establishing a system of gunboats about a dozen were built here. In 1806 the brig Wasp had been launched and fitted for sea. The Chesapeake was also prepared for sea. For several years subsequently the yard was regarded as the principal depot of supplies of men, material, etc. In 1807 a number of midshipmen attached to the yard and the vessels in ordinary, under the instruction of the chaplain, were being fitted for the service. Quite a number of officers who afterward became famous in the service were graduated from this naval school.
It is interesting to note that Fulton, of steamboat fame came here in 1807 and experimented with a submarine torpedo. The yard has been noted for all manner of experiments in which all naval men have been interested, since the days of Fulton.
The gunboats were launched in 1808 and the other work was the repair of the frigates United States, Essex, John Adams, Congress, Constitution and the following year the equipment of the John Adams and Essex for sea.