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Brooklyn Navy Yard Rooted in History Long Before Clinton-Sanders Debate

By Alexandra Leon | April 13, 2016 8:48am | Updated on April 13, 2016 11:40am
 A plan of the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1894.
A plan of the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 1894.
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Courtesy New York Public Library

BROOKLYN NAVY YARD — The Brooklyn Navy Yard — where Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will debate Thursday — is located on Brooklyn’s waterfront and houses a host of cutting-edge artists, manufacturers, innovators and green businesses.

The site also has roots deep in American history and has reinvented itself many times over the centuries since its opening in 1801 as one of the country’s first naval shipyards.

During its 165 years of operation, the Navy Yard — and its on-site hospital — produced several advancements in the fields of technology, medicine and manufacturing.

Workers there made one of the ships that laid the first undersea telegraph cable, which allowed international communication via Morse code, perfected the medical use of anesthesia and even sent the first wireless radio broadcast, among other historic moves.

Even after the Navy Yard was decommissioned by the Navy in 1966, the site continued to thrive as an industrial hub — with more than $700 million in development currently happening at the site and an estimated 16,000 workers projected by 2020.

Here’s a timeline of significant events in the Navy Yard’s history, according to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation:

1776 - 1783

Long before the Navy Yard was built, the site was home to British prison ships moored off Wallabout Bay during the American Revolution, where as many as 11,500 people jailed for defying British rule died on board. The most notable of those ship was the Jersey, where American soldiers, merchants and traders were imprisoned for disobeying the British embargo.


The Brooklyn Navy Yard, one of the first five naval shipyards to be established during John Adams’ presidency, was built. Adams, of New England, favored a strong central government, and wanted to ensure that America would have a navy capable of protecting commerce and defending the young nation. 


The USS Ohio, the first ship built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was launched as part of an effort by U.S. Navy squadrons to suppress trade off the east coast of Africa between 1820 and 1861. Other ships built at the Navy Yard that played key military roles in this time period included the USS Savannah, Peacock, Dolphin, Vincennes, Fulton II, Decatur, San Jacinto and Niagra.boot tray

Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened the Naval Lyceum, a precursor to the US Naval Academy, in 1833. Courtesy the New York Public Library.


Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened the Naval Lyceum, a precursor to the U.S. Naval Academy, to "promote the diffusion of useful knowledge, foster a spirit of harmony and unity of interests in the service, cement the links which unite us as professional brethren." 


The first professional naval publication, the Naval Magazine, was published at the Naval Lyceum. Frequent contributors included Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.


The nine-gun side-wheel steamer, the USS Fulton II, was launched as the first U.S. steam warship assigned to sea duty.

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Dry Dock 1, the oldest in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was completed in 1851. Credit: John Bartelstone via the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

1841 - 1851

The government built its third granite dry dock, using a steam-powered pile driver in the U.S. for the first time.


Naval surgeon E.R. Squibb perfected the manufacture of anesthetic ether at the Yard’s Naval Hospital. 


The Yard-built USS Niagara and the British HMS Agamemnon met mid-ocean to lay the first undersea telegraph cable. On Aug. 5, Queen Victoria transmitted the first Morse code message to the United States.


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The USS Maine. Courtesy the New York Public Library.


The launch of the USS Maine marked the beginning of the “battleship era” for the United States. Its sinking nine years later in the Havana Harbor sparked the Spanish-American War with the rallying cry, “Remember the Maine!”

1907 - 1909

The Yard-built USS Connecticut was named the flagship of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, 26 ships to sail the globe on a two-year tour that marked the inauguration of the United States as a global power.


Opera singer Eugenia Farrar sang the first song ever broadcast over wireless radio from a boat docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Farrar's “I Love You Truly” was broadcast to test Dr. Lee DeForest’s arc radiotelephones on the USS Dolphin.


The USS Arizona, the largest ship in the Navy, launched during World War I, even though it didn’t play a role in the war. The ship sank Dec. 7, 1941 in under 10 minutes during the attack on Pearl Harbor. 


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Between 1939 and 1945, the Navy Yard hired women for the first time to work as mechanics and technicians. Credit: Brooklyn Historical Society via the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

1939 - 1945

The Yard hired women for the first time to work as mechanics and technicians, and the workforce grew to 70,000 employees.


World War II ended on Sept. 2, 1945 when Japan signed an unconditional surrender on the Yard-built USS Missouri, known as “Mighty Mo.”


A fire during the construction of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation killed 50 and injured 323, tarnishing the Yard’s reputation. 


Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed the Yard, along with more than 90 other military bases and installations. At the time, the Yard employed more than 9,000 workers and was the oldest continually active industrial plant in the state.

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An aerial view of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2015. Courtesy the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

1969 - 1981

New York City reopened the Navy Yard as an industrial park managed by nonprofit organization Commerce Labor and Industry in the County of Kings (CLICK). The largest tenant, Seatrain Shipbuilding, closed in 1979 and Mayor Ed Koch replaced CLICK with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation in 1981, leading to the diversification of the Yard’s tenant base and expansion.


Business at the Navy Yard started to boom with more than 200 small to mid-sized businesses employing 3,000 people.


Steiner Studios, the largest and most sophisticated studio complex outside of Hollywood, opened in 2004.


The Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation financed the nation's first multi-story green industrial building and installs the first wind/solar street lamps in the country.

2010 - 2016

More than 2 million square feet of space is slated for development, including the Yard's BLDG 77, which  includes a museum and plans for a public food hall anchored by famed appetizing shop Russ & Daughters.


The Navy Yard is set to play host to Thursday's televised debate between Democratic Candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at 9 p.m. at the Duggal Greenhouse.

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