Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Birthday Reflects on the Broad History of the Installation

Story Number: NNS150731-08Release Date: 7/31/2015 9:59:00 AM
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By Mark O. Piggott, Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Public Affairs

YORKTOWN, Va. (NNS) -- The history of Naval Weapons Station (WPNSTA) Yorktown began with the world at war and, through the progression of military weaponry, continues today as the U.S. Navy's premier ordnance handling facility.

WPNSTA Yorktown celebrates its 97th birthday this year and its mission of providing "Ordnance on Target" for our warfighters remains. Its long history is broad, yet unconventional at times.

On Aug. 7, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Secretary of the Navy to take possession of a tract of land, "being part in the County of Warwick and part in the County of York, both in the state of Virginia."

This was the beginning of Navy Mine Depot Yorktown.
Initial construction of the depot included a mine loading plant, magazines for storage, a power plant, machine shop, a railroad to connect with local rail lines, a pier, and various barracks, administration offices and a galley. Total cost for the initial construction was $3 million, equaling over $37 million today.

The first commanding officer of Navy Mine Depot was Capt. Edward T. Fitzgerald. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on Oct. 7, 1874, Fitzgerald graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1896. He was ordered as the first "Inspector of Ordnance in Charge" for the depot from November 1918 to June 1919. During his short tenure, he was the driving force behind the warfare capability and mine storage that developed at Navy Mine Depot Yorktown. He died on April 17, 1934, in New York City.

At an installation the size and magnitude of Navy Mine Depot Yorktown, security was paramount. Horse-mounted Marines provided security to the perimeter of the installation by riding along the entire fence line. The horses were replaced by motor vehicles in 1960, making WPNSTA Yorktown the last Navy installation to use horse-mounted Marines.

Stables were built in 1923 to support the horses used by the Marines, but it also provided a vital community service to the base personnel and their families. Due to the isolated location of the Navy Mine Depot, it was difficult to procure a fresh supply of milk for the base and its residents. A community dairy was established at the stables in 1930. The original herd was comprised of four cows and later expanded to 11, to generate a sufficient supply of milk. The growth of the dairy continued for several years, but due to operating difficulties, ceased operations in 1954.

The main workhorse of the installation is the ordnance pier. The original pier was constructed in 1920. It was a wooden pier with inlaid rail road tracks to facilitate the loading/unloading of mines and other ordnance. In the beginning, barges were loaded with ordnance and towed out to ships anchored in the river or down to ships at Naval Station Norfolk. The pier suffered major damage during a hurricane in 1933 and a fire in 1954. In 1962, construction began on a new U-shaped pier that is still in service today.

One of the best kept secrets of the installation over the years has been fishing off of the ordnance pier. Though this is no longer an option today, it was very popular early on with Sailors, civilians and their dependents. One prominent fisherman that came to the installation to fish was President Harry S. Truman. He was known to frequent the pier on the Presidential Yacht, The Williamsburg, which was moored there from time-to-time.

In the history of the installation, there has only been one fatal accident at the facility. In 1943, a night crew was loading torpedo warheads from the cooling plant when the ammunition exploded. According to Susan Clingan, who wrote a comprehensive history of the installation in 1961, the building was barricaded with an earthen mound so the force of the explosion was confined to that area.

"Nothing was left of the building but a hole in the ground," Clingan said. "The four wheels of the box car standing beside the building was left on the track. The rest of the box car completely disintegrated."

The crew of seven was killed and no trace of them was ever found. Windows were cracked as far away as Norfolk by the force of the explosion. A stone obelisk was erected at Missile Park on base in memorial of those killed in the blast.

The installation's name has been changed three times in its 97-year history. The first name change took place on July 1, 1932, when it was changed from Navy Mine Depot to Naval Mine Depot. On April 18, 1943, the title of inspector of ordnance in charge was changed to commanding officer. And on Aug. 7, 1958, at the station's 40th birthday, the name was changed to Naval Weapons Station Yorktown.

Over its long history, WPNSTA Yorktown has employed a variety of military and civilian personnel to carry out its mission. By October 1943, there were 94 officers, 890 enlisted, in addition to 250 Marines permanently stationed at the installation. The civilian work force totaled more than 2,300, including 545 women. Today, there are 1,346 active duty personnel (includes tenant commands), 517 reservists and 796 civilians at WPNSTA Yorktown.

Cheatham Annex (CAX), originally founded as a Seabee training base in 1943, became an annex of the Fleet and Industrial Supply Center Norfolk. In 1998, CAX was incorporated as part of WPNSTA Yorktown. Today, CAX continues both missions it was originally intended for as both an expeditionary combat training facility as well as a fleet supply center.

CAX and WPNSTA Yorktown are separated by the Colonial Parkway. President Herbert Hoover signed a proclamation establishing the Colonial Parkway on July 3, 1930, but not without some controversy. According to Frances Watson Clark, author of "Images of America: The Colonial Parkway," the proclamation was delivered to President Hoover by Horace Albright, director of the National Park Service, before the next scheduled cabinet meeting.

"When the Navy afterwards refused to turn over the land for the parkway, Albright brought the proclamation needed to secure the desired route to the President," Clark wrote. "Without Adams (Secretary of the Navy Charles Adams) present to raise an objection, Hoover signed the proclamation. By the time Adams found out about it, the route was already set."

In three years, WPNSTA Yorktown will be celebrating its 100th Birthday. Though the installation is not as old as other facilities within the United States Navy, its history is rich and unique, dating back before the 1918 proclamation that founded the base. The land on which WNPSTA Yorktown sits has roots dating back to pre-colonial exploration of the New World by Captain John Smith and the Jamestown colonists. The history here is an integral part of our shared American heritage, as a Navy and as a nation.

For more news from Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, visit

A U.S. Marine patrols Navy Mine Depot (NMD) Yorktown and its perimeter, circa 1920.
Official U.S. Navy file photo.
August 4, 2008
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