A Brief History of Washington D.C.’s Navy Yard

The Washington D.C. Navy yard is considered the first and, therefore, the oldest land Naval installation in the United States of America. From then to today, it has transitioned many times to become the incredible recreational center and tourist attraction that it is today. Today there are many restaurants, such as a rooftop bar, to experience the history in modern times.


The 22-year-old newly formed American government obtained the first plot of land in 1798. The land was on the banks of what was then called the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River. It is now known as the Anacostia River.

The government officially transferred the site to the Depart of the Navy in October of 1799, and the Navy added additional plots of adjacent land in 1801. Later, landfilling of the river’s wetlands increased the space.

From the first utilization of the land and its subsequent expansion, the premises have served three distinct functions under the Navy’s authority. However, the site’s mission transitioned with changing needs and historical events.

Ship Building

Benjamin Stoddart, the first Secretary of the Navy under President John Adams, initially provided broad supervision over initial site construction. However, the first Commandant of the navy yard, Commander Thomas Tingey, was the direct supervisor. He remained the Commandant for 29 years until his death.

The facility became the country’s largest shipbuilder and ship fitter in the first decade of the Washington Navy yard. From 70 ft (21 m) gunboats to 246 ft (75 m) steam frigates, they built 22 vessels at the navy yard. Unfortunately, the War of 1812 ended that legacy.

War of 1812

The United States of America declared war on England on June 18, 1812, only 36 years after gaining independence from Great Britain. During the war, British forces occupied the capital city of Washington.

It was the only instance of a foreign invasion of the capital in the history of the United States. English troops invaded the capital and burned many significant buildings, including the White House and Senate.

Fire of 1814

The original navy yard did more than build ships; it also served as a point of defense for the capital of Washington.

During the War of 1812, Commandant Tingey held steadfast until he could see the raging fires in the city, and word came that the capital was in chaos.

Commodore Thomas Tingey knew he could not hold the navy yard much longer. English troops were already on the march to overtake his command. So, on August 24, 1814, with the impending loss of Washington and no possible reinforcements, Cmdr Tingey burned down the entire facility and every boat on site. Only Tingey’s quarters and one gatepost remained in the aftermath.

Pre-Civil War Contributions

The official reason for not redeveloping the navy yard as a shipbuilding center was twofold. First, the river’s shallow waters could not accommodate the larger ships required. Secondly, the yard did not have adequate access to the open sea.

The navy yard did have one significant piece of advanced equipment that provided the yard’s second transition. The yard had a steam engine that drove technology for the next 100 years. Initially, the navy yard made engines for warships, massive iron anchors, and industrial chains.

Civil War

At the American Civil War outbreak, Commandant Franklin Buchanan renounced his allegiance to the United States to join the Confederate Navy. As a result of the war, the navy yard again became positioned to protect the capital city. Commander John Dahlgren assumed control and was a personal friend to President Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln frequently visited the navy yard, elevating the facility’s stature.

Of historical note, after the assassination of President Lincoln, officials brought John Wilkes Booth to the navy yard. They held him on the Saugus, a ship moored at the yard.

The navy yard was also where the Monitor, a famous ironclad ship, was repaired after an epic battle with CSS Virginia.


By 1886 the navy yard was the sole manufacturer of naval ammunition. During WWI, the yard produced all of France’s 14-inch maritime railway guns and the accompanying ammunition.

By the time WWII began, it was the largest naval ordnance producer on earth. Research and technological advances continued providing all the U.S. Navy’s munitions through the 1960s.

In December 1945, the navy yard became The United States Naval Gun Factory. During this period, it was the most prominent local employer. Over 25,000 civilians worked in 188 buildings spread over 126 acres of land.

The Naval Gun Factory produced multiple components required to outfit a developing modern military during this time. They developed a wide assortment of arsenal options on-site, from giant 16-inch guns for battleships to minor optical components.

Efforts at the site gradually shifted toward non-military technological advances. For example, experts performed pioneer work in the prosthetic limb field here.

By the 1960s, wartime demands had nearly ceased, and the facility underwent another transition.

The Washington Navy Yard

On July 1, 1964, the Naval Gun Factory became the Washington Naval Yard. Personnel converted empty buildings previously dedicated to producing warfare tools into office space. Later the area expanded to include commercial and public cultural venues.

Today the Washington Navy Yard is the U.S. Navy’s ceremonial and administrative center. In addition to classified activities, it houses the headquarters for:

  • Naval Reactors
  • Naval Sea Systems Command
  • The Naval History and Heritage Command
  • The Marine Corps Institute
  • The U.S. Navy Band
  • The Naval Facilities Engineering Command
  • The U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps

In addition to the U.S. Navy’s central administration, the waterside navy yard is a neighborhood that includes the National Park Baseball Stadium, sports bars, beer gardens, restaurants, shopping, and residential areas.

The Bottom Line

Since its inception, the Washing D.C. Navy Yard has served the American people through several transitions. It continues as a source of service and pride to the American people, with a historical legacy worthy of celebration.

Visiting is a great way to celebrate the history of the U.S. Navy while enjoying the many recreational and educational facilities. It is the perfect way to spend a day, week, or even month, enjoying the wide variety of activities it offers alone or with family and friends.

Dominik Sherman

Dominik Sherman, an authority in home organization, earned his degree in Interior Design from the University of Washington. With over 15 years of experience in space optimization and minimalist design, Dominik joined our platform in 2020, offering innovative and practical home organization solutions. Before this, he ran a successful home organizing consultancy, helping clients transform their living spaces. Dominik is also an avid gardener, finding peace and inspiration in the harmony of nature and organized spaces.

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