From Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
The Washington Navy Yard was established 215 years ago today, Oct. 2, 1799, the Navy’s first and oldest shore base. At first it was built as a shipyard, under the careful guidance of its first commandant, Capt. Thomas Tingey. And then during the War of 1812 we famously burned it down (not the British) and then our neighbors looted it (again, not the British).
The base was back running again by 1816, although it never quite came back as a shipbuilding yard due to the shallowness of the Anacostia River. Its mission changed with the establishment of the Bureau of Ordnance at the Washington Navy Yard in the late 1880s and the building of a large gun factory. The yard then evolved into a place to test the most scientific, technologically advanced naval weaponry in the nation. By the end of World War II, when the yard was renamed the U.S. Naval Gun Factory in Dec. 1945, it had become the largest naval ordnance plant in the world, peaking at 188 buildings on 126 acres of landing and employing nearly 25,000 people.
But during the 1950s, as fewer weapons were needed, the Navy Yard began to phase out its ordnance factories. On July 1, 1964, the property was re-designated the Washington Navy Yard and unused factory buildings were converted to office use. The yard is now home to the Chief of Naval Operations (living in the same house as the yard’s original commandant) and is also headquarters for the Naval History and Heritage Command, the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and numerous other commands.
Just as captivating as the Yard’s transition from shipbuilding to ordnance technology to host of various command headquarters, are the hints of the macabre that lurk among the centuries-old brick and mortar of the Washington Navy Yard.
Which takes us back to Commodore Thomas Tingey. The plump commodore lovingly nurtured his navy yard through its first construction, then had suffer the horrible orders to burn it in August 1814 during the War of 1812. And he did, waiting until he could almost see the British before finally ordering it set ablaze. He returned the next day overjoyed to find the two housing quarters – A and B – unburned, along with the massive gate designed by Benjamin Latrobe.
But after all that, Commandant Tingey got the Navy Yard back running again building ships by 1816. In 1829, Commandant Tingey, still running the place and living in his beloved Quarters A at the top of the hill, reported he was tired and wanted to work half days. He died five days later. He was so attached to the home he lived in for nearly 30 years that people have claimed to see a rotund apparition roaming the halls in his nightshirt while wearing his sword. In 1886, the shipyard changed direction to become the Naval Gun Factory, thanks to the technological advances by Capt. John A. Dahlgren. Rumor has it Tingey’s ghost gave out a loud cry at the indignity of it.
And speaking of the Civil War, Capt. Dahlgren served as the commandant of the base in 1861-62 and again in 1869-70. But it was Army Col. Ulrich Dahgren who would leave a lasting legacy: His leg. After the battle of Gettysburg, Col. Dahlgren had his leg amputated at the navy yard in 1863. It was buried amid new construction at the shipyard. He would lose the rest of him (minus an eye) when his men were ambushed in 1864 while attempting to take Richmond. Papers found on his body, thereafter called the “Dahlgren Papers,” outlined a planned assassination attempt on Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Outrage from Southerners over that plan has been speculated to have fueled the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, a close friend of Capt. Dahlgren.
Just a few days after his second inauguration, President Lincoln would indeed be assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. The actor’s body – along with suspected cohorts – was brought to the Washington Navy Yard where an autopsy was performed onboard the monitor USS Montauk.
Which brings us back to the Navy Yard, which was known to have a special place in the heart of Lincoln. The yard bade its final farewell to the slain president by firing guns every half hour from noon until sundown on May 4, 1865, the day the president was buried at Springfield, Ill.
A more complete history of the Washington Navy Yard may be found here.