Shaping Up And Shipping Out At Philadelphia’s First Navy Yard

July 18, 2017 | by Harry Kyriakodis


Print maker William Birch captured the construction of Frigate Philadelphia at the shipyard of Joshua Humphreys and John Wharton in November 1798. The Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church can be seen in the background. The site, roughly between the end of what is now Washington Avenue and Federal Street, would become the original location of the Philadelphia Navy Yard. | Image: Library of Congress

The first fortification on the Delaware River built to defend Philadelphia was the Association Battery, located at the foot of what is now Washington Avenue. It would later become site of the first Philadelphia Navy Yard. When the USS Pennsylvania was launched there 180 years ago today, it was the scene of one of the most rousing public events in the city’s history.

Defend the Quaker City

In the 1740s, during the War of the Austrian Succession, hostilities arose between France, Great Britain, and other European powers. Philadelphia and its merchant fleet were under threat of attack by French and Spanish privateers sailing up the Delaware River, yet the Quaker-led Common Council of Philadelphia refused to take steps to defend the city. Benjamin Franklin, who argued for the armed defense of Philadelphia in his political pamphlet, Plain Truth (1747), spurred the public into action.

Franklin and his colleagues formed a military “association”—the Association for General Defense—on December 7, 1747. This was Pennsylvania’s first citizen militia and predecessor of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Hundreds of men volunteered to become “associators.” Franklin was in command of this corps, despite having declined a commission.

The Common Council petitioned the Pennsylvania Propriety to supply arms and ammunition, which the colonial government promised if Philadelphians raised the money to build the fort. Without delay, Franklin and his junto cohorts organized a lottery. The Association Battery (AKA the Grand Battery) was built in 1748 on a hill near Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church. The battery was first mounted with 27 cannons. Rudimentary drawings of the fort show three buildings enclosed by a crenellated stone wall rising about 15 feet.

The Association Battery (a.k.a. the Grand Battery), erected in 1748 on a hill near Gloria Dei Church. From www.preserveoldswedes.org

The Association Battery (a.k.a. the Grand Battery), erected in 1748 on a hill near Gloria Dei Church on the corner of what is now Christian Street and Delaware Avenue. | Image: Historic Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Preservation Corporation

The Association Battery was Pennsylvania’s largest early fortification, but was never used to defend Philadelphia. During the Revolutionary War, the British mounted guns there and built another battery and a redoubt nearby, all of which were used against American ships sailing on the Delaware River.

Hell on the High Seas

The battery fell into decay after the war, and the 11-acre site was eventually repurposed for the shipyard of master shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys in 1794. Apprenticed to a Philadelphia shipbuilder in his youth, Humphreys was a ship designer during the Revolutionary War and helped draw up plans for the Continental Navy frigate Randolph. The vessel, launched in Philadelphia on July 10, 1776, is regarded as the first true warship of the United States.

Humphreys was appointed as the first Chief Naval Constructor of the United States in 1794, when Congress passed an act providing for the production of six frigates. Larger and faster than other warships of their class, they were the inception of the U.S. Navy and formed the core of U.S. Navy forces during the War of 1812. Each of these brilliantly designed sailing ships were made at a different port in the new nation. Philadelphia sculptor William Rush carved figureheads for four of them at his workshop on the west side of Front Street between Vine and Race Streets.

The USS United States (1797), built at Joshua Humphreys' Southwark yard, was the first American warship launched under the U.S. Constitution, as well as the first American frigate and the first naval vessel christened "United States." From http://wikivisually.com.

The USS United States (1797), built at Joshua Humphreys’ Southwark yard, was the first American warship launched under the U.S. Constitution, as well as the first American frigate and the first naval vessel christened “United States.” | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Humphreys’ first vessel was the USS United States, built at his Southwark yard. Excited visitors flocked to the shipyard to get a glimpse of the three-masted ship’s construction. Humphreys personally led President George Washington and First Lady Martha Washington on a tour of its construction. The USS United States was the first American warship launched under the U.S. Constitution, as well as the first American frigate and the first U.S. Navy vessel christened “United States.” Authorized by President Washington as Commission No. 1, it was launched on May 10, 1797, tour of its construction, and began a splendid career under Commodore John Barry’s command. The highlight of its service was the capture of the British frigate Macedonian on October 25, 1812. Decommissioned in 1849 and placed in reserve at Norfolk, Virginia, the USS United States was seized in 1861 and commissioned into the Confederate Navy as the CSS United States. The ship was scuttled in the Elizabeth River to form an obstruction to Union vessels, but Northern forces raised it. The gallant old frigate was broken up for scrap wood in 1865.

A Navy Yard is Born

In 1800, the federal government commissioned Humphreys to purchase a site along the Delaware River to be used as a building yard and dock for the U.S. Navy. Purchased by the government for $37,000, the site that Humphreys chose included his old shipyard. The tract at the foot of Federal Street, just south of Prime Street (Washington Avenue), was the first location of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the first naval shipyard of the United States, and the foremost building and outfitting plant of the U.S. Navy Department for 75 years. An irregular rectangle in shape, it was enclosed by a high brick wall. Major buildings included barracks, a mould loft, machine shops, and two, towering, gable-roofed ship houses that were the most eye-catching structures on Philadelphia’s riverfront for decades.

A new ship is customarily christened before being put into the water, a ceremony that involves giving it a name and breaking a bottle of wine on it. Until October 22, 1846, only men had christened American naval vessels. On that date at the Philadelphia yard, a “Miss Watson of Philadelphia” became the first woman to christen a warship, the USS Germantown.

The original Philadelphia Navy Yard as it appears on Samuel Smedley’s 1862 Philadelphia Atlas. Today, Columbus Boulevard passes north-south (up-down) through the center of the former yard. | Map: Greater Philadelphia Geo History Network

The shipyard at Federal Street had the world’s first floating sectional dry dock, constructed in 1851 at a cost of $830,000. The structure had nine wooden pieces, each one 32 feet wide, 105 feet long, and drawing 10 feet of water. When used together, they had a displacement lift of 5,800 tons and could accommodate vessels 1,000 feet long. Ships requiring repair would be rested on the dry dock’s floor when it was filled with water. A sliding cradle was positioned under the keel, and a hydraulic cylinder would slide it and the vessel onto slipways.

When U.S. Navy ports in the South fell to Confederate forces during the Civil War, the Philadelphia Navy Yard stood as the Union’s first line of naval defense. It was the main supply and repair yard for the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, responsible for creating a barrier of defense on the Confederacy’s coastline. Moreover, the yard converted and outfitted more than 100 warships during the war, including a number of ironclads. The yard was also the focal point of the application of screw propeller technology to steam-powered engines on warships.

Important fighting ships took to the water at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, all destined to play a part in the nation’s naval history. America’s first battleship, the USS North Carolina, was launched there in 1820. This three-masted square-rigger, with 74-guns, was the most powerful vessel afloat in when commissioned in June 1824. The ship’s powerful presence enhanced the prestige of the United States and displayed its nascent military might. Indeed, she was considered the terror of the seas and served until 1836. The USS North Carolina was then made into a receiving ship for new sailors at the New York Navy Yard.

A lithograph of the USS Princeton in 1844 by Nathaniel Currier. | Image: Wikimedia Commons

The USS Mississippi, launched in 1841, was America’s first sea steamer, the longest ship then in the U.S. Navy, and the first steam-powered vessel in military to reach the Far East. The ship accomplished this feat when it served as Commodore Matthew Perry’s flagship on his historic 1852 expedition to Japan. The paddle-wheeled USS Mississippi went under at Port Hudson, Louisiana, on March 14, 1863, when her magazines exploded after she was set on fire to prevent capture by Confederates.

On September 7, 1843, the USS Princeton was launched at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It was the first screw propeller ship constructed in the United States and the first screw steam warship ever built. The USS Princeton was the first combat ship fitted with a telescopic funnel (retracted when under sail) and was the first warship to have all her machinery below the waterline. Designed and constructed by Swedish naval engineer John Ericsson, the vessel carried 31 guns and was propelled by a novel 11,900-pound ”helicoidal six-armed propeller” invented by Ericsson, making the USS Princeton was fastest ship of her time. On February 28, 1844, while demonstrating a new type of naval cannon to numerous dignitaries, including President Tyler, 10 people were killed when the cannon burst. Among the casualties were the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy, and two U.S. Senators. The ship was decommissioned and broken up in 1849.

A Shipload of Pennsylvania Power

The most famous ship of the first Philadelphia Navy Yard was the USS Pennsylvania. One of nine ships authorized by Congress in 1816, it was designed by Joshua Humphreys’ son Samuel. The USS Pennsylvania was the biggest and most heavily armed man-of-war in the world when launched, on par with the large “ship-of-the-line” warships built in Europe. The USS Pennsylvania was the largest sailing warship ever built for the United States It had three complete gun decks and a flush spar-deck. The ship’s hull was pierced for 136 guns. Her keel was laid in 1821, but tight budgets slowed her construction, delaying her launch for many years, during which time she was a fixture on the Philadelphia waterfront. The vessel’s total cost was roughly $687,000.

An 1846 Currier-Ives print of the ship-of-the-line USS Pennsylvania, completed in 1837 at the first Philadelphia Navy Yard. Library of Congress.

A 1846 Currier-Ives print of the USS Pennsylvania, completed in 1837 at the first Philadelphia Navy Yard. | Image: Library of Congress

Over 100,000 spectators gathered to watch the USS Pennsylvania’s long-awaited launching on July 18, 1837. It was the largest public gathering the city has ever seen. Some accounts record a crowd of over 200,000 people. Visitors came from all across the country to witness the momentous occasion. 1,000 New Yorkers arrived on a steamboat that landed at the Chestnut Street Wharf. Trains from New York City and other cities were specially chartered to deliver people to Philadelphia for the event.

A steady stream of revelers made their way through the city to the waterfront the day of the launch, which had been declared a holiday in Philadelphia. Many climbed on top of the roofs of houses along the Delaware waterfront to get a good view. Up and down the river staging areas with seats had been prepared in advance in anticipation of the crowds. The seats were filled with onlookers at $1 a seat. The shoreline of Camden, New Jersey, was thronged with people as well.

Some spectators were on boats on the Delaware River, arranged in a semicircle in front of the Navy Yard, as per the request of authorities. The orbit of boats, over 200 in all, doubled and then tripled before the launch of the USS Pennsylvania. A cannon was shot to give the boats notice that the launch would be imminent, so they could make way for the warship as it slid down the shipways. The launching of the USS Pennsylvania went off without a hitch at about 2:10 pm when the tide was at its highest. Samuel Humphreys looked on from a wharf a few feet from the ship as it slid into the Delaware River.

Pier 53, Philadelphia’s Ellis Island, in December 1929. The immigrant station was build within the former site of the first Philadelphia Navy Yard. Long reclaimed by nature, the old pier was reactivated by the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation in 2014 as a public park, Washington Avenue Pier. | Image courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

Despite the grand inauguration, the USS Pennsylvania’s only cruise was a single trip from Delaware Bay through Chesapeake Bay to the Norfolk Navy Yard. There, she spent her career after 1842 as a receiving ship, after it was determined that the ship was too expensive to operate. The USS Pennsylvania was burned on April 20, 1861 to prevent her from falling into Confederate hands during the Civil War.

By the 1850s, the Philadelphia Navy Yard had grown to 18 acres, yet it was still cramped. The yard became even more packed with the special fabrication shops and equipment needed to put together vessels made of iron. The yard needed to expand, but surrounding development in Southwark precluded this. Even more damning was the fact that the success of ironclad warships rendered wooden warships—the yard’s specialty—instantly obsolete.

In 1876, the U.S. Navy moved their yard to open space at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers in South Philadelphia. The Navy’s former shipbuilding facility became a freight station complex for the Pennsylvania Railroad, complete with an immigration station at Pier 53 (now Washington Avenue Pier). At League Island, a sprawling new shipyard was laid out, and the Philadelphia Navy Yard entered its second glorious phase of American history.


About the Author

Harry Kyriakodis Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012) and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.


  1. Jim Clark says:

    Good article, as always, thank you Harry. I remember going to the Navy Yard once with my brother and friend on a Veterans Day. Remember the ship we saw too, the USS Douglas H. Fox. It was a Destroyer Leader WW2 vintage. We even got a look into one of the five inch gun turrets. A few years later and I was manning one of them on a Coast Guard cutter!

    1. Jim Clark says:

      Correction: It was on Armed Forces Day 1955

    2. Dear Jim,
      I am researching the 1820 ships the Nautilus, the Ocean, the Chapman, the Brilliant and many more. Did these ships have a toilet/s or was it a bucket system.

      I will appreciate information with Thanks

  2. Murray R Miller says:

    This is my remembrance of a visit to the Navy Yard on an Armed Forces day in 1960 or 1961.. The USS Kitty Hawk was on display. We climbed stairs to a lowered elevator at the hanger deck level. Then we crossed the hanger deck to another elevator which took us up to the flight deck.
    I also remember going on a submarine. I believe it was the Becuna being used as a training sub for the Naval Reserve at the time.
    The propeller shop was also open and you could see the machining of a huge propeller.

  3. Robert Bastian says:

    The training submarine at the Philadelphia Navy yard at that time was the U.S.S Hake, SS-256. She was a Gato class sub that was built in 1942 and had a long successful combat record in WWII. She was taken out of reserve in New London Conn in 1956 and moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard as a training sub. She remained there until 1967 when she was sold for scrap.

  4. Kerry O'Malley says:

    The USS Franklin was the first vessel to be laid down at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

    The USS Franklin was a 74-gun ship of the line built in 1815 under the supervision of Samuel Humphreys and Charles Penrose. Possibly, she was the most successful of the problematic first generation of US ships of the line.

    “Franklin sailed on her first cruise on 14 October 1817, when under the command of Master Commandant H. E. Ballard she proceeded from Philadelphia to the Mediterranean. She carried the Hon. Richard Rush, U.S. Minister to England, to his post. Subsequently she was designated flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, cruising on that station until March 1820. She returned to New York City on 24 April 1820.

    From 11 October 1821 until 29 August 1824 she served as flagship on the Pacific Squadron. Franklin was laid up in ordinary until the summer of 1843 when she was ordered to Boston as a receiving ship. She continued in this capacity until 1852 at which time she was taken to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, razed and broken up.”

    General characteristics
    Type: Ship of the line

    Displacement: 2,243 long tons (2,279 t)

    Length: 190 ft 9 in (58.14 m)
    Beam: 54 ft 7 in (16.64 m)
    Draft: 24 ft 3 in (7.39 m)
    Armament: • 30 × long 32-pounder guns
    • 32 × medium 32-pounder guns
    • 2 × 32-pounder carronades

  5. Rob says:

    Fantastic details. Thank you!

  6. served in uss randolph cvs-15 63-66. had the pleasure of attendingcommissioning of uss biddle ddg-5 name later changed to claud v. ricketts’ small world original randolph built in phila. capt biddle from phila area. years latecvs-randolph passed not far from ship sunk in battle with h.m.s. yarmoth. as a contractor did work at the biddle mansion and was shown artifacts from the period.

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