Monday, July 30th, 2012
The Brooklyn Navy Yard has a proud history that goes back to the Revolutionary War. Some of America’s most famous ships were built there. After it was decommissioned in 1966, however, the old shipyard was abandoned and allowed to decay, its once-bustling buildings reclaimed by weeds and weather.
But now it is coming back to life. Now you can find trendy cafes, art studios and furniture makers where there were once offices, machine shops and officers’ quarters. These businesses will soon be joined by a movie studio. There are also more mundane businesses, such as a plumbing supplier and a trucking company. More than 250 businesses, employing nearly 6,000 people, have opened in what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard Industrial Park.
At the height of production in World War II, 70,000 people — including many young Rosie the Riveters — worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard producing war ships and materiel. World War II era ships were built with generous amounts of fire-retardant asbestos insulation, which no doubt saved many ships and their crews from death by fire. At the time it wasn’t understood that asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma cancer, and today retired shipyard workers are succumbing to the lethal disease, the last casualties of the war.
But more about the history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The venerable shipyard is located on a section of the East River called Wallabout Bay. During the American Revolution, the British kept captured revolutionaries on prison ships moored in Wallabout Bay.
In 1781, a man named John Jackson, with his brothers, built the first shipyard in the area. In 1781, the brothers received a commission from the U.S. government to build a 28-gun frigate, the USS Adams. This first ship of war built on the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard would be lost in the War of 1812, burned by her crew to avoid capture by the British.
The United States government bought the shipyard in 1801 and put it to use building ships for the Navy. America’s first steam-powered warships were built there. In 1857, the USS Niagara was launched from the Yard and would be put to work laying the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.
In 1862, USS Monitor, the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad warship, was outfitted and commissioned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Built in nearby Greenhaven, the Monitor left Brooklyn under tow to the waters off Confederate Virginia, where she battled another ironclad, CSS Virginia. This was the first naval battle in history between ironclad ships. Neither ship clearly prevailed over the other.
The battleship USS Maine was launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1889, although she was not commissioned until 1895. In 1895 an explosion caused her to sink in Havana Harbor; the sinking would touch off the Spanish-American War.
The USS Arizona was launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1915. The Arizona was sunk in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Two of World War II’s most famous battleships, the USS Iowa and the USS Missouri, were launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1942 and 1944, respectively. On August 29, 1945, the Iowa and the Missouri sailed into Tokyo Bay to prepare for Japan’s surrender. That ceremony took place on Missouri’s deck on September 2.
During the Korean War the aircraft super carriers USS Saratoga, USS Constellation, and USS Independence were built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The city of New York bought the decommissioned shipyard in 1967 and tried to attract auto manufacturers to build factories in the Yard, but got no takers. It’s drydocks also went unleased. A private shipbuilder operated there for a while but closed its doors in 1979. But in recent years businesses have finally been persuaded to build there, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard — without the shipbuilding — is coming back to life.