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

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Latrobe Gate at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., circa 1923
Latrobe Historic (Library of Congress' National Photo Company Collection)
Latrobe Gate at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., circa 1923

This week, much attention has been focused on the Navy Yard: a D.C. landmark that's been serving the city, 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.

Local tour guide, historian, author, and former Naval officer Tim Krepp shares a birthday with the Navy Yard: October 2. Though the Navy Yard dates back to 1799.

"That's a good decade after the planning of D.C.," Krepp says. "[It was] a bit of an afterthought. What happened was, in the 1790s, we have a series of naval engagements and decided to rebuild a vavy. We'd had one in revolutionary days, it had atrophied away; we weren't concerned with it. But with engagements with France, Barbary States, and so on, always a lingering danger with England, we decided to build a navy. And when you build a navy, you need places to build ships. And this was one of the largest in the country."

Fast-forward to the War of 1812: where the Navy Yard played a critical role.

"For the Americans, the War of 1812 started out as a naval war," Krepp says. "[We were involved in a] series of morale-boosting engagements with the British; our frigates defeated their frigates. Didn't tip the balance of power, but the Royal Navy was the best in the world and we were beating them. A huge deal for a young and scrappy country!"

While the British burned much of Washington, D.C., during that war, they didn't burn the Navy Yard; the Americans beat them to it!

"The commandant of the Navy Yard, Thomas Tingey, had a responsibility for defending and, if failing to defend, destroying the Navy Yard," Krepp explains. "There were ships, schooners, in port that were undergoing construction and repair and we didn't want them to fall into the hands of the British.

"So Commodore Tingey had a very difficult decision: to burn the Navy yard, shortly before the British marched into town."

Several buildings remained intact after the burning, including the LaTrobe Gate, built by Benjamin Latrobe, an early architect of the Capitol. Tingey's house, Quarters A, also survived.

But the Navy Yard was never quite the same after that war. For one thing, its location was no longer seen as desirable as it was before.

"We are up here on the Potomac River, and if you're trying to have an ocean-going navy, this is not an ideal spot," Krepp explains. "You have to sail many days to get to the ocean. This is not a good spot, this is too far, the river is silting up."

So the Navy Yard's function changed from shipyard to ordnance facility.

"We do a lot of early development of weapons here," Krepp says. "A lot of innovative things with cannons, industrial processes. Robert Fulton of steamboat fame tested out torpedoes here. It becomes the Silicon Valley of the naval part of our development. And that continues up through the Civil War."

As we moved into the 1900s, the industrial side of the Navy Yard continued to grow, and it became the pre-eminent gun foundry in the U.S. Navy.

"If anyone's seen old pictures of WWII battleships, their weapons were forged here," Krepp says. "Gears for the locks at the Panama Canal were built here. [It was a] major employer for D.C., and that continued through World War Two."

The Navy Yard also remained the naval component of D.C., and became the ceremonial port of entry for a number of things, from Charles Lindbergh's return from his trans-Atlantic flight to the arrival of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In 1961, all building operations stopped, and the Navy Yard became more of an administrative center. Forty-some years later, NAVSEA - Naval Systems Command - moved in and became a major employer.

But all those years of building at the Navy Yard eventually took their toll. In the late 90s, the Navy Yard was designated a Superfund site due to environmental contamination.

"We dumped all kinds of things into the river and ground," Krepp says. "Heavy metals, PCBs, nasty things that we don't want in our drinking water.

"The Navy's done quite a bit to try to remediate that, but one of the best things they've done is building a riverfront walk," Krepp says. "It would've been easy to say no, this is a secure facility, we're not going to let you in."

And this access is something Tim Krepp hopes doesn't change after Monday's tragedy.

"A military facility needs to be protected," he says. "But I've gone to children's birthday parties at the National Museum of the US Navy; the museum is an incredible resource. So I hope that doesn't get walled off with the aftermath of this."

[Music: "In the Waiting Line (Diaspora Mix Instrumental)" by Zero 7 from in the Waiting Line]

Photos: Navy Yard History


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