Transcripts

The Navy Yard: The History Of A D.C. Landmark Touched By Tragedy

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
On Monday, and all this week really, much attention has been focused on the Navy Yard, a D.C. landmark that's been serving the city, the nation, and world in various, important capacities since 1799. At its peak, the yard consisted of 188 buildings on 126 acres of land, and employed nearly 25,000 people. To learn more about the Navy Yard, I headed to 8th Street and Virginia Avenue Southeast, not too far from the yard itself, with Tim Krepp, a local tour guide, historian, author, and former naval officer.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:34
So the Navy Yard itself dates back all the way to what, the very, very, very late 1700s?

MR. TIM KREPP

00:00:39
The Navy Yard and I share a birthday, October 2nd. So I was not born in 1799. But you notice the date, that's a good almost decade after the planning of Washington, D.C. This is a bit of an afterthought. So what happened was, in the 1790s, we had this series of naval engagements and we had decided to rebuild a navy. We'd had one in revolutionary days, it had atrophied away; we had not concerned about overseas engagement. And then with those engagements with France, and Barbary States, and so on, always a lingering danger with England, we decided to build a navy. And if you build a navy, you need places to build the actual ships. And this was one of the largest in the country.

SHEIR

00:01:15
So then we fast-forward a couple of years. We've got the War of 1812, and I understand the Navy Yard played an important role in that war.

KREPP

00:01:21
A critical role. For the Americans, the War of 1812 started off as largely a naval war. We had a series of very morale-boosting engagements with the British; our frigates defeated their frigates. It didn't at all tip the balance of power at all, but the Royal Navy was the premium navy of the world and here we were meeting them on one-on-one engagements and coming out on top.

SHEIR

00:01:40
Now, the Navy Yards were burned in that war, but not by the British.

KREPP

00:01:44
No, no, no, no. The British didn't get a crack at it. The commandant of the Navy Yard, a guy named Thomas Tingey, had a responsibility for defending and, if failing to defend, to destroy the Navy Yard. There were actual ships in port, a couple of schooners, some other ships that were undergoing construction and repair, things like that. We did not want them to fall into the hands of the British. So Commodore Tingey had a very, very difficult decision to do, was to burn the Navy yard, shortly before the British marched into town.

SHEIR

00:02:08
But some of it was left intact, correct?

KREPP

00:02:10
Some of it was left intact. Now, as we look down 8th Street right here, down towards the corner of 8th and M, you see the LaTrobe Gate. That was one of the original gates built by Benjamin Latrobe, an early architect of the Capitol. Tingey's house, Quarters A, which is also visible, just down M Street a little bit, those survived. Those were the northern parts of the Yard, of the base.

SHEIR

00:02:32
Now, after the War of 1812, the Navy Yard didn't quite recover.

KREPP

00:02:35
No. No, we very much rebuilt the Navy Yard, but at this point the need for it had changed and its location. We are up here on the Potomac River, and if you're trying to have an ocean-going navy, which we were now trying to do, this is not an ideal spot. You have to sail up, three, four, five, many days to get up this river, just to get to the ocean. So this is not a good spot, this is too far, the river is silting up, everyone's cutting down trees and (unintelligible) along. It's silting up. It's not something that we use as an active port. So the function has changed and it stops being a shipyard, if you will, and goes into more of an ordnance facility.

KREPP

00:03:09
We do a lot of early development of our weapons here. A lot of innovative things with cannons, with industrial processes. Robert Fulton of steamboat fame tests out torpedoes down here. We do all kinds of things in this regard. It becomes, really, the Silicon Valley of the naval part of our development. And that continues up through the Civil War.

SHEIR

00:03:33
So as we move into the 1900s, what do we see happening to the Navy Yard then?

KREPP

00:03:36
So the industrial side of it continues to grow, and this becomes the pre-eminent gun foundry in the U.S. Navy. So if anyone's ever seen the old pictures of the great WWII battleships, their weapons, their 16-inch guns were forged right here at the Navy Yard. The gears to work the locks at the Panama Canal were built at the foundry here. And this became a major employer for the District of Columbia, and that continued well through WWII. In fact, at the end of WWII it was redesignated from the Navy Yard to the naval gun foundry in 1945, in recognition of what its role was.

SHEIR

00:04:09
Also at that time, though, it remained the naval component of Washington, D.C. So this was the ceremonial port of entry, if you will, for any number of things. When Charles Lindbergh completed his flight across the Atlantic, he was brought back to a hero's welcome through the Naval Yard. When the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was brought back after WWI, he was brought back on the U.S.S. Olympia and she moored up right here. And there was a formal procession from here, through the Capitol, where he laid in state until his former funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

SHEIR

00:04:38
So tell us what happened in 1961.

KREPP

00:04:39
Well, in '61 we weren't building big guns anymore and if we were building them, we weren't building them here. So that moved away. We stopped having a gun foundry and it became a bit of an administrative center. The chief of naval operations has his home there. He occupies Commodore Tingey's old house quarters A on the Yard itself. It became kind of Navy come other for Washington D.C. Whatever you needed you'd stash over there. I first came here in the mid 90s as a young midshipman at the George Washington University Naval ROTC Unit.

KREPP

00:05:08
And I came down here and there was a uniform shop, it was, you know, stuff down here. And I think one of the best things they've done has been building a riverfront walk. And it hasn't always been open there's been problems with bikes riding along it and there's been a tug and pull with the neighbors, but it's been a great thing that we can now ride along our river here, which we didn't use to be able to do. And that gets people interested in what's going on there and how we're treating our wetlands and how we're treating river.

KREPP

00:05:32
And I think that's something the Navy deserves credit for, is building that riverfront. It would have been easy just to say, no, you can't go there, it's a secure facility, we're not going to let you on it. And that's what I hope doesn't change with this atrocity, that we still have access to the Navy Yard. It's still a military facility and that still has to be protected, but I've gone to children's birthday parties at the museum there. The museum itself is an incredible resource. So I hope that that doesn't get walled off with the aftermath of this.

SHEIR

00:05:59
That was local tour guide, historian and author Tim Krepp. You can see historic photos of the Navy Yard and check out Tim's blog, D.C. Like A Local, by visiting our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

00:06:22
Time for a break, but when we get back, Part Two of our series on the uncertain future of Smith Island.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1

00:06:28
If by 2100 we have the chance of four feet of sea level rise, there are no ways that I know of to create marshes that are going to be affective against something like that.

SHEIR

00:06:42
That's coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

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00:06:46
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