Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia


Philadelphia Naval Ship Yard
, c. 1860
League Island, Philadelphia PA 19112

John Mayer, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

 In 1801 the U.S. Navy purchased Joshua Humphrey's shipyard, located near the foot of Washington Avenue on the Delaware River. 1 Initially, the Navy Yard only repaired vessels, but during the War of 1812 it began building ships. The first ship at the yard was the USS Franklin, a 2,257 ton, 74 gun ship-of-the-line, launched in 1815. Operations at this original site greatly expanded during the Civil War, and by war's end, the navy was eager to relocate to a new, more commodious site.
The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on League Island was established in 1871 on land purchased from the city government. Since that time the, it has been an important site for the repair and fabrication of naval vessels. 2
The yard has five drydocks for ship repair. Drydock No 1. was built in 1891. The Spanish-American War created a need for an additional drydock as well as new shop buildings. During World War I, a third drydock, new ship ways and the 350 ton, hammerhead crane were added to the site. By April 1919, the yard employed 12,000 workers.
Typically, activities at the yard have increased in response to wartime efforts. During World War II, nearly 47,000 people worked at the yard constructing various types of ships, including the battleship Washington, the aircraft carrier Antietam, destroyer escorts, and landing ships.
The yard covers 793 acres. At the west end of the yard are the remnants of a seaplane factory and hangars dating from World War I. 4 Today, the yard manages a mothball fleet and is used for the refurbishing of naval vessels, including aircraft carriers. It is the only yard on the East Coast capable of manufacturing propellers. More than 9,000 civilian workers are presently employed at the yard.

1  See Teitelman, Plate 29 for c. 1800 view of Humphrey's shipbuilding yard.
2  Hugh Scott, "Our Navy Yard," The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, (November 29, 1964), pp. 8-14. See also Federal Writers Project, Philadelphia, A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace, (Harrisburg, 1937) pp. 447-448.
3  Leslie A. Kniskern, "History of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard," unpublished paper, c. 1950.  From the files of the Philadelphia Naval Ship Yard.
4  Philip Scranton and Walter Licht, Work Sights, Industrial Philadelphia, 1850-1950, (Philadelphia, 1986), p. 230.

Update May 2007 (by Joel Spivak, based on excerpts from 2004 Philadelphia Navy Yard Master Plan, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and the Navy Yard website.)

The last station log for the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was entered on September 27, 1996, ending over 200 years of the U.S. Navy’s operation of a military base in Philadelphia.

Today, under the guidance of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, the Philadelphia Navy Yard is experiencing a renaissance as a master plan for redevelopment by architect Robert A. M. Stern is being carried out. The plan calls for a mixed-use waterfront community that includes everything one would expect from a great city: industrial development, offices, retail, waterfront amenities, research and development, improved mass transit, great public spaces, and the potential for residential development. Indeed, it even includes a private shipbuilding yard, Aker Philadelphia, a reflection of Philadelphia’s role in the world economy in the 21st century. In 2006 Aker delivered one ship and four others were in construction.

Other enterprises at the Naval Yard include Penn State University’s master’s program in Systems Engineering, a data and operations center for the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, and App Tec Laboratory Services, a pharmaceutical lab and manufacturer. Urban Outfitters moved its headquarters from Center City to a former pipe-fitting complex. The company chose an unusual renovation strategy, preserving much of the industrial character and history of its five buildings that together contain 280,000 square feet. Surfaces were cleaned rather than sandblasted, so layers of paint, grease stains and miscellaneous worker's markings are retained. Future plans call for development of a forty-acre industrial park and a 600,000 square foot produce and seafood distribution center. On May 9, 2007 Tasty Baking Co. announced plans to build a 350,000 sq ft highly automated bakery as big as six football fields. The plant, to be completed in 2009, will be located in the area known as Girard Point at the south end of the Navy yard.

The 167-acre historic core of the naval yard is a National Register Historic District with more than 2.5 acres of water front. The core offers opportunities for renovation of existing buildings for commercial use, and for the conversion of older loft space for residential use.

See also:

MS&R Architects preserves the industrial character of five historic industrial buildings at the Navy Yard for Urban Outfitters.
Inga Saffron, "A Stitch in Time," Metropolis Magazine, May 2007.

Historic American Engineering Record - many records, search for "Naval Base Philadelphia"