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Newport - History

To understand the United States Navy's pattern of development in the Narragansett Bay area, it is necessary to first examine the early history of Newport, Rhode Island. The early American colonies were not alone in recognizing the geographical advantages Rhode Island offered. The economy on which the state was founded centered on its seaports and fine harbors.

Early Newport
Nicholas Easton and his son, Peter, explored Aquidneck Island in 1639, and later became its first settlers. Author Leonard J. Panaggio notes in his Portrait of Newport that William Brenton, owner of the property that now constitutes Brenton Point and Fort Adams, set up a four gun battery to protect his land in 1641. Also at this time, the settlement at Newport provided its citizens a small armed boat to warn of any unwelcome visitors.

The Colonial Era
Newport was once regarded as the commercial hub of the American colonies. During the mid-eighteenth century, the city boasted a population of some twelve thousand people, and its busy harbor rivaled the ports of Boston and New York. Fortunes were made in what is often called the Triangular Trade, which can be described by examining Newport's major industries of that time. Twenty-one rum distilleries lead the list of commercial activities, followed by seventeen factories that processed sperm whale oil and manufactured candies. Newport also had five ropewalks, three sugar refineries, and one brewery.

Newport's merchantmen plied their Triangular Trade between Africa, the West Indies, and Newport. Molasses was shipped to Newport from the West Indies, particularly Jamaica, and then processed into sugar and rum by the refineries here. The rum was then sent to Africa, where it was traded for slaves. Shipments of slaves were then brought to Jamaica and traded to plantation owners for more molasses, completing the last leg of the Triangular Trade.

During these years, the English considered establishing a navy yard at Newport, and a Robert Melville was engaged to conduct a survey on the feasibility of such a project. His findings were recorded in a letter sent from Newport, dated 16 January, 1764. Melville wrote:

I have been constantly engaged in obtaining the surveys and drafts of this harbor and Narragansett Bay.and the positions for docks, shipyards, hospitals, etc. The whole bay is an excellent man-of-war harbour.affording good anchorage, sheltered in every direction and capacious enough for the whole of His Majesty's navy.The vicinity of the ocean is such that in one hour a fleet may be from their anchorage to sea; or from the sea to safe anchorage, in one of the best natural harbours the world affords.

Melville wrote also that Newport's climate was "The most salubrious of any part of His Majesty's possessions in America." Although Melville's report was compiled almost two hundred years ago, his descriptions of Narragansett Bay could be used today.

The Revolutionary War Era
Fortunately for America at this time, the British government was concerned with more pressing political matters, and no action was taken on Melville's recommendations. If a British navy yard had been built in Newport, the entire course of the American Revolution would likely have been changed.

Although England was the victor in the Seven Years' War in Europe and the French and Indian War in North America in 1763, her treasury was deeply depleted. The American colonies were now expected to help recoup these war expenditures. The English began enforcing Parliament's Navigation Act of the 1660s and the infamous Stamp Act of 1765. It was the Stamp Act that colonists protested as "taxation without representation," and these additional levies led directly to the American rebellion ten years later. In response to the English actions, Rhode Island--which had always been a seafaring colony--immediately petitioned Congress to establish an armed naval force. Thus, the American Navy was founded in 1775.

Early in the Revolution, a portion of the British fleet used Narragansett Bay as their base of operations in their blockade of the Atlantic coast. British ships anchored off Newport, beyond the range of the guns of Fort Liberty on Goat Island. The British were forced to abandon Newport harbor temporarily when Commodore Esek Hopkins, a Rhode Islander and the first Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy, returned with the American fleet in April 1776 after a successful raid on New Providence in the Bahamas. Another naval hero who challenged the British in the bay was John Paul Jones. His first command was the sloop Providence, formerly known as the Katy.

The British wasted little time returning to Narragansett Bay. Admiral Lord Howe utilized the bay for three years, and while he did, the British controlled the entire western Atlantic Ocean. Then came the event that historians and military strategists claim lost the Revolutionary War for Britain. British General Henry Clinton had learned that a French fleet under Count D'Estaing was approaching the colonies, and he hastily ordered the abandonment of Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay. The French found the bay wide open to their ships. New York harbor became the new base for the British fleet, but its mobility was impaired by several factors. Historians have often said that General Clinton should have tried to maintain his position in Rhode Island at all costs.

The main French fleet, commanded by the Chevalier de Ternay, arrived in Newport in July 1780, and occupied both the harbor and city of Newport. This fleet consisted of seven ships of the battle line and three frigates. These ships convoyed thirty-six transports carrying five thousand American and French troops under the leadership of Count de Rochambeau. The French occupation of Narragansett Bay led ultimately to the British defeat at the battle of Yorktown in Virginia, and the end of the Revolutionary War.

After the Revolution
Two events contributed significantly to the defeat of the British. The first occurred when the French battle fleet under De Grasse out-maneuvered and out-fought British ships commanded by Admiral Graves in a battle off Chesapeake Bay in August, 1781. The second event was the march of the French Army, under Count de Rochambeau, from Newport to New York to join General George Washington's troops. The combined forces then marched overland to attack British General Cornwallis's army at Yorktown. Outnumbered two-to-one, Cornwallis surrendered in October 1781, and the American war for independence was over. Preliminary peace articles between the new United States and Britain were concluded in 1782, and American independence was officially recognized with the Treaty of Paris of 1783. Congress demobilized the Continental Army, and the Navy was essentially forgotten.

Newport's lucrative commercial activity was a casualty of the Revolution, and it never recovered its pre-war levels. Sources also make little mention of naval activity in Narragansett Bay during the years 1781 to 1789. In 1795, the United States again felt the need of a navy when it was forced to buy peace from Algiers and Tunis. The terms of this agreement were $800,000 and one frigate. Tunis and Algiers also exacted an annual tribute of $25,000. This situation led to the construction and launching of the frigates USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution in 1797. The following year found this country in conflict with our former French allies, who were then raiding American shipping.

Newport is mentioned again in Navy sources as Congress discussed locating a dockyard on the southern New England coast in 1798 and 1799. Learning of this interest, several citizens of Newport drew up a memorandum describing the advantages Newport offered such a project. Nothing, however, came of this petition to Congress.

The Civil War Era
During the period 1800 to 1860, this country was involved in three major wars: the war with Tripoli of 1801, the War of 1812 with England, and the Mexican War of 1846. The years 1861 to 1865 saw the United States involved in the Civil War, which brought about much-needed advances in the American Navy. Steam power was now adopted for the propulsion of warships, and construction in steel and iron grew increasingly common. The famous battle between the Union's ironclad Monitor and the Confederate's Virginia helped seal the fate of the wooden-hulled navies. The US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland also experienced changes during the Civil War, as the school was temporarily moved to Newport. Early in the war, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered students and instructors transferred to Newport to avoid capture by the Confederates. The Academy returned to Annapolis after the war.

New Technologies Studied
The actual history of Navy development in Narragansett Bay did not begin until 1869, when the Secretary of War authorized the establishment of an experimental Torpedo Station on Goat Island. The forerunner of today's Naval Undersea Warfare Center, the Torpedo Station's mission was to develop torpedoes, torpedo equipment, explosives, and electrical equipment. Commander E.O. Matthews was the first commanding officer of this activity.

The success of the Torpedo Station over the next eighty years has been well documented. From 1869 to its disestablishment in 1951, the Station contributed greatly to the development of naval ordnance. Through experiments conducted there, the torpedo evolved from the immobile explosive mine of the Civil War period to the efficient and highly mobile weapon of today. The Station worked on other ordnance projects, including an impractical dynamite-throwing gun, projectile explosives such as dynamite and nitroglycerine, and gun cotton. The Navy's first smokeless gunpowder was also manufactured there.

Electricity. In his book, Everyday Life in the Navy, the late Rear Admiral Albert S. Barker tells of his interesting experiences while assigned to the Torpedo Station in the 1870s.The first experiments in shipboard electricity were conducted at the Torpedo Station in the late 1880s. The machine shop was wired to conform with a plan for illuminating ships with electric lights in July, 1887. Wiring the shop in this manner provided light for the factory, and facilitated experiments and demonstrations in the application of electric power to warships. In 1902, a wireless antenna mast 180 feet high was erected at the Station to allow tests and evaluations of wireless radio communications.

Research and Manufacturing. Over the years, the physical size of the Torpedo Station grew. Rose Island was acquired for the storage of explosives and for experimental firings, and in 1919, Gould Island was purchased and placed under the Station's jurisdiction. During World War I, approximately 3,200 employees, including 300 women, were engaged in Torpedo Station work. As World War II approached and increased production of war materials was needed, the Station's advice was sought as other weapons factories were established. Approximately 13,000 people were employed at the Torpedo Station at the height of World War II, and they produced 80% of the submarine torpedoes made by the United States.

The Late 19th Century
To continue chronologically with the Navy's development in Narragansett Bay, however, it is necessary to return to the early 1880s. These years marked the beginning of an era that saw many changes in the Navy and the reversal of its post-Civil War decline. Among these changes were an increased emphasis on shipbuilding, a revised concept of seapower, and a revolutionary idea in training programs. These new ideas in training both officers and enlisted personnel return this brief history to Newport.

At this time, no postgraduate schools were available to junior officers, and enlisted personnel received their training aboard ship. Commodore Stephen Bleecker Luce is credited with establishing the Navy's first Recruit Training Station and with the founding of the Naval War College. Luce's colorful career covered four tours with the Naval Academy--including its Civil War years at Newport--and he had long expounded the need for better training programs. During the naval decline of the 1870s, Luce established and built up the Naval Apprentice Training System, which trained staff for both the Navy and merchant marine. Luce is better known though for his major achievement, the founding of the Naval War College at Newport in 1884.

The Naval War College. Luce had become convinced of the need for such a college during the Civil War. He believed an officer could profit from the philosophic study of naval history, examining the great battles "with the cold eye of professional criticism," as Luce said. Students could learn "where the principles of science have been illustrated," Luce continued, "or where a disregard for the accepted rules of the art of war had led to defeat and disaster." The Navy Department recognized the merit of his ideas, and in 1884, Luce was ordered to duty as the first Superintendent of the War College.

The College was first located in the old poor asylum on Coaster's Harbor Island. The city of Newport had ceded the island to the Navy for training purposes in 1881. Two years later, this property was designated a Shore Training Station by Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler. The now familiar gray granite building which houses the War College was erected in 1892, and its annex, Pringle Hall, was completed in 1934.

Recruit Training. In the meantime, the original plans for training recruits on Coaster's Harbor Island continued to be developed, and by 1887, the Training Station boasted some 300 recruits. During the next 11 years, the Training Station continued to grow in response to the Navy's needs, and the Spanish-American War of 1898 added impetus to its development. Through these training activities, Newport became known as the birthplace of the Navy's recruit training system.

Further Expansion
After the 1880s, the Navy continued to grow in size and importance. Steam power had replaced sail, and more coaling stations were now required. Just before the turn of the century, one of the Navy's largest coaling stations was established at Melville, just north of Newport. Some of Newport's older residents can recall battleships and cruisers anchored between Prudence Island and Melville, while coal barges scuttled between the ships and the station. On still days, the musicians on board could be heard playing as all hands turned to "coaling ship."

The First World War
World War I brought a tremendous increase in naval activity to Newport as thousands of young men arrived for training. Coaster's Harbor Island was unable to accommodate this influx, and land at Coddington Point was added to the Navy's holdings. Almost overnight, the Point was turned into a city of tents and wooden buildings as more than 75,000 recruits passed through Newport. Residents of the city were encouraged to "Adopt a Sailor," opening their homes as temporary lodging for the trainees. As the Navy expanded, what had been the Second Naval District (the Naval Training Station) was combined with the First Naval District in 1919.

Between the World Wars
The end of the First World War found the United States with a navy second in size only to Great Britain's. However, the need for smaller ships to combat Germany's U-boats during the early part of the war had forced naval planners to put aside the 1916 building program of heavy battleships and cruisers in favor of destroyers and sub-chasers. The Navy's General Board, in 1919, pressed Congress to authorize the completion of double the 1916 shipbuilding program. Then, as had happened after previous conflicts had ended, lean times descended on the US Navy.

The usual post-war drive for economy was the political order of the day, and countries such as Britain and Japan expressed displeasure over the proposed naval expansion. Rather than approving funds for the 1919 building program, Congress cut the Navy's budget below its "irreducible minimum," and was slow in providing funds even for routine maintenance. The Washington Disarmament Conference of 1921-22 followed these federal budget reductions. The Conference restricted the size and armament of warships and terminated construction of some Navy ships already in progress.

Commitment to Narragansett Bay
As Navy planners met in the years following the First World War, Newport and Narragansett Bay were not forgotten by those who understood the strategic importance of the region. Admirals William S. Sims, Mark Bristol, Austin Knight, and Ralph Earle, Sr., were all strong supporters of naval activities and programs in the Rhode Island area. A review board to evaluate Navy shore establishments was appointed in September 1922 by Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, and was led by Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, Commandant of the Fifth Naval District. The board was authorized to recommend those bases, yards, and stations considered necessary to maintain the efficiency and effectiveness of the fleet in both peace and wartime. The report of the Rodman board encouraged the expansion of the Navy's Narragansett Bay facilities for fleet use. The board also advised that recruit training activities on the Atlantic coast be centered at Newport's Naval Training Station, and the Torpedo Station and Naval War College be continued.

One of the strongest champions of Narragansett Bay was Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, Sr., former Chief of the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance and father of Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, Jr., commander of the Newport Navy Base from 1955 to 1957. A prolific writer and member of the Naval Academy Class of 1896, the senior Earle attended the Naval War College and later served as commanding officer of the Torpedo Station from 1923 to 1925. After his retirement, he became president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where he continued to stress the importance of Narragansett Bay.

In an address presented while he commanded the Torpedo Station in 1924, then-Captain Earle spoke of the many desirable features the bay offered for mass fleet operations. Earle mentioned the deep water anchorage, accessibility to training waters, favorable weather patterns, and fueling facilities of the area. Although naval aviation was still in its infancy, Earle described the region's potential as a base for aviation operations. He concluded his remarks by saying:

.the Fleet can make, with advantage, a much greater use of this Narragansett Bay than has ever been the case in the past..A study of the needs of operating the Fleet as a whole point to the increasing utilization of the deep water anchorage in Narragansett Bay as the years go on.

Although Earle witnessed his prophecy of fleet utilization of Newport and the Bay come true, he died in 1939 shortly before the Navy's World War II expansions began.

The Second World War
With the advent of World War II, Narragansett Bay and Newport once again became a strong center of naval activity. Quonset Point was selected by a naval board as the site of an air station in 1938, and $20 million was requested to build the project. Naval Air Station, Quonset Point was commissioned in July, 1941. The Naval Construction Battalion Center at Davisville, better known as the Seabees, was also begun in 1941. The Bureau of Yards and Docks established a project to "design, manufacture, and ship portable hut units suitable for barracks and other buildings for use in the construction of outlying bases." The project was called Temporary Advance Facilities, and was originally part of the Quonset Naval Air Station. In this way, the ubiquitous Quonset huts of this era received their name.

Newport also underwent a tremendous surge of activity during these years. The US Naval Operating Base was established in 1941 with headquarters on Coaster's Harbor Island to coordinate the growing naval facilities in the area. Coddington Point was reactivated, Coddington Cove became a Supply Station, and shoreline property extending north to Melville was acquired. A Patrol Torpedo (PT) Boat Training Center, a Naval Net Depot, and additional fuel facilities were set up at Melville. Elsewhere on Aquidneck Island, properties such as the Anchorage Housing site, Fleet Landing, and Sachuest Point were obtained by the Navy. An anti-aircraft Gunnery Training Center was also operated at Prices Neck on Newport's Ocean Drive. To the west on Jamestown, (Conanicut Island), a Harbor Defense Unit, Communications Facility, and Fleet Landing were established. Almost overnight, Newport and Narragansett Bay had become one of the Navy's largest and most important bases of operation. By the war's end, more than 100 ships of the US Atlantic Fleet were based in Newport.

The Post-World War II Years
With Germany's surrender in May 1945, and the subsequent concentration of armed forces in the Pacific Theater, naval activity in Rhode Island began to diminish. Japan's surrender on August 14, 1945, brought the Second World War to an end. The US Naval Operating Base of World War II was disestablished in 1946, and the Newport Navy Base was established in its place. Peacetime operations were interrupted in 1951 when conflict erupted in Korea. Recruit training figures increased as approximately 25,000 men were processed by the Training Center during the Korean War.

The usual peacetime reduction of naval activities occurred in Newport after the Second World War, and included the closing of Goat Island's Naval Torpedo Station in 1951. The manufacture of torpedoes was moved elsewhere. However, this change was balanced by the organization of the Naval Underwater Weapons Research and Engineering Station, established to carry on torpedo development and experimentation. The Naval Underwater Systems Center, or NUSC, is the present name of this research and development arm of the Navy. Another reduction was the decommissioning of the Naval Training Station in October 1952, when recruit training was shifted to Bainbridge, Maryland. The establishment of the Officers Candidate School at Newport in 1951 helped offset the loss of the Training Station. OCS is the Navy's primary source of reserve officers.

The 1950s and 1960s saw some further reductions and consolidations of Navy activities in the Narragansett Bay area, most of which were offset by the strengthening of the schools and advanced training facilities located at Newport. The Commander of the Newport Navy Base in the late 1960s exercised command or area-coordination over facilities on both sides of Narragansett Bay. Each command had a role in the Base's overall mission to support the Fleet and its associated commands. Within the scope of this mission were: conducting research and development, providing medical and dental services, operating shore-based services for Navy and Marine Corps personnel and their families, maintaining stocks of ship and aviation materials, and developing advanced bases.

On the east side of the bay in 1968 were:

  • Navy Finance Office
  • Degaussing Station
  • Naval Schools Command
  • Naval Officer Candidate School
  • Naval Hospital and Naval Dental Clinic
  • Naval Underwater Weapons Research and Engineering Station
  • Naval Communication Station
  • Naval Supply Center
  • Marine Barracks
  • Navy Public Works Center
  • Naval Justice School
  • Naval War College
  • Naval Destroyer School
  • Fleet Training Center
  • Naval Investigative Service

Facilities on the west side of Narragansett Bay included:

  • Naval Air Station, Quonset Point
  • Aircraft Torpedo Unit
  • Fleet Weather Facility
  • Naval Construction Battalion Center, Davisville

Other commands and activities included Naval Reserve Training Centers in Providence, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket, Rhode Island and at Fall River and New Bedford in Massachusetts. Brown University in Providence also had a Professor of Naval Science among its faculty. The Newport Navy Base was also responsible for area-coordination for the Naval Facility at Nantucket, Massachusetts.

New Projects in the 1960s
Figures from 1967 show the Navy continuing as the largest single employer in Rhode Island, with fully one-third of its salary budget--$70 million--paid to civilian employees. Modernization of equipment, facilities, and housing took place at a substantial rate during these years. At Newport, the Officer Candidate School gained two new dormitories, and two Bachelor Officer Quarters were constructed. In Middletown, over 100 acres of land were purchased for the construction of 600 family housing units, and at Quonset Point, 200 new family units were built. Additional housing for 200 families was started at three sites on the Navy Base in 1968: Cloyne Court (Melville), and two locations along Coddington Highway.

Pier One at Coddington Cove was extended 225 feet during 1968 and 1969 to accommodate the new longer ships, and new underground fuel lines were provided to the piers. Fifty-eight destroyer-type ships were homeported in Newport in the late-1960s, including, for the first time, several guided missile carrying ships. These ships were among the 200-ship Cruiser-Destroyer Force of the US Atlantic Fleet, which was headquartered at Newport. Other projects included a 600 foot low frequency radio antenna placed at Beavertail Point on Conanicut Island, WAVES Enlisted Quarters for 128 women, and the addition of anti-submarine warfare equipment to the Fleet Training Center at Coddington Point.

New Directions in the 1970s
The ships based at Newport were relocated to southern ports in the Shore Establishment Realignment Program of April 1973. The Navy commands and activities in Newport changed their mission from fleet support to officer training and education.

The Naval Education Training Center (NETC) was created for the purpose of training and educating naval personnel and providing logistic support for the entire Newport naval complex. NETC combined the services of five former commands. In addition, Newport became the home of the Northeast Navy Band, the Navy's most active band.

Shortly after the last of the ships departed for their homeports, the Destroyer School was combined with NETC's Anti-Submarine Warfare Officers School and Surface Warfare Officers School. The consolidated command became the Surface Warfare Officers School Command. Through the training provided by (SWOSCOLCOM), Newport became the genesis of the surface Navy.

In 1979, Navy Newport welcomed four new frigates, followed two years later by two minesweepers. That same year, the Shore Intermediate Maintenance Activity (SIMA) opened, providing a unique repair asset for the Navy. It delivered top quality repair work for the ships in the Northeast sector, and provided mobilization training for reserve personnel.

1980's through 1990's
By the mid-1980's, the Naval Underwater Systems Center became the largest command in terms of personnel and payroll. At the end of the decade, another minesweeper became the newest addition to Newport's fleet, and NETC began a $6.48 million project to upgrade electrical service and capacity on the complex.

In the early 1990's, several Newport-based frigates were decommissioned or transferred to foreign navies. The remaining ships of Destroyer Squadron SIX (DESRON SIX) were transferred in 1994, which left NETC without a homeported ship for the first time since 1973. As a result of DESRON SIX departing from Newport, Mobile Technical Unit Four; Naval Surface Force, US Atlantic Fleet Readiness Support Group; Supervisor of Shipbuilding, Conversion and Repair, Portsmouth Detachment Boston; and the Newport Field Office were also disestablished. In addition, the Shore Intermediate Maintenance Activity was decommissioned after servicing Newport-based ships and visiting fleet units since 1981.

In 1994, the Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training (BOOST) program was transferred to NETC from San Diego. The school took the place of the Officer Candidate School, which transferred to Pensacola, Florida after graduating over 100,000 officers during its 43 years in Newport. SWOSCOLCOM consolidated the Division Officers School in Newport during 1994 as well.

The mid-1990's saw the construction of several new laboratories at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (formerly NUSC), which continues to provide full spectrum research, development, test, and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines and underwater systems.

A ceremony was held on October 1, 1998 to establish Naval Station Newport as the primary host command, taking over base operating support responsibilities from NETC.

The year also saw the addition of the Navy Warfare Development Command to the Naval War College. Concurrently, the position of president at the Naval War College was reestablished as a three star position, while two new flag officer positions were added.

Throughout many milestones and changes, Naval Station Newport still maintains its prestigious position as Newport County's largest single employer in terms of both personnel and payroll, a position it has held since the mid 1970's.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:54:31 ZULU