A decidedly unglamorous black-hulled cargo barge plying the turbid waters off Staten Island represents the last working evidence of two centuries of New York history. McAllister Towing & Transportation Co.’s Atlantic Trader, a 300-foot container-carrying barge which entered service in 1977 appears to be the last vessel built from the ground up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The plodding, anonymous Atlantic Trader had many famous Navy Yard forebears, including the USS Arizona, destroyed at Pearl Harbor where the Second World War began for the United States on Dec. 7, 1941, and the USS Missouri, where the war ended 45 months later with the formal Japanese surrender on her polished teak deck in Tokyo Bay. Other warships built in Brooklyn included the USS Maine, whose 1898 destruction in Havana Harbor helped launch the Spanish-American War; the USS Ohio, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line launched in 1820 that saw action in the Mexican-American War; and eight battleships and eight aircraft carriers completed between 1911 and 1961. Ships built at the yard saw service in every major American conflict from the War of 1812 to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In 1781, shipbuilder John Jackson and his two brothers purchased a semicircular elbow of land, former mudflats and tidal marshes on the East River’s Wallabout Bay, from descendants of Dutch settler Joris Jansen Rapelje. In the 1790s, Jackson built the merchant ship Canton and the yard’s first warship, the frigate USS John Adams, which fought in the War of 1812. Jackson sold the site to the Navy in 1801 and it served as a hub of building and repair activity throughout the 19th century. Future Commodore Matthew Perry served as commandant of the naval installation in the 1840s, and the revolutionary ironclad USS Monitor had its final fitting out there in 1862 as the first warship with a revolving turret.
At its peak during the Second World War, the New York Naval Shipyard, with its high brick walls and gated entrance on Sands Street, employed more than 70,000 men and women – both civilian and naval personnel – working around the clock. Across Sands Street, according to a 1939 Works Progress Administration guide, lay “a shapeless grotesque neighborhood, its grimy cobblestone thoroughfares filled with flophouses, crumbling tenements and greasy restaurants.”
In 1940, the yard launched the USS North Carolina, the first battleship built by the Navy in almost 20 years, the first of 10 brand-new fast battleships headed for the battlefronts of World War II. With its massive dry docks and 25–story-tall hammerhead crane capable of lifting 350 tons, Brooklyn also performed repairs on 5,000 vessels during the war, rehabilitating battle damage to France’s FS Richelieu and Britain’s HMS Malaya. While the pace of activity declined sharply after the war, the yard remained one of the Navy’s largest, building three supercarriers; Saratoga (commissioned in 1956), Independence (1959) and the 60,000-ton Constellation (1961).
Then, 55 years ago this month, the hammer dropped. On Nov. 19, 1964, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara announced that the 290-acre facility would be closing at an unspecified future date as part of a massive Pentagon cost-cutting initiative. The larger Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, which had more space to store ships, would remain open. New York politicians including Mayor Robert Wagner, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Jacob Javits and newly-elected Senator Robert Kennedy worked to keep Brooklyn open. But McNamara called his decision “without qualification irrevocable,” and two months later, 9,500 remaining workers were told the shutdown would occur in June 1966.
A series of “lasts” unfolded: the last warship built at Brooklyn, the 14,000-ton amphibious transport USS Duluth, was launched in August 1965. (She would go on to earn eight battle stars for service in the Vietnam War, and would take part in Operation Frequent Wind – the evacuation of Saigon as it fell to the North – and Operation Iraqi Freedom at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.) As yard operations in Brooklyn wound down during 1965, the iconic hammerhead crane was dismantled and a last major job, the modernization of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, concluded in October.
As closing time approached, some New Yorkers focused on some down-to-earth matters. A Mrs. Judith Scofield, president of the Save-A-Cat League, warned that 1,500 cats faced starvation should the Navy seal up its buildings. The cats became a fabric of the yard’s life in the late 19th century, helping control a destructive rodent population, and in December 1900, according to the New York Times, Rear Admiral and Chief Constructor of the Navy Francis Tiffany Bowles “intimated to the men under him that none of the cats which prowl about the yard are to be annoyed or interfered with in any way.” As recently as 2014, according to The Hatching Cat NYC blog, feral cats, the distant descendants of those honored rat-hunting felines, continued to roam the site, with volunteers setting up food stations, building shelters and taking sick cats to the vet.
Despite the Navy’s exit, Brooklyn wasn’t done yet as a shipbuilder. The government sold the yard to the city in 1969, and later that year, a shipping company called Seatrain Lines Inc. struck a deal to lease 45% of the facility: 3,000 workers would be building a series of oil tankers. Seatrain would eventually complete five 1,000-foot-long, 230,000-ton supertankers – at the time the largest US merchant ships ever built – as well as a series of smaller vessels, including the aforementioned Atlantic Trader, before filing for bankruptcy in 1981. The yard’s 200 years of shipbuilding had come to an end.
In recent years, the Brooklyn Navy Yard has again become a hive of activity, although most of it has been on dry land. Film studio Steiner Studios opened in 2004, and a variety of small businesses set up shop before large-scale redevelopment began in 2011. Once a backbone of the nation’s defense, the site now hosts farming, light manufacturing, arts and retail. Just last month, a giant Wegmans grocery store opened as part of the Admiral’s Row development. The piers and dry docks are still around, and a firm called GMD Shipyard Corp. still performs ship repairs.
There’s also far-flung evidence of the yard’s glory days. The battleship North Carolina lies at her moorings across the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington, N.C., a museum and a memorial. The aircraft carrier Intrepid is a popular air and space museum permanently berthed at the Hudson River piers. The battleship Iowa, launched in Brooklyn in 1942, is retired and open for tours in the Port of Los Angeles. Her sister ship, the Missouri, is a floating memorial just yards from the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. And, somewhere in the vast waters of New York Harbor, a tugboat pushes a lowly cargo barge, a last link to unforgettable epoch of American history.
Editor’s Note: Those wishing to visit the yard may stop at BLDG 92. The former Marine commandant’s residence, built in 1858, houses three floors of exhibitions “dedicated to the past, present, and future of the Yard.”
Photos: Sands Street entrance to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1904; Damaged French battleship Richelieu, heading for repairs, passes Brooklyn Bridge, 1943; Aerial view of Brooklyn Navy Yard at peak activity, April 1945; Launch of the USS Missouri — ‘The Might Mo’ — January 1944; and Atlantic Trader.