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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.