The Port of Portsmouth is an independent city in southeastern Virginia. Lying across the Elizabeth River about seven nautical miles from the Port of Norfolk, it is part of the natural harbor that makes up the Port of Virginia known as Hampton Roads. The Port of Portsmouth is also about 150 nautical miles south of the Port of Baltimore across the Chesapeake Bay. With a population of over 100,000 in 2006, Portsmouth is home to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard that played an important role in the American Civil War. Today, the navy yard builds and repairs U.S. naval vessels.
The Port of Portsmouth is part of the Hampton Roads military complex and is home to the US Navy's Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The navy yard and military facilities in the Port of Portsmouth are the city's major economic contributors. Other activities also support the local economy. They include manufacturers of fertilizers, chemicals, plastics, and railroad equipment.
Before Europeans arrived in the area of the future Port of Portsmouth, the Powhatan Renape , a confederacy of tribes and a subdivision of the Algonquian Nation controlled the area. These proud peoples sought to drive the encroaching English settlers out of their lands but were unable to do so. Their attacks on Europeans from 1622 to 1644 brought swift reprisals from the English, and by 1646, the Powhatan Confederacy was for the most part destroyed, both by war and by the diseases the English brought with them to the Port of Portsmouth.
Shipbuilder John Wood identified the site of the future Port of Portsmouth as a good location for shipbuilding in 1620. He petitioned Britain's King James I for a land grant, and the area grew up quickly as a plantation community.
The land under Port of Portsmouth was granted in 1676 to British Colonel William Crawford, a rich ship owner and merchant who established the town and named it after Portsmouth, England. The Virginia General Assembly established the Port of Portsmouth by law on behalf of Colonel Crawford. Crawford reserved the intersection of High and Court streets for a market, a church, a jail, and a courthouse.
During the American Revolution, both British and American troops occupied the Port of Portsmouth. In 1767, Scotsman Andrew Sprowle built a shipyard in the Port of Portsmouth that later became the Norfolk Navy Yard owned by the U.S. government. In 1794, the US Congress passed legislation that allowed the government to lease the Port of Portsmouth's Gosport Shipyard from the State of Virginia. Then in 1799, work began on the USS Chesapeake, one of the first six frigates built for the United States.
The Commonwealth of Virginia owned the Port of Portsmouth's Gosport Shipyard after the Revolution and sold it to the federal government of the new United States in 1801 for $12 thousand, making it one of the first federal military installations. Construction of the first Port of Portsmouth dry dock began in 1827. Covering an area of 6.5 hectares in 1801, the area is the northeastern corner of today's Norfolk Naval Shipyard after additional land was added to the facility in 1845.
Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in 1861, and when Union troops evacuated the Port of Portsmouth shipyard, they burned it. They withdrew to Fort Monroe, the only land area in the Hampton Roads area still under Union control. The South found much equipment and scrap left in the Port of Portsmouth that they used to build the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia , using the hulk of the USS Merrimack as its base. The Virginia fought the Union's USS Monitor in the Battle of Hampton Roads when the Union blockaded Hampton Roads.
In 1862, the Confederate ironclad battled the Union ironclad, the USS Monitor, in the Battle of Hampton Roads in an attempt to end the Union blockade of the Port of Portsmouth and other nearby Virginia ports. While neither side won that battle, the Confederates were defeated later that year. Forced from the Port of Portsmouth in 1862, the Confederates burned the shipyard when they left in 1862.
Union forces recaptured Hampton Roads and changed the name of the shipyard at the Port of Portsmouth to Norfolk Naval Shipyard. After the war, the navy yard built and repaired naval vessels. It later produced the navy's first commissioned battleship, the USS Texas, and the first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley.
From the end of the Civil War to 1917, the Port of Portsmouth's Norfolk Naval Shipyard was used to station ships and to build and repair them. As the Naval Station Norfolk did not yet exist, it was the homeport for naval vessels stationed in the Hampton Roads region.
During World War I, the Port of Portsmouth naval yard was expanded to meet the war effort, employing about 11 thousand people. It doubled in size during World War II as production capacity increased. The Norfolk Naval Yard employed over 40 thousand people in the Port of Portsmouth and constructed 6850 vessels during its height from 1940 to 1945. After the war, the Port of Portsmouth naval shipyard changed from building ships to overhauling and repairing them. Its last two vessels, wooden minesweepers, embarked from the Port of Portsmouth shipyard in 1953 during the Korean War.
Today, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in the Port of Portsmouth consists of several separate areas in the city. Containing a total of 516 hectares, the shipyard modernizes and repairs a wide range of US naval vessels that include super-carriers, submarines, and guided missile cruisers. More recently, repairs have focused on nuclear ships and support ships. The Port of Portsmouth naval shipyard is one of few East Coast facilities that can dry dock nuclear aircraft carriers.
Over its history, the Port of Portsmouth's Norfolk Naval Shipyard has achieved several "firsts." It produced the USS Chesapeake, a 38-gun frigate that fought in the War of 1812. It produced the USS Delaware, the first ship in the Western Hemisphere to be dry docked. It also produced the CSS Virginia, the first Confederate ironclad. It produced several other vessels that were the first of their kind. The USS Texas was the first US naval battleship. The USS Raleigh was the first modern cruiser built by the US government. The USS Langley was the first US aircraft carrier.
Today, the Port of Portsmouth is one of the Seven Cities of Hampton Roads. Surrounded by water on one side and Norfolk, Suffolk, and Chesapeake inland, it has little room to expand. Much of the Port of Portsmouth is controlled by the U.S. Navy. The Port of Portsmouth hosts manufacturing of railroad equipment, fertilizers, chemicals, and plastic. Tidewater Community College and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum are located there.
As the Port of Portsmouth entered the 21st Century, its downtown area was undergoing a modest urban renewal effort. But with little land area for expansion, the Port of Portsmouth's declining population and limited tax base made ambitious renewal efforts impossible. Furthermore, the US Navy controls much of the Port of Portsmouth, and more than half of the city is exempt from local taxes.