Ship repair facilities have existed at the site of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard at Portsmouth, Virginia since colonial times. The yard was established by Andrew Sprowl in 1767. Located on the western shore of the Elizabeth River, the shipyard was originally named Gosport after the British town. At the onset of the American Revolution in 1775, the yard fell into the hands of the Colony of Virginia, and Sprowl retreated on a British flagship. President Washington later funded Gosport as a warship-producing shipyard.
The dry dock at Norfolk was the first in the western hemisphere. It was built in 1833 and remains operational today. This dry dock made Gosport one of the leading federal shipyards. The yard acquired many small shops for metalworking during the 1800's. Materials used in these shops included tin, copper, iron, ship rudders, and timber. In addition, the yard kept oil, coal, and tar in its many storehouses. An expansion effort in 1846 added part of the opposite shore of the Elizabeth River, called St. Helena, to the shipyard's property. The yard boasted more than fifty buildings in 1960. These structures included ship houses, an engine house, coalhouses, timber sheds, a sawmill, a joiners' shop, a foundry, a cooperage, a machine shop, a blacksmith shop, and paint shops. There were also cranes and a railway.
The yard at Portsmouth repaired and converted the USS Merrimack into the CSS Virginia during the Civil War, despite the fact that the yard was under the control of confederate forces. The yard also built the first flight deck on a ship when it worked on the USS Birmingham. Norfolk also converted the USS Jupiter into the USS Langley in 1922.
The Norfolk Naval Shipyard built over one hundred ships during WWII and repaired thousands more. Norfolk also constructed three famous Essex-class carriers: Lake Champlain, the Shangri-La, and the Tarawa. By the end of the war, the yard's work force had dropped to only 9000 workers, a dramatic slide from its peak of 43,000 shipyard workers during the war.
After the war, the yard focused mainly on modernization and repair work, but in 1964 acquired nuclear capabilities that enable it to handle the USS Skate, a modern submarine. The yard covered 811 acres of land in 1964 that held over 400 buildings, 300 cranes, two shipways, and seven dry docks.
Shipyards like the Norfolk Naval Shipyard were a source of asbestos exposure for both veterans and shipyard workers. Asbestos is known to cause mesothelioma, a cancer for which there is no cure. Here, veterans exposed to asbestos are at risk for developing the disease. If you are a veteran who has been diagnosed please check out our page on medical support for veterans with mesothelioma, our mesothelioma clinics listing and our mesothelioma treatment guide. Many mesothelioma navy cases are also being filed. Please fill out our form to the right if you are interested in learning more about your legal rights.Sources
Coletta, Paolo. ed. United States Navy and Marine Corps Bases, Domestic. London: Greenwood Press, 1985. pp. 387-397.
"History of Norfolk Naval Shipyard."