Established in 1871, the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard (PNSY) was a place of production and innovation where naval vessels were constructed, repaired, and maintained in one of five dry docks.
A dry dock is a narrow and deep basin where ships enter, a caisson (watertight gate) is closed, and the water inside the basin is pumped out – similar to a dam – leaving the ship standing on blocks. This allows workers to inspect, paint, or service the areas of the ship that would normally be submerged in water. Once the work is completed, the caisson is removed, the basin is again flooded with water, and the ship can float and leave the dry dock.
Dry Dock 1 was built in 1891. The Spanish-American War created a need for a second dry dock, while World War I brought need for the third dry dock. By April 1919, PNSY employed 12,000 workers. Typically, activities at PNSY have increased in response to wartime efforts. During World War II, nearly 47,000 people worked at PNSY constructing various types of ships, including the battleship, Washington; the aircraft carrier, Antietam; destroyer escorts, and landing ships.
Dry docks are relatively uncommon assets to find today. After PNSY’s closure, the dry docks at the Navy Yard have seen a change in their users, but still maintain their original purpose. You can see the dry docks along Kitty Hawk Ave, usually with a vessel in it.
Both Dry Docks 4 and 5, used by Philly Shipyard, are the Navy Yard’s largest dry docks, at 1092 feet long – or three football fields! Since delivering its first vessel in 2003, Philly Shipyard has built and delivered 23 vessels with more underway – more than 50% of all Jones Act ocean-going merchant ships. This is a true reflection of Philadelphia’s role in the 21st century global economy.
The Navy Yard’s first dry dock was designed by civil engineer Robert E. Peary who went on to become an admiral, and then a polar explorer. The boulevard that parallels the waterfront extending east from this dry dock is named in his honor (Admiral Peary Way).
At 500 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 25.5 feet deep, this dry dock is not large enough to handle modern naval vessels, and even in its time, it was smaller than granite docks at other yards (it is made of timber piling). Obsolete as a working dry dock, it was repurposed into a public waterfront space at the Urban Outfitters, Inc. corporate campus, Dry Dock Park is an ideal gathering and collaborative space for employees, dogs, and visitors, created by DIRT Studio in 2009. As seen in the photo, Dry Dock Park is face-to-face with USS John F. Kennedy, the last non-nuclear powered aircraft carrier built for the Navy.