The Portsmouth Navy Yard was established in 1800 when the federal government perceived a need to expand the Navy in order to counter French privateer attacks against merchant shipping.
It has served varied functions over the years, first constructing wooden warships, then ironclads and, finally, submarines. Threatened with closure many times, beginning in the 1870s and as recently as 2005, the Navy Yard remains a vital component of the local economy.
In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt proposed to warring Japan and Russia that the Navy Yard serve as the site of a peace conference. The talks were held in Building 86, which is now the Yard's administrative headquarters. The Peace Treaty ended hostilities and gained Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize.
The three-masted steam sloop U.S.S. Kearsarge is, without question, the most famous of all Portsmouth-built warships. On June 19, 1864 she engaged the Confederate raider CSS Alabama, which in the previous twenty-two months had captured and burned at least fifty-five Union merchant ships. In an epic one-hour and twenty-minute sea battle just three miles off the coast of Cherbourg, France, Kearsarge sank the Alabama, sustaining no loss of life and minimal damage to the ship.
The castle-like prison at the Navy Yard, with its distinctive crenellations, was constructed between 1903 and 1908 with later additions in 1912 and 1943. Its inmate population reached a peak in World War II, when over 3,000 sailors and marines were imprisoned there. It has been closed since 1974, deemed wholly inadequate by modern standards of incarceration.
A Cluster of Islands
Over the years fill was added to connect the original cluster of islands in Portsmouth Harbor into the single 278-acre land mass on which the Navy Yard now stands. The original islands are shaded in the drawing above.
Launching of the L-8
The L-8, shown at its launching in 1917, was the first submarine built at the Portsmouth Navy Yard. The shipyard went on to construct 79 submarines in World War II, with a record four being launched in a single day in 1944. Its first nuclear submarine was launched in 1957 and its last in 1969. The shipyard is now dedicated to the maintenance of nuclear attack submarines.
The Commandant's House
This house has been the home of Navy Yard commanders since its major renovation in 1815. Its first resident was Isaac Hull, captain of the U.S.S. Constitution ("Old Ironsides"). During an epic 1812 battle his ship defeated H.M.S. Guerriere. Admiral David Farragut, naval
hero of the Civil War, passed his last days here, dying in the home in 1870.