League Island: The Philadelphia Navy Yard — Mainstay of the Fleet

At the south most end of Broad Street lays the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The Navy Yard originally was located in Southwark. The contemporary Navy Yard at 47447 South Broad Street on League Island officially opened in 1876 after the Southwark Yard was closed. The advent of Iron Clad warships, the loss of key shipyards to the South and rapid industrialization encouraged Congress to find land for a better and bigger shipyard.

The debate over the location was heated. On one side were the proponents of building a yard at New London, Connecticut; on the other hand, some advocated for League Island, Philadelphia. Interest groups, such as the Philadelphia Bureau of Trade, published pamphlets advocating their viewpoints. The main issues discussed were cheap access to iron, coal, and timber as well as a stable workforce and the ease of establishing effective defenses against potential attackers... A committee of Navy Officers and Senators was created in 1861 to decide where the yard would be built. New London was originally chosen, but with all immediate resources going towards the ending the Civil War, League Island supporters in the Senate and Navy regrouped and reversed the original decision in 1866.

One of the proponents for League Island stated, “League Island is a munificent gift which ought at once to be accepted.” The Navy accepted the Island for a fee of one dollar. Construction did not begin until the 1870s due to a lack of available funds in the aftermath of the Civil War. Philadelphia Naval Shipyard opened in 1876. The yard was known for its work on steam engines and its world class propeller shop.

In World War I, The Navy Yard built a new dry dock and a 350 ton hammerhead crane. The Navy Yard employed 12,000 workers in WWI. The Yard launched only 5 ships in 1920s and 30s. The Yard truly earned its motto, “Mainstay of the Fleet” in World War II. The Philadelphia Yard built ships that others could not build efficiently or at all. In seven months, the Yard launched the battleship Wisconsin, carrier Antietam, and the cruisers Chicago and Los Angeles. Many other ships were built, including the battleships New Jersey and Washington. The Yard constructed two more dry docks and employed 46,000 people during this war.

The Navy Yard went into decline after WWII. Ship construction was phased out to the private sector, and the Yard took on a new ship repair and overhaul role. The Yard specialized in steam turbine engines, electronics, and weapons systems. Most of the assignments during this time involved fixing old ships that the Navy wanted to keep in service. The Yard built its last Navy ship in 1970.

In 1991 the Base Closure and Realignment Commission recommended that the Yard be closed. A case to keep the Yard open was brought to the Supreme Court in 1994 but failed to change the decision of the Commission.

In 1996, at the end of 120 years in service, the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Shipyard Human Resources Office, Philadelphia Career Transition Center, Navy Office of Civilian Personnel Management, the Philadelphia Private Industry Council and the State of Pennsylvania Dislocated Workers Unit created a plan to close the Shipyard and transition its 7,000 employees. The Yard could not close routinely due to the size of the base and the need to maintain a workforce for one last overhaul. Funding for retraining and counseling services for retirement, financial, and career change were provided to outgoing employees. The program was so successful it serves as the model for subsequent base closings.

Recently the Navy Yard has become a thriving business campus and has once again become a major place of innovation and employment in the city. Starting in 1997, the Commonwealth provided public funds for Norwegian shipbuilder Kvaerner to renovate the shipyard and start building ships in Philadelphia once again. Now called the Philly Shipyard, it employs 1,100 people and is a successful producer of merchant ships.

In 2004 a Master Plan was created to revitalize the Navy Yard. The city gave control of the land to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, with the goal of creating a large business campus. Today the Navy Yard is home to 152 businesses, such as GSK, Revzilla, Iroko, Urban Outfitters, and the famous Tasty Baking Company. These companies and others employ about 12,000 people. Alongside the thriving business park, the Navy also retains an engineering systems station, mothball fleet, and the Propeller Shop and Foundry that made our Navy Yard famous.





4747 South Broad Street #120, Philadelphia, PA 19112

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