Puget Sound Naval Shipyard

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 11/04/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5579
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Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, located adjacent to the city of Bremerton on Sinclair Inlet, was established in 1891. It was the first dry-dock and repair facility in the Northwest capable of handling the largest ships. During World War I, the shipyard expanded to include shipbuilding, adding hundreds of new ships and boats to the Allied war effort. During the Great Depression, the shipyard went through a period of expansion as the nation built up its fleet. During World War II (1941-1945), the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard’s primary mission was the repair of Pacific Fleet warships damaged in battle. After the war, the shipyard’s mission was changed from repair work to the deactivation and storage of Pacific Fleet vessels. Puget Sound Naval Shipyard also engaged in an extensive program of modernizing aircraft carriers, including the conversion of conventional flight decks to the angled decks used by the new jet aircraft. During the Korean Conflict (1950-1953), the facility activated many of the ships in the reserve "mothball" fleet, deactivating them again in 1954. During the 1950s the shipyard entered into a new era of construction with the building of two new guided missile frigates. In 1961, the shipyard was designated as a submarine repair facility and in 1965 it was established as a nuclear-capable repair facility. In 1992, the shipyard was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Need for a Northwest Shipyard

In 1877, the U. S. Government began to study the idea of building a naval shipyard in the Pacific Northwest. The decision was based on the fact that the United States had no repair facilities north of San Francisco's Mare Island Navy Yard large enough to accommodate military and commercial steamers and sailing vessels. These large ships either had to make the long voyage to San Francisco, or go to the British Columbia Dock Yard at Esquimalt in Canada for repair and maintenance. And Congress didn’t relish the idea of contributing American money to the British economy.

In this same year, the schooner Yukon, under the command of Navy Lieutenant Ambrose Barkley Wyckoff (1848-1922) was making a hydrographic survey of upper Puget Sound and Commencement Bay, and noted the area had good harbors, a mild climate, and access to plenty of timber, iron ore, and coal. Lt. Wyckoff immediately began promoting Puget Sound as the place best suited for a naval shipyard. A bill was introduced in Congress in 1879 for an appropriation to study potential sites, but the proposed legislation failed to pass. In May 1880, Lt. Wyckoff returned to Washington D. C. and continued his crusade for a Naval installation on Puget Sound.

In 1888, Congress appropriated $5,000 for the appointment of a Commission of three competent Naval Officers to select a suitable site for a naval shipyard and dry-dock in the Northwest. After inspecting several potential sites in Oregon and Washington, the commission recommended that Point Turner, between Sinclair Inlet (called Port Orchard Bay) and Dyes Inlet on Puget Sound was the most suitable location for the new naval facility. The commission reported its findings to the Secretary of the Navy in September 1889, but a second commission was appointed to review the recommendation. In December 1890, a final report was made to Congress, substantiating the original site selection. In March 1891, Congress appropriated $10,000, which was $15,000 less than the Navy requested, to acquire 200 acres of land for the shipyard and dry-dock facility.

Origin of Bremerton

The Navy sent Lt. Wyckoff back to Puget Sound to negotiate for purchases of property near Point Turner on Sinclair Inlet. Settlers, aware of the Navy’s interest in the area, were asking $200 per acre though Lt. Wyckoff was only authorized to pay $50. Two business leaders, William Bremer (1863-1910) and Henry Paul Hensel (1871-1935), saw a golden opportunity to start a new town and become wealthy by helping Lt. Wyckoff acquire his site. They purchased property at the inflated price and then sold some of it to the Navy at $50 an acre and convinced two other property owners to do the same. There were profits to be made by investing in the future of "Bremerton."

Lt. Wyckoff officially assumed command of the 145-acre site, designated the Puget Sound Naval Station, on September 16, 1891. An additional five acres were purchased in March 1892, and 40 acres were acquired a short time later after clearing the title through condemnation proceedings. The total cost of the acquisition was $9,587.25 including the cost deeds, abstracts, and filings. The Navy, which now owned 190 acres including one and one fourth miles of valuable low-bank waterfront, immediately commenced work clearing the land to build the shipyard.

Building the Shipyard

Dry-dock No. 1, the first major structure, was designed in Washington D. C. by the Navy’s Bureau of Docks and Yards. Byron, Barlow and Company of Tacoma, was awarded the contract to build the dock on October 29, 1892 for $491,465 and ground was broken on December 10, 1892. Construction of the dry-dock, which took more than three years, was completed on April 22, 1896. It was 650 feet long, 130 feet wide and 39 feet deep. The first naval vessel in the dry-dock was the coast defense monitor, U.S.S. Monterey. The first battleship to be docked was the U.S.S. Oregon on April 11, 1897.

Also in 1896, construction was completed on the administration building (known as Building 50) and five large houses to quarter naval officers. A U. S. Marine Corps reservation was established shortly after to provide security for the naval station. During the four years of construction, the Puget Sound Naval Station’s officers had their offices and quarters aboard the U.S.S. Nipsic, an old Civil War gunboat moored at a newly constructed wharf.

Despite the fact that the Navy wanted the Puget Sound Naval Station to become a first class repair facility, it saw no development over the next few years. Three events coincided that almost resulted in the station’s demise. Lt. Wyckoff had been sent to Hot Springs, Arkansas to recuperate from a debilitating illness, the Navy’s new Chief of the Bureau of Docks and Yards decided Puget Sound was a poor location for a shipyard and wanted it moved, and the country slipped into a mild economic depression.

In 1899, Lt. Wyckoff (now retired) returned to Bremerton and revitalized interest and support for the shipyard. Fueled by an appropriation from Congress for more work, the shipyard started to grow. In July 1900, the station received a new influential and energetic Commandant, Captain William Turnbull Burwell (1846-1910), who later was promoted to rear admiral. In July 1901, the Secretary of the Navy upgraded the Puget Sound Naval Station’s status, changing its name to the Navy Yard Puget Sound. By 1903, the shipyard had more than 1,000 workers, and was, by far, the largest employer in the region. In 1906, the Navy established a wireless (radio) station, and in 1911 built a hospital at the yard.

War and Post-War

In January 1909, ground was broken for Dry-dock No. 2, a $2 million construction project, which was completed in March 1913. The dry-dock, made of granite and concrete, was 827 feet long, 145 feet wide, and 38 feet deep. It was the Navy’s largest dry-dock and the only one on the West Coast capable of handling the largest naval vessels.

Because the Navy Yard Puget Sound was not strategically located to serve as a repair facility for a war in the Atlantic Ocean, the navy yard’s mission was changed in 1916 from overhaul and repair work to the construction of new warships. In March 1917, the Bureau of Yards and Docks authorized $2 million for the construction of Dry-dock No. 3, a new type of shallow dry-dock used for new ship construction. During the World War I (1917-1918), Navy Yard Puget Sound built 25 submarine chasers, six submarines, two mine sweepers, seven seagoing tugboats, and two ammunition ships as well as 1,700 small boats. The shipyard’s basic physical configuration was firmly established by the end of the World War I.

After the war, the fleet arrived in the Pacific and many of the warships were scheduled for overhauls at the Navy Yard Puget Sound. The shipyard was taxed to capacity in order to keep the repair dates. The facility had 6,500 civilian employees and it was expected that many more workers would be hired. However, the world had returned to peace and there was a strong disarmament movement throughout the world. A slower peacetime economy resulted in a mild depression. By 1923, little work was being assigned to the shipyard and the workforce was reduced to 3,000. Only two ships were built in the 1920s; the U.S.S. Medusa and the U.S.S. Holland. A third ship, the U.S.S. Louisville, began construction in July 1928 and was launched in September 1930.

During the Great Depression (1929-1939), the Navy Yard Puget Sound witnessed a period of expansion as several Federal agencies directed money toward the installation. The shipyard received orders for several new ships including five destroyers, in an effort to build up the fleet. In 1933, the huge hammerhead crane, a symbol of the present-day shipyard, was built as Congress continued to pour construction money into the facility. Between 1933 and 1935, the Navy built a $1.5 million machine shop. Constructed of reinforced concrete and brick, the building had five acres of floor space, and was described as the finest machine shop in the nation and the largest west of the Mississippi River. By 1939, the shipyard was employing more 6,000 workers.

Another bonus during the Depression years was the use of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, renamed Work Projects Administration in 1939) for expansion at the shipyard. Under the Navy Yard’s supervision, the WPA constructed several buildings as well as building and repairing roads and railroad tracks.

In 1936, Congress appropriated funds for Dry-dock No. 4, but construction was delayed by controversy over its size and type. Eventually the Navy decided on a 1,000-foot dock, capable of handling the largest warships. Construction on Dry-dock No. 4 was begun in 1939. Dry-dock No.5, with similar specifications, was started in 1940.

By 1940, Navy Yard Puget Sound was the principal naval shipyard on the West Coast and the only one with the capacity to handle aircraft carriers and battleships. As the United States moved closer to war with Japan, Navy Yard Puget Sound reduced its shipbuilding capacity, reserving the facilities for vessel repair and overhaul. Shipbuilding activities were limited to smaller warships such as destroyer escorts and mine sweepers. By 1942, the navy yard had five large dry-docks ranging in size from 639 feet long by 120 feet wide by 39 feet deep (Dry-dock No. 1) to 1,030 feet long by 147 feet wide by 54 feet deep (Dry-dock No. 5).

World War II

During World War II (1941-1945), the primary mission of Navy Yard Puget Sound was the repair of Pacific Fleet warships damaged in battle. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) five of the six surviving battleships were sent to the Bremerton shipyard for modifications and repair: U.S.S. Tennessee (BB-43), U.S.S. Maryland (BB-46), U.S.S. Nevada (BB-36), U.S.S. California (BB-44), and U.S.S. West Virginia (BB-48). These battleships were dubbed the “Pearl Harbor Ghosts” because the Japanese had declared them sunk. During the war, Navy Yard Puget Sound repaired 26 battleships -- some more than once -- 18 aircraft carriers, 13 cruisers, and 79 destroyers. In addition, the 30,000-plus shipyard workers built 53 new vessels, including five aircraft carriers, 13 destroyers and eight destroyer escorts, and they overhauled, repaired, or fitted out another 400 warships.

During the war years, Navy Yard Puget Sound was operating 24 hours a day. With the scarcity of housing in Bremerton and Kitsap County plus gasoline rationing, many of the shipyard workers lived in Seattle, commuting to Bremerton by ferry. The Black Ball Line had six ferryboats on the Seattle-Bremerton route making more than 35 trips a day, the most famous being the ferry Kalakala, carrying thousands of workers and naval personnel. By 1945, the workforce had enlarged to 32,500.

On November 30, 1945, the Navy Yard Puget Sound name was changed to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS), and its mission changed from repair work to the deactivation of Pacific Fleet vessels. Following the war, many of the ships were stripped of their guns and equipment, and sold as scrap metal. Other ships were prepared for assignments to the inactive reserve mothball fleet. These vessels were sealed and dehumidification machinery installed to prevent deterioration while in storage. The shipyard also engaged in an extensive program of modernizing aircraft carriers, including the conversion of conventional flight decks to the angled decks used by newer aircraft. By the end of 1946, there were fewer than 9,000 shipyard employees, working mainly on ship deactivation and routine overhauls.

Korean War Years

During the Korean War (1950-1953), Puget Sound Naval Shipyard engaged in the activation of the reserve fleet, mostly landing ships and smaller vessels. But there were also six small aircraft carriers, called “baby flat-tops” and three large carriers activated for the Korean "police action": the U.S.S. Princeton (CV-37), U.S.S. Essex (CV-9), and the U. S. S. Bon Homme Richard (CV-34). The workforce increased from 7,800 in 1950 to 15,300 in June 1952.

By 1954, the shipyard was again involved in ship deactivation, the most memorable being the U.S.S. Missouri (BB-63) because of her historical significance and size. (A formidable battleship, "Mighty Mo" served as the formal stage for Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers on September 2, 1945, ending World War II.) In 1955, the shipyard entered an era of new construction with the Bureau of Ships authorizing the construction of two ships of a new class of guided missile frigates; the U.S.S. Coontz (DGL-9) and the U.S.S. King (DGL-10).

New Technologies

Between 1948 and 1962, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard converted nine aircraft carriers to a modern configuration with angled flight decks for the new faster and heavier jet aircraft: the U.S.S. Essex (CVS-9), U.S.S. Kearsarge (CVS-33), U.S.S. Yorktown (CVS-10), U.S.S. Hancock (CV-19), U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16), U.S.S. Shangri-la (CVS-38), U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42), and the U.S.S. Coral Sea (CV-43).

The largest conversion accomplished by the shipyard was the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Coral Sea (CV-43) from April 15, 1957 to March 15, 1960. Major changes included installation of the angle deck for launching jet fighters, deck edge elevators, new steam catapults and bridle arresters, and a new primary flight deck control station.

A major addition to PSNS was Dry-dock No. 6, large enough to hold the new giant Forrestal-class aircraft carriers. Dry-dock No. 6, dedicated on April 23, 1962, is 1,180 feet long, 180 feet wide, and 60 feet deep.

During the 1960s, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard was busy repairing, overhauling, converting, and constructing surface ships. But in 1961, the shipyard was designated as a repair facility for submarines. The first was the U.S.S. Capitaine (SS-336) followed by the U.S.S. Bugara (SS-331) in 1962. In 1965, the shipyard was established as a nuclear capable repair facility. The first nuclear vessel to be worked on was the submarine U.S.S. Sculpin (SSN-590). The first overhaul of a ballistic missile submarine was the U.S.S. John Adams (SSBN-620) in August 1968.

Puget Sound Naval Shipyard built the U.S.S. Sacramento (AOE-1), the largest ship to be built on the West Coast up to that time, as well as the largest and most powerful logistic support vessel ever constructed for the Navy. The vessel, launched on September 14, 1963, is 796 feet long and 107 feet wide, and designed to carry everything necessary for the replenishment of ships at sea, including aviation fuel, diesel oil, ammunition, missiles, dry-goods, and food.

In the early 1970s, the shipyard went through a modernization program resulting in major changes in the facilities capabilities and appearance. In March 1973, the nuclear repair facility was completed. Now the emphasis of the shipyard was on submarines and nuclear powered ships. But work on overhauling conventional aircraft carriers continued, including the U.S.S. Coral Sea (CV-43), U.S.S. Ranger (CV-61). U.S.S. Kitty Hawk (CV-63), and U.S.S. Constellation (CV-64). The Navy’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise (CVN-65) was overhauled in Dry-dock No. 6 from August 1973 to February 1974 and again from January 1979 to February 1982.

1980s and 1990s

During the 1980s, many classes of ships appeared on the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard waterfront for overhaul and refitting. But the heaviest workload consisted of nuclear submarine overhauls. From 1987 to 1997, the shipyard was the homeport of the nuclear aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz (CVN-68). She was replaced by the carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson (CVN-70).

In the 1990s, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, which pioneered environmentally safe methods of deactivating and recycling nuclear powered ships, was authorized to recycle these vessels under the Navy’s Ship-Submarine Recycling Program. This was the only Naval facility providing these services. By 2002, approximately 20 percent of the shipyard’s workload involved deactivation, reactor compartment disposal, and ship recycling. The facility was awarded the Commander-in Chief’s Installation Excellence Award in 1991 and in 1995, as the Navy’s best shipyard.

Twenty-first Century

As of 2003, PSNS was the Pacific Northwest’s largest and most diverse Naval shore facility and one of Washington’s largest industrial facilities. The shipyard, which covers 344 acres of hard land and 338 acres of submerged land, has six dry-docks, nine piers with 12,300 lineal feet of deep-water pier space, four mooring sites, and 382 buildings with more than six million square feet of floor space. The property is bordered on three sides by the City of Bremerton, and on the south by Sinclair Inlet, a natural deep-water harbor.

The Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility at PSNS currently (2003) has four aircraft carriers assigned to the inactive reserve "mothball" fleet: the U.S.S. Ranger (CV-61), U.S.S. Independence (CV-62), U.S.S. Constellation (CV-64), and the U.S.S. Midway (CV-41) -- on a donation hold as a museum and memorial, and stricken from the Navy’s ships list. Active warships currently assigned to homeport Bremerton are the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson (CVN-70), the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Houston (SSN-713), and four fast-combat support ships; U.S.S. Sacramento (AOE-1), U.S.S. Camden (AOE-2), U.S.S. Rainier (AOE-7), and U.S.S. Bridge (AOE-10).

As with most defense related industries, the number of workers employed at the shipyard varies greatly depending on global politics and the nation’s economy. In 1985, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard had a civilian workforce of 12,000, while in 2002 the shipyard employed only about 8,000 civilians. An estimated 80 percent of the workforce comes from the greater Bremerton/Kitsap County area; with 10 percent from the Seattle/Tacoma area, and 10 percent from surrounding counties

According to the Bremerton Chamber of Commerce, while Kitsap County has experienced rapid population growth over the past two decades, from about 150,000 to 250,000, Bremerton’s population has remained relatively steady, fluctuating between 36,000 and 38,000. Approximately 38 percent of the area’s workforce is employed by the military.

In August 1992, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark District. Inside the shipyard are four additional historical districts: the Marine Reservation, the Hospital Reservation, the Puget Sound Radio Station and Officers’ Row. PSNS is an active, controlled industrial facility, and not open to the public for tours. However, the National Park Service offers limited public access to the historical sites through its National Historic Landmark Program.


Fredi Perry, Bremerton and Puget Sound Navy Yard (Bremerton: Perry Publishing, 2002); Louise M. Reh and Helen Lou Ross, Nipsic to Nimitz; A Centennial History of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (Bremerton: Federal Managers’ Association, 1991); Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (Baton Rouge: Army & Navy Publishing Co., 1947); Ambrose B. Wyckoff, Starting the Puget Sound Navy Yard and the Dry-dock, and The Actual Beginning of the Lake Washington Canal (Port Townsend: A. B. Wyckoff, 1908); Ambrose B. Wyckoff, A Reproduction of the Journal of Lt. A. B. Wyckoff, USN, Commandant Puget Sound Naval Station (Bremerton: PSNS, 1970); “Marvelous Growth of the Puget Sound Navy Yard,” The Seattle Times, September 18, 1901, p. 8; Richard Buck, “Shipyard Cutbacks Planned by Navy,” Ibid., February 28, 1985, p. A-1; Robert T. Nelson, “Study Hints at Fewer Navy Shipyard Jobs,” Ibid., June 5, 1988, p. D-1; Lloyd Prichett, “Good RIF News: No One Laid Off,” The Sun (Bremerton), September 20, 1996, p. A-1; Lloyd A. Prichett, “Millennium: The Military Period Begins,” Ibid., December 29, 1999; Todd Westbrook, “Millennium: Navy’s Expansion Rescues Kitsap’s Sagging Economy,” Ibid., December 29, 1999; Howard Buck, “State is Home to Military Might,” Columbian (Vancouver, WA), October 22, 2001, p. A-1; “Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington,” Congressman Norm Dicks Website accessed October 2003 (www.house.gov/dicks/psns.htm); “Puget Sound Naval Shipyard,” National Park Service Website accessed October 2003 (www.cr.nps.gov); Kira Khadem, “Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Building 50 Restoration,” CRM magazine, No. 13 (1997) (www.crm.cr.nps.gov); “Puget Sound Naval Shipyard History,” Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility Website accessed October 2003 (www.psns.navy.mil); “National Register of Historic Places; Washington, Kitsap County,” National Register of Historic Places Website accessed October 2003 (www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com); “Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (NSY) Bremerton, Washington,” GlobalSecurity.org Website(www.globalsecurity.org); “About Bremerton” Bremerton Area Chamber of Commerce Website accessed October 2003 (www.bremertonchamber.org/bremerton/aboutbremerton.html).

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