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Naval History and Heritage Command

National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Pre-World War I

Following establishment in October 1799, Joshua Humpreys constructed the first wharf for ship building and the fitting-out of ships.    One of the first vessels constructed at the yard in 1803 was Gunboat No.1, designed by Captain John Rodgers, and began President Thomas Jefferson’s gunboat Navy.   Four years later, inventor Robert Fulton tested torpedoes.  In 1806, the sloop of war, Wasp, was the first ship built in the Washington Navy Yard.    During the War of 1812, the yard refitted most active ships in the Navy for war as the Washington Navy Yard was the only yard in operational status.   Following the war, the first 74 gun ship of the line, Columbus was constructed at the yard and launched on March 1, 1819.   During this time, the manufacture of standard anchors, blocks and chains for the Navy was centralized at the Yard.   In 1820, the first ordnance laboratory was established, the beginning of the Navy Gun Factory.     Steam engines for the first iron-hulled warship, Michigan, was built at the Yard in 1842.   Improvements in ordnance were progressing as Samuel Colt continued Fulton’s experiments and a new ordnance laboratory was built to manufacture special fuzes and rockets. 

With the arrival of John Dahlgren, he constructed a test battery on the river and was appointed the Head of the Ordnance Department, later becoming Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance.  His innovation and testing of howitzers and Dahlgren guns would prove successful during the Civil War.  Following the war, production of ordnance decreased but work continued in ship construction, propulsion, and armament.  In 1886, all naval ordnance was to be manufactured at the Yard, but due to the success of the Spanish-American War, production increased so much the Navy was forced to begin private contracts for ordnance.   Experimental design and testing was performed to improve fire control and systems for long range battle practice.   As technology progressed with aviation, the Yard designed and built the first shipboard catapult for launching aircraft.    In 1912-13, the Yard manufactured giant gears for Panama Canal locks.  

Image:  NH 57938:   Ordnance Storage Yard, Washington Navy Yard, June 1866.   Note, the types of guns present, mortars, rifled guns, and large Dahlgren type smoothbores.   Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.