Located in southeast Washington, D.C., the Washington Navy Yard is the oldest U.S. Navy shore facility in the United States. Lying on the shores of the Anacostia River just before it meets the Potomac, the Washington Navy Yard is about 50 kilometers southwest of the Port of Baltimore (in Maryland) and just over 160 nautical miles northwest of the Port of Norfolk (in Virginia). The Washington Navy Yard is today an administrative and ceremonial center for the Navy and headquarters for many naval commands. In 1973, the Washington Navy Yard was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1976, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In 1799, the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, authorized the construction of the Washington Navy Yard on land that George Washington reserved for the federal government's use.
It its first years, the Washington Navy Yard was a large ship-fitting and shipbuilding facility, turning out 22 vessels. In 1812, the yard refitted and prepared the USS Constitution for combat. During the War of 1812, the Washington Navy Yard played a role in the defense of the Nation's capital city.
In 1814, British troops led by Major General Robert Ross marched on Washington. Knowing that the Washington Navy Yard could not be defended, the President and Secretary of the Navy agreed that the yard should be burned down. Anything that would not burn, including two unfinished ships, were destroyed by the flames. After the fire, locals looted the property, leading the Yard's commander, Commodore Tingey to recommend an increase in the height of the eastern wall to three meters.
It became apparent that the Washington Navy Yard could did not make a suitable naval base. The Board of Naval Commissioners decided that it should be dedicated to shipbuilding, beginning an era of technology and ordnance for the Washington Navy Yard. One of the first steam engines in the United States was used in the Washington Navy Yard to make chains, anchors, and steam engines for war vessels.
In the 1850s, ordnance production was the main function of the Washington Navy Yard. Lieutenant John Dahlgren, who twice served as commandant, was an engineering genius who bolstered the Yard's development for ordnance.
During the American Civil War, the Washington Navy Yard played an important role in defending the Capital. When Franklin Buchanan resigned to join the Confederate forces in 1861, John Dahlgren was put in command. Dahlgren's friend, Abraham Lincoln, was a regular visitor to the Washington Navy Yard. In 1863, the new foundry in the Yard was named after Dahlgren to honor his importance to the Washington Navy Yard's development.
After the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, the eight conspirators that were captured were brought to the Yard and held there before their trials. John Wilkes Booth's body was brought to the Yard and examined on the monitor Saugus that was moored there.
After the Civil War, the Washington Navy Yard continued its tradition as a center for technological advances. It was made the manufacturing center for all Navy ordnance in 1886. In that role, the Yard made armament for Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet that toured the world in the early 20th Century to demonstrate America's sea power. The Washington Navy Yard also produced ordnance for the World War I Navy.
During World War II, the Washington Navy Yard was the biggest plant in the world for naval ordnance. The Yard made everything from the small components used for optical systems to the huge 16-inch battleship guns. In 1945, the Washington Navy Yard was renamed the U.S. Naval Gun Factory. The weapons that were designed and built in the Yard were used in every United States' war through the 1960s. In 1961, the ordnance work was phased out. Three years after that, the yard was renamed to its current Washington Navy Yard, and the factory buildings that had been deserted were converted into office space.
Over its lifetime, the Washington Navy Yard was the site for many scientific advances. During the War of 1812, Robert Fulton researched and tested the clockwork torpedo there. In 1822, Commodore John Rodgers constructed the first marine railway in the country for assisting in the overhaul of large vessels. Before the Civil War, John Dahlgren created a bottle-shaped cannon that was widely used by the Navy.
David W. Taylor developed ship model testing basin at the Washington Navy Yard that was used by both private shipbuilders and the Navy to test new hull designs. In 1912, the Washington Navy Yard produced the first shipboard catapult that was tested on the Anacostia River. In 1916, the Washington Navy Yard completed a wind tunnel. Further, the Yard cast the gears for the locks of the Panama Canal, and technicians at the Washington Navy Yard designed prosthetic hands and molds for artificial eyes and teeth.
The Washington Navy Yard has also been an important ceremonial gateway to Washington D.C. In 1860, the United States welcomed the first diplomatic mission from Japan, with impressive pageantry, at the Yard. The body of World War I's Unknown Soldier was received at the Yard. After his historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, Charles Lindbergh returned to the Washington Navy Yard.
In the 21st Century, the Washington Navy Yard is still the "Quarterdeck of the Navy," and it is the headquarters for the Naval District Washington and for many commands. It is also home to the Navy Museum that tells the story of the US Navy from the American Revolution to the present. The destroyer USS Barry is permanently docked in the Washington Navy Yard, and it is museum open to the public. The Barry is also used for Navy ceremonies.
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