This history of the Philadelphia Navy Yard is inextricably tied with both US history in general and US Naval history in particular. The Philadelphia Navy Yard became the first shipyard in the country in 1776, during the same year and in the same city as the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Workers on the wooden ships of the era built and repaired vessels on the Front Street docks, a short distance from Independence Hall. The Front Street location served as one of the main shipyards for the young nation from 1801 to 1861, when the facilities were moved to South Broad Street during the US Civil War.
When the “ironclad” ships began to replace wooden ships after the Civil War, new shipbuilding and repair shops were constructed on League Island near the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. In the early years of the twentieth century, with the growth in the importance of naval air power, the Navy authorized the construction of the Naval Aircraft Factory to supplement their forces. After World War I, the Philadelphia Navy Yard received the largest construction crane in the history of the service, a machine weighing well over three hundred and fifty tons.
The yard reached its peak during World War II. Over forty thousand workers pitched in for the war effort, constructing fifty-three new ships and repairing more than five hundred more during the conflict in the Atlantic. New Jersey and Wisconsin, two massive battleships, were built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
During the late 1940′s, the demand for new Navy ships declined, as did the number of jobs available at the yard. In the early years of the Vietnam conflict, the US Navy started to use private firms for its shipbuilding needs. The command ship Blue Ridge was completed in 1971; it would be the last ship ever built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990′s, the Philadelphia Navy Yard began to fall victim to defense budget cuts. A congressional committee recommended that the base be closed in 1991. Despite the efforts of local political leaders, including powerful US Senator Arlen Specter, the yard ceased operations in 1995.
Besides being the first naval shipyard in US history, the Philadelphia Navy Yard also had seen some other significant events during its service. The shipyard site still houses the Four Chaplains memorial. Four chaplains of four different faiths served on the troop transport Dorchester during World War II. When a German submarine torpedoes and sank Dorchester, the chaplains helped save several men, aided in evacuating the vessel, and gave their life jackets to their fellow sailors. Each chaplain received a posthumous Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross in recognition of their selfless sacrifice.
Another incident at the yard involved an incident that came to be known as “the Philadelphia Experiment”. The story involves the World War II destroyer escort Eldridge and an alleged experiment with massive electrical fields that made the entire ship disappear from view. Most reputable sources, both naval and scientific, have written off the story as a hoax.