The Washington Navy Yard is not what it seems. Arguably it is not a navy yard at all. Back in 1800, when the base opened, navy yards constructed, equipped and repaired naval vessels. Today’s Yard builds and maintains no ships, casts no anchors or cannons and functions mainly as a command and ceremonial center. The Yard has a public face, like the majestic Latrobe Gate on Eighth and M streets SE, or the impressive naval museum and historical center, or the gun park sprinkled with cannons and other trophies. But it has also had a less visible and even secret side, with labs that helped perfect naval communications and radar and factories that built giant guns and manufactured munitions.
Several years before Washington became operational as the nation’s capital, the US government decided to place a naval yard on the Anacostia River, a stream located far from the ocean but with good depth of water and access to the timber needed to build ships. The Yard completed its first warship, the sloop Wasp, in 1806, and more would follow during the next five decades, like the 74-gun ship of the line Columbus in 1819.
Military bases attract people, not only soldiers or sailors and civilian employees but those who provide essential services like groceries, liquor and entertainment. The Navy Yard, as Washington’s largest industrial establishment, had an especially large draw. The scale of operations varied. Originally the workers numbered in the hundreds, but in its fat-cat days, through World War II, the Yard employed thousands of women and men – some 26,000 at its peak in the mid-1940s.
The paychecks of these workers fed the surrounding neighborhoods on both sides of the Anacostia River. During the 1850s, real estate developers created Uniontown, on the south side of the river, to provide housing for city workers, who could walk to work on a crossing at 11th Street SE known as the Navy Yard Bridge. Uniontown prospered and became a core of what is now known as the community of Anacostia.
On the north shore of the Anacostia River, a settlement called Navy Yard Hill had its own public market, village green and churches. The neighborhood was largely working class and racially mixed, in keeping with the profile of the Yard’s employees. The Navy hired workers wherever it could find them, including Irish and German immigrants and other whites, but also free blacks and even slaves. Black workers and slaves usually got the worst jobs and lowest pay.
The complicated and sometimes tense relations among these workers are mentioned in the diary of Michael Shiner, who worked at the Yard from 1813 to 1865, first as a slave and then, after 1836, as a freedman. For about a decade, Shiner was owned by the Yard’s clerk, Thomas Howard, who kept a portion of Shiner’s pay. In line with the relaxed slavery that prevailed in the District, Shiner seems to have had quite of bit of latitude in moving about town, as he did to attend services at the local Ebenezer Methodist church or to take meals and drinks at the Capitol Hill restaurant run by a former slave, George Lee. Shiner witnessed many notable events, such as the city’s burning by British troops in 1814 and its first race riot, in 1835, begun by white workers at the Navy Yard.
Not all local residents benefited from the Yard’s money machine. Just east of the Yard was Pipetown, a mixed-race neighborhood of shacks and taverns that was one of the poorest and most lawless parts of the city. In January 1884, a police lieutenant named Greer, of the Eighth Precinct, speaking to a newspaper reporter after having visited Pipetown, declared, “I would almost rather be led out and shot than to be compelled to witness so much human misery and woe again.” Pipetown gained a degree of immortality in Pipetown Sandy, a novel by John Philip Sousa, the March King, who grew up on G Street SE nearby.
Immediately north of the Navy Yard, other poor neighborhoods extended from M Street up to Virginia Avenue. During the Depression years, when federal funds became available, the District began constructing subsidized housing, including two projects near the Navy Yard, the Ellen Wilson Dwellings and the Carrollsburg Dwellings, completed in 1941. The Wilson homes were for whites, the Carrollsburg homes for blacks.
The city’s original housing agency, the Alley Dwelling Authority, built approximately one unit of whites-only housing for every two units of black-only, to account for the greater poverty level among the city’s African Americans. The authority’s successor, the National Capital Housing Authority, abandoned the segregationist racial policy in 1952, declaring that its new projects would not discriminate in accepting tenants. When the Carrollsburg Dwellings complex was extended north from M Street in the late 1950s, the 612 new units got their own name, Arthur Capper Dwellings, to honor a US senator from Kansas who had championed affordable housing. The Capper homes were integrated, at least on paper, but the reality was different. White flight to the suburbs and an influx of African Americans was growing the proportion of low-income black residents while reducing that of whites.
The Yard itself was also changing, in both function and size. Its ability to manufacture anchors, chains, steam engines and other heavy gear essential for the whole Navy made it ideal for the development of heavy ordnance. In 1845 the Yard established a facility for the design and production of fuses, rockets and mines (often called torpedoes back then).
Under the direction of a naval officer, John A. Dahlgren, the yard became the Navy’s gun capital. Dahlgren designed the Navy’s biggest weapons, some capable of throwing projectiles weighing hundreds of pounds. To test his designs, Dahlgren constructed an “experimental battery” in the Yard, a one-story building for firing new guns into the Anacostia River. Fortunately, the guns of the day had a limited range, and the massive shells would have fallen harmlessly into the water, but it must have been a heart-stopping experience for a riverman to hear a ka-boom! and the roar of a projectile overhead, followed by a huge water splash.
For the next century, the Navy Yard designed and often constructed the guns that adorned US warships like the Arizona and the Missouri. But as military art and technology developed new capabilities, so did the Yard. When wireless communication, aka the radio, appeared ca. 1900, the Yard began a school to train naval radio operators. As medical practice improved, the Navy formalized its nursing service and gave it a headquarters at the Navy Yard. Thomas Edison suggested that the Navy might profit from having its own high-tech lab, and the Navy agreed. In 1923 it created the Naval Research Laboratory, now housed a little ways down the Potomac in a collection of buildings topped with white domes that look like oversize ping-pong balls.
A Changing Tide
New capabilities needed new spaces. The Yard’s original site was relatively small, stretching from M Street to the water and from Ninth to Fifth streets SE. It expanded with the world wars, especially during World War II, when it grew to cover 127 acres with acquisition of a large tail of land on its western side. But after the war, the scale of operations fell so much that in 1963 the Navy declared the western 63-acre parcel as surplus and gave it to the GSA – the federal government’s property-management arm. Shops and foundries that once produced weapons of war stood empty, the economic flow into local neighborhoods slowed, M Street became a mean street that cab drivers drove with unease.
Finally, starting in the 1990s, the GSA was able to find non-military tenants, who began turning the land and the buildings to new uses. Swords were beaten into – beer mugs, pizza trays and woks, while cabin cruisers replaced battlecruisers. Patrons at trendy eateries and groggeries in the Yards, the residential complex and pleasure resort constructed on the Navy Yard’s old tail, now work knives and forks instead of lathes and drill presses.
Southwest resident William Zeisel is a partner in QED Associates LLC, a consulting firm that has conducted extensive research on the history of the DC area. He is co-author of the official history of the University of the District of Columbia.