The Brooklyn Navy Yard* area has played many critical parts in the history of the Borough, the city, and the country, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War.
The yard sits on the edge of Wallabout Bay, a large cove in the East River between Williamsburg and Vinegar Hill. President John Adams, believing in the necessity of a strong Navy, in 1801 ordered the building of six navy yards in the new country, and Wallabout Bay was chosen as one of the sites. The yard was decommissioned in 1966. When it closed, it was the oldest industrial facility in New York State.
The bay played a horrific part in the American Revolution. Having captured more rebels during the Battle of Brooklyn and in the roundups afterward than they could manage on land, the British loaded prisoners onto ships anchored or grounded in the East River. The biggest and most notorious of these was the HMS Jersey**. Built as a warship and later converted to a hospital ship, in 1780 it sat grounded and rotting in Wallabout Bay. Estimates put the deaths on this boat alone at perhaps eight thousand. (By comparison, approximately 4,500 rebels died in combat in the entire war.) It was called “The Hell Afloat.” The men who died in the squalid conditions in the hold of the ship were either simply thrown overboard or buried in mass “graves” in the mud of the bay’s floor during low tide. Many were later removed to a mass grave in Fort Greene Park, but bodies and bones have been exposed during various dredgings and excavations ever since.
In the final days of the Adams administration in 1801, Naval Secretary Benjamin Stoddert purchased an existing shipyard in Brooklyn from a private shipbuilder who had been working for the navy and other commercial interests. Stoddert had long wanted to bring shipbuilding in-house rather than pay private contractors, who often overcharged the government for their services. (Apparently, the $400 hammer has a lo-o-o-ng history.) Jefferson, who had been elected as the next President months before the deal was made, was not keen on increasing the size of the navy, and so the new navy yard was at first used for repairs and for conversions of local commercial ships to naval vessels rather than building new ones. Years after Jefferson’s presidency, the first ship to be built in Brooklyn, the USS Ohio, was begun in 1817 and launched in 1820.
The yard served the navy continuously from then until 1966, scoring several firsts along the way, including the first combat steamship, the USS Fulton II in 1837, and the navy’s first battleship, the USS Maine, launched in 1889. The Maine was blown up in Havana harbor in 1898, precipitating the Spanish-American War.
Other notable events from navy yard history are the establishment of the Naval Lyceum (1833, the precursor to the Naval Academy now at Annapolis, MD) by Commodore Matthew Perry, the development of ether anesthesia (1852) by naval doctor E.R. Squibb at the yard’s naval hospital (opened in 1838), and the launch of the USS Arizona (1915), famously sunk in the Pearl Harbor sneak attack (1941) that brought the U.S. into World War II. In addition, the first song ever sung on the radio was broadcast from the Navy Yard in 1907 to test a radio system newly installed on a ship docked at the yard. The song was “I love you truly,” sung by Eugenia Farrar, an opera singer.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard was decommissioned and closed in 1966, along with about ninety other military bases across the country. More than 9,000 jobs were lost with it.
When its history as a naval facility ended, the shipyard remained open as a private venture, rented to Seatrain Shipbuilding. The city converted the old navy office and quarters buildings to an industrial and office complex. The shipyard closed in 1979, and after another bumpy two decades, the city again stepped in, modernizing the infrastructure within the complex in 2001. That attracted the interest of bigger players, and in 2004 Steiner Studios opened its humongous TV and Film production sound stages, giving the yard a huge boost, including added jobs within the studio and attracting support services and related industries. Today approximately 400 tenants large and small are renting and operational, and numerous buildings remain to be refurbished. On the west side of the complex, a Wegman’s superstore is due to open in 2018.
The area south of the bay is still referred to by some few as Wallabout, though almost all Brooklynites consider it the northern end of Fort Greene. It’s surrounded by subway lines, though none run through the area. Five bus lines stop at or very near the various gates into the yard and serve the immediate neighborhood. And, should the BQX trolley line ever come to be built, it would run either by or through the yard. Housing prices in this area, as in all of Brooklyn, are on an upward trend. The Wegman’s opening should be an added attraction.
*Opening photo of Navy Yard by Kris Arnold, New York, USA – Brooklyn, Manhattan, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2027855
** Photo is of an engraving of conditions on the HMS Jersey. (From the Library of Congress, in the Navy Yard’s BLDG 92 collection)