Washington Navy Yard (Shipyard)
The oldest shore establishment in the United States Navy, and one of the largest suppliers of ships for decades, the Washington Navy Yard was opened in 1799. With the Anacostia River running along the yard’s southern edge and providing access to the Chesapeake Bay and eventually the sea the yard quickly became not only a major supplier of vessels but a key defensive point protecting the nation’s capital.
During the attack on Washington in 1814, American sailors based at the yard, seeing the impossibility of defending the facility against the overwhelming and with escape to the sea blockaded to the south, burned the facilities and ships in the yard. The new frigate Columbia and the brig Argus, both nearly ready for sea, were destroyed to prevent their falling into British hands.
In the years leading up to the Civil War the yard became a major supplier of ordnance and iron and steel components to the fleet. Anchors and anchor chains, as well as naval cannon were manufactured and repaired in the yard’s shops. During the war the Navy’s first ironclad vessel, U.S.S. Monitor, retired to the yard for repairs after its epic battle with the Confederate Ironclad C.S.S. Virginia.
The latter half of the nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth, found the yard’s importance as a shipbuilding and repair center supplanted by its technological abilities. It became the Navy’s primary source for the big guns demanded by the evolution of the battleships. Its forges cast the gears used to operate the lock gates for the Panama Canal. By the beginning of the Second World War it was the largest naval gun factory in the world.
The yard also developed fire control systems for naval ships, was instrumental in the development of the torpedo, led the world in the development of naval guns and explosives, and conducted early research in the potential use of atomic power for submarine propulsion.
The yard also served as a ceremonial entry to the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a frequent visitor to the yard to embark on Navy cruisers for travel overseas. Charles Lindbergh returned to the United States via the yard, as did the bodies of the Unknown Soldier of World War I and John Paul Jones after his exhumation from his original resting place in Paris.
Post World War II the yard declined in importance servicing active naval vessels, in part due to accessibility problems getting larger, deeper draft ships from reaching the site.
The yard remains an active naval facility, including several commands and research offices as well as museums and the destroyer USS Barry, open to visitors. Many of the yards buildings and open areas have been returned to the public for use as offices and recreation areas.
Asbestos Exposure at Washington Navy Yard
Until the late 1970s asbestos was used in the manufacture of over three hundred items intended for the construction of ships. It was also a highly regarded material in the construction of buildings, included in floor coverings, ceiling tiles, and insulation for heating and ventilation systems.
Welders and other workers were frequently issued asbestos aprons, bibs, and gloves. The material was present in blankets used to protect equipment from the sparks caused by welding, cutting and grinding. Asbestos sheets were stacked in locations throughout the yard and its storage facilities.
Asbestos was used in numerous materials during the manufacture and maintenance of the large cannon serviced by the yard.
As of 1999 the removal of hazardous asbestos materials was still underway in portions of the yard and its buildings.