Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, New Hampshire

In a strange quirk, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, located in Kittery, ME, is often confused with the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, which is located in Portsmouth, VA. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is the oldest continuously operating naval shipyard in the United States, and actually predates the existence of the United States Navy by over a century.

In 1690, the British warship was built on the site for the Royal Navy. Other ships followed, including the British HMS America in 1749. During the American Revolution, John Paul Jones’ Ranger was produced on the site, and Jones himself resided briefly in Portsmouth while supervising the construction of one of the Continental Navy’s ships of the line, also named America. That ship, when completed, was given to France as partial payment for the services of the nation during the revolution.

The current Naval Yard was established in 1799 and began operation in 1800. The War of 1812 significantly slowed production at the yard, although the site itself was spared from British attack due to its strong harbor defenses. After that war, the yard continued to build wooden warships for the US Navy and built the largest shiphouse constructed to that time.

During the Spanish-American War, in 1898, the yard housed prisoner of war facilities. In 1905 the prison grounds were expanded and the Portsmouth Naval Prison was established and built. The prison was used to house Navy and Marine Corps personnel convicted of crimes until its closure in 1974.

When President Theodore Roosevelt arranged a peace conference between the belligerents of the Russo-Japanese War, Portsmouth was chosen as the site. The Treaty Building, originally a storage warehouse, remains in use as the Administration Building.

From the onset of World War I until the late 1960s, Portsmouth concentrated on the building and maintenance of submarines. Submarines built in the yard contributed significantly to the success of the American submarine campaign against the Japanese during the Second World War. Archerfish, built at the yard, sank the Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano, the largest ship ever sunk by a submarine. Seawolf, another product of the yard, sank 18 Japanese ships during its war career. In all, over 70 submarines were built at the yard which saw service during the war.

After the war, the yard continued building, overhauling and maintaining submarines, constructing its first nuclear submarine, Swordfish, in 1958. U.S.S. Thresher, the first nuclear submarine to be lost at sea, was built at Portsmouth. In 1963 Thresher, departing from Portsmouth for sea trials following overhaul, sank with all hands, including some embarked shipyard personnel, during diving trials. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was instrumental in developing and implementing SUBSAFE procedures which resulted from the lessons learned as a result of that tragic accident.

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard built delivered the last submarine constructed there in 1969. Since that time the yard has been instrumental in maintaining, converting and modifying submarines for the US Navy.

Asbestos Exposure at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

Like all shipyards, from the late 1930’s to the late 1970s, asbestos was present not only in the building of ships, but in the construction of many of the buildings and facilities comprising the yard itself. Warehouses stocked asbestos materials in the form of cloth, gasket material, powders, muds, sheets for cutting into panels, brake linings, clutch materials, and fireproofing. Cements and solvents contained asbestos.

Asbestos was a favored material in the construction of buildings at the same time, used in roofing materials, flooring, insulation for heating and ventilation, electrical wiring and other uses. Although inert when untouched, asbestos becomes friable when it is cut, broken or otherwise manipulated, releasing a micro-sized powder into the air which, when inhaled, remains lodged in the lungs.

Although the greatest exposure would be to individuals actually working with the material, the dust suspended in the air would have been hazardous to anyone in the area. As the use of asbestos was extensive and prevalent throughout the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, anyone present prior to the late 1970s, and in some cases beyond, would have been exposed to this potential hazard.

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