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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of the Modern Navy

Gordon Carpenter O'Gara

published by
Princeton University Press 1943

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 4

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p28  Chapter III

Navy Yards and Bases

In addition to the unhealthy condition of its central administration, the Navy was also plagued by the problems of the location and internal organizations of its bases. This subject particularly aroused public criticism and discussion. The problem of the location was especially serious, for it afforded wide room for porkbarrel politics.

In 1904 the United States had twelve yards and stations along the Atlantic Coast, two on the Gulf Coast, and two on the Pacific Coast. In addition to these establishments on the mainland there were certain insular bases, none of which, however, could be built up because these territories had no representatives in Congress interested in obtaining government money. These overseas bases were Cavite and Olongapo in the Philippines, Guam, Tutuila in Samoa, Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and San Juan and Guantánamo in the Caribbean area.​1 The importance of these points in the defense of the Panama Canal, then under construction, and in protecting our interests in the western Pacific is clear at a glance. Congress, nevertheless, refused to make the necessary appropriations for fortifying them or building up their facilities to take care of the fleet. To illustrate, see the table on the next page showing expenditures on the different bases for the fiscal year 1904.2

Of all our oversea bases only Cavite received an appropriation of any significant amount. Strangely enough this  p29 was done at a time when the Navy had definitely decided upon Olongapo in Subic Bay as our main Philippine base rather than the Manila Bay location.​3 The fact that all responsible naval opinion in the country was agreed upon the necessity of these distant bases made no impression upon Congress.

Yards Expenditures
Boston $1,195,145
Cavite​* 142,912
Charleston 639,150
Dry Tortugas, Fla. 169,515
Guam 45,811
Guantánamo none
Hawaii 18,388
Key West 69,988
Philadelphia 1,023,426
Mare Island 512,604
New London 16,975
New Orleans 233,975
New York 855,338
Norfolk 523,609
Olongapo none
Pensacola 63,085
Port Royal, S. C. 22,637
Portsmouth 1,085,033
Puget Sound 483,593
San Juan 30,235
Tutuila 46,982
Washington 331,055

* This includes construction work on the floating drydock Dewey.

In his report Secretary of the Navy Moody complained that the ". . . situation and development [of naval stations] have . . . been controlled more by accident and local wishes than by the broader consideration of national needs." He concluded that there were plenty within the United States, but that "there is imperative demand for the establishment of a naval station in the Philippines and the West Indian Islands or the Caribbean."4

Roosevelt wholeheartedly supported this view, especially because our lack of bases abroad made us dependent upon  p30 foreign yards for all repair work done away from home. In 1903 he said to Congress: "The establishment of a naval base in the Philippines ought not to be longer postponed. . . . In time of war it would be indispensable, and its lack would be ruinous. Without it our fleet would be helpless. Our naval experts are agreed that Subig Bay is the proper place for the purpose."​5 In spite of his consistently strong attitude on this subject whenever he faced Congress,​6 Roosevelt was never able to develop any strong overseas bases during his administration. It was not until after he left office in 1909 that Pearl Harbor was finally chosen as our main Pacific base and work on it begun.7

Meanwhile, however, Congress was pouring money into a large number of practically useless yards in the continental United States. By February 1909 we had twelve yards in ten eastern states, five of which, including New York, the biggest, had no drydocks for the largest ships then building. Two more had drydocks that could not be reached by battle­ships at any tide, and another three had docks which could not be reached at low tide or by a ship low in the water as a result of injuries. And for all this a total of $110,000,000, it was charged, had been spent in ten years.​8 While this picture did not perhaps take all factors into consideration, it did show the general condition of our naval bases.

At that time nearly all members of the House Naval Affairs Committee came from inland districts that had no  p31 navy yards. Therefore, control of the Navy in Congress gravitated to the Senate Committee, where eight out of ten Senators had yards in their own states. The chairman, Senator Eugene Hale of Maine, was often known as the "Owner of the Navy," and was next to the top in the Senate Appropriations Committee as well.9

When Representative Cannon once complained of the number of navy yards, saying he wished there were but three on the Atlantic Coast, Chairman Foss of the House Naval Affairs Committee, agreeing with him, said: ". . . I believe we should keep up a few navy yards in the most efficient condition, and not seek to make them all first‑class yards. But the gentleman [Cannon] knows, and we all of us know, that it is very difficult to carry out any well-settled line of policy in matters of this kind, because so many members are interested in what may be called, perhaps, selfish interests, inasmuch as these yards and stations are located in their States. I do not believe for one moment that we need two navy yards on the Atlantic Coast, one at Boston and one at Portsmouth, N. H., within forty miles of each other." He then suggested that they might ask Secretary of the Navy Long of Massachusetts to close the Boston yard and Senator Hale of Maine to close the one at Portsmouth.10

The latter, Senator Hale's "private yard," aroused particular criticism. In 1899 a new $1,250,000 drydock was authorized there. On its completion Congress found that another $1,000,000 had to be spent in opening the channel to large battle­ships. The first capital ship reached the dock  p32 in the fall of 1908. Rear-Admiral Caspar F. Goodrich, while on an inspection tour for the secretary in the spring of that year, had recommended that Portsmouth be abandoned as useless to the Navy, even after a total expenditure of more than $10,000,000 within the previous ten years.11

There were also several other important "private yards." Senator Perkins of California secured large appropriations for the Mare Island Navy Yard. A drydock was built there that could not be reached by the larger battle­ships even at high tide, so by 1909 $750,000 had already been spent on dredging the channel. It was expected that the whole operation would cost $2,000,000 more in addition to $150,000 a year to keep the channel open.​12 Senator Penrose of Pennsylvania performed similar services for the League Island Yard at Philadelphia, but the most outspoken advocate of the porkbarrel was Senator Tillman of South Carolina. In 1899 in an effort to obtain a new drydock at Charleston or Port Royal, he said:

"This bill is loaded down with expansion in every navy yard. I am trying to get a little for Port Royal; because, if you are going to steal, I want my share. . . .

". . . We have a little orphan of a naval station in South Carolina for which I am trying to get a few crumbs of this money which is being wasted."​13

In this way a first-class naval base was begun at Charleston, later to be developed only as a torpedo station. The same thing happened in all the other southern yards. Only at Pensacola was more than one dollar's worth of work done  p33 in 1907 for every twenty-five dollars spent by the government.14

While it was generally agreed that only two or three bases were needed on the Atlantic coast, more than twice as much was spent on our numerous yards and stations as Great Britain had spent to build Gibraltar and Devonport, two of the world's greatest bases.​15 In 1908 the General Board advised the concentration of all our navy yard work at New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Mare Island and Puget Sound, while the other mainland stations were to be done away with if possible. Guantánamo and other insular positions were to be strengthened.16

Secretary Newberry, when testifying before the House Naval Affairs Committee early in 1909, supported a policy of limiting the Navy to a few large bases. He did this particularly because of the fact that the larger battle­ships then being built would require deep water. The Florida, with its twenty-eight and one‑half foot draft, the largest ship then under construction, could get into the new docks only at New York, Puget Sound and Pearl Harbor. There were drydocks large enough to accommodate her at Portsmouth, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Norfolk, Charleston, Mare Island and Puget Sound, although the flooding drydock Dewey at Olongapo could raise her up until the dock was barely awash.​17 The depth of the channels at the major bases was as follows:18

 p34  Controlling Depth of Channel
from Sea to Dry Dock
Navy yard Depth at mean
low water
Depth at mean
high water
Portsmouth 20.0 feet 28.6 feet
Boston 27.0      36.5     
New York 26.0      30.4     
Philadelphia 22.8      29.1     
Norfolk 28.0      30.7     
Charleston 26.0      31.2     
New Orleans 28.8      ––––––     
Mare Island 21.0      27.1     
Puget Sound 42.0      55.6     
Olongapo 36.0      38.0     

As in his attempts to reorganize the Navy Department, so also the President failed in his effort to build up a few good yards for the Navy. Congress balked and under the leader­ship of Senator Hale and his committee refused to give up their privilege of distributing the benefits of the Navy appropriations among their constituents.

Roosevelt was much more successful in his attempts to reform the internal administration of the Navy yards, although here he met opposition from certain vested interests in the Navy bureaucracy rather than from Congress. At this time each yard was made up of a number of separate, independent departments, each one owing allegiance to the Chief of the Bureau to which it belonged.

"The heads of departments of a navy yard," wrote Admiral Luce, "have extensive and responsible duties, and  p35 a large patronage, and are naturally jealous of the interference of anyone but their own chiefs."​19 The tendency, therefore, was for each department to increase its autonomy to such an extent that each had its own way of doing business and failed completely to cooperate with the others. This organization had grown up before the days of a modern navy and was the same one that had built wooden ships and then equipped them with steam and other new mechanical devices.20

A further cause for mismanagement and wasteful business methods was the fact that the commandants and the heads of the departments were, with the exception of the heads of the construction departments, line officers often having small knowledge of technical questions. Shore duty was for them a period of relaxation, so that they did not usually take their duties very seriously.​21 Since they were all shifted every two years, they had just about time to learn their jobs before leaving them. The commandant himself was not only the sole coordinator for the business administration, but he also had to handle the military administration.22

There were thus two main problems in the organization and operation of the navy yards: first, that of the efficiency of the individual departments, and second, that of the coordination of the yards as a whole.

The first of these has been well described by former Naval Constructor Holden Evans. He served in several  p36 navy yards during Roosevelt's Administration, but his most important position was at Mare Island as head of the construction department. There he saw how inefficiently work was done by the Navy as compared with private industry. He therefore set about reorganizing his department to cut down expenses and raise production, but at once ran into trouble with the Civil Service, the labor unions and the politicians.​23 He found, for example, that it was customary to employ highly paid skilled mechanics to do work that could be done by unskilled helpers. Thereupon, he started replacing the former with the latter. Immediately the unions protested to Washington, but since Evans had increased production by 50 per cent and cut the cost in half while doing so, the Navy Department backed him up.24

Certain labor groups had been urging the construction of naval vessels in navy (rather than private) yards. Requests of this sort were constantly being sent to Congress, the Chamber of Commerce of Vallejo, California, where the Mare Island workers lived, being particularly persistent.​25 This pressure and the desire of certain naval officials to see whether such an operation could be undertaken successfully had resulted in the authorization of the construction of a few ships in government yards. The Connecticut was the first modern battle­ship so built. At Mare Island Evans showed what could be accomplished in the navy yards by scientific management. In 1908 the Prometheus, a collier, was built there in record time, at a cost of  p37 $1,512,828, as compared with $1,623,664 for her sister ship, the Vestal, built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and this in spite of the fact that wages were twenty-five per cent higher on the Pacific Coast and all materials were more expensive. However, this good work went for nought, because the department of engineering at Mare Island failed to provide the machinery for the Prometheus for several months after she was launched.26

Although Evans managed to make remarkable improvements in his department, they were largely temporary and were dropped as soon as he left his post. To maintain such high standards was more than most officers were able or willing to do. They were not trained in business administration and could hardly be expected to manage such an establishment.

As Evans's experience in building the Prometheus showed, no improvement in any one department would really help so long as the yard as a whole was loosely knit and poorly run. Rear-Admiral Caspar F. Goodrich, who became commandant of the New York Navy Yard in 1907, was one of the first men to start the movement for consolidation of all the departments in the yards. He found at New York 125 buildings divided among six autonomous bureaus, each of which had its own stockpiles, its own shops and even, until very recently, its own power plant. Furthermore, the commandant found himself so busy signing three hundred to a thousand papers every day that he had little time for important work.​27 That same year the Bureau of Yards and Docks recommended the gradual  p38 consolidation of the shops and even of certain departments.28

This serious situation in the management of the construction and repair work of our navy soon became widely known. While some people were inclined to believe that only a complete reorganization of the bureau system within the Navy Department itself would prove effectual,​29 it was more generally thought that this evil could be largely eliminated by consolidation within the yards. In 1908 Newberry, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, had tried consolidating some of the shops under the bureau which already had the largest shop in that particular yard. For example, in New York he had consolidated three pattern shops formerly under the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Construction and Repair, and Steam Engineering, into one large one under the latter bureau.​30 At the same time Newberry felt such action was not enough. The Secretary had the authority to redistribute the powers of all the bureaus and could put a whole yard under one bureau. Only this drastic action could be effective.31

A short while later Holden Evans sent a report on reorganizing the navy yards to Newberry who had by that time become Secretary. Evans sent this from Mare Island over the heads of his superiors. Newberry liked the report and had Evans come to Washington. Evans's plan called  p39 for a mechanical superintendent in each yard to run the industrial establishment and to be senior to all officers except the commandant, who was to continue running the military administration. Newberry fully approved this plan, but he was unable to get Roosevelt's consent even after Evans produced further proof of the inefficiency in the eastern yards.32

Newberry was eventually able to win the President over. By an order that went into effect February 1, 1909, all bureau administration within the navy yards was terminated and a plan essentially like Evans's was adopted. Each commandant was given a technical assistant who was to be a naval constructor, not a Line officer, to handle all the manufacturing. Line officers were used only to inspect the work.

This reform was a real triumph for the Roosevelt Administration, although it does seem strange that it was not instituted earlier, for no legislation whatever was required to carry it out. Unfortunately the reform was not given a fair chance because many modifications were made in navy yard organization under President Taft. He had agreed to keep Newberry on as Secretary of the Navy so that these reforms might be secure, but at the last minute political considerations forced him to replace Newberry with George Meyer. While Meyer was a good man, he did not follow up the reforms of the previous administration, although he did permit the new system as a whole to survive.​a

The Author's Notes:

1 Navy Department, Bureau of Yards and Docks, Annual Report, 1904, pp119‑40.

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2 loc. cit.

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3 Navy Department, Annual Report, 1901, p17. Also Annual Report, 1902, p13 and Annual Report, 1903, p13.

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4 Navy Department, Annual Report, 1902, p25.

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5 Roosevelt, State Papers, p201.

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6 e.g., ibid., p472.

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7 Navy Department, Annual Report, 1909, p30.

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8 G. K. Turner, "Our Navy on Land," McClure's, 32 (1909), p401.

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9 ibid., p398.

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10 U. S. 57th Cong. 1st Sess., Congressional Record, 35 (1902), p5597.

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11 Turner, op. cit., pp398‑9.

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12 ibid., p400.

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13 loc. cit.

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14 ibid., pp402‑3.

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15 ibid., p401.

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16 Navy Department, Annual Report, 1908, pp31‑2.

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17 U. S. 60th Cong. 2nd Sess. House Committee on Naval Affairs, Hearings on Estimates Submitted by the Secretary of the Navy, 1909, p347.

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18 ibid., p348.

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19 Luce, Naval Administration, pp83‑4.

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20 Turner, op. cit., p404.

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21 H. A. Evans, op. cit., p211.

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22 U. S. 60th Cong. 1st Sess. House Committee on Naval Affairs, Hearings and Communications, 1907‑1908, p465 (Testimony of T. H. Newberry).

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23 H. A. Evans, op. cit., pp153‑4.

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24 ibid., pp183‑4.

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25 U. S. 57th Cong. 1st Sess., Congressional Record, 35 (1902), p5375 (Speech of George Foss).

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26 H. A. Evans, op. cit., pp208‑10.

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27 Turner, op. cit., p409.

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28 U. S. 60th Cong. 1st Sess. House Committee on Naval Affairs, Hearings and Communications, 1907‑1908, pp557‑8 (Report of Bureau of Yards and Docks, March 11, 1907).

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29 Luce, Naval Administration, p82.

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30 U. S. 60th Cong. 1st Sess. House Committee on Naval Affairs, Hearings and Communications, 1907‑1908, pp463‑4 (Testimony of T. H. Newberry).

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31 ibid., pp466‑8.

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32 H. A. Evans, op. cit., pp212‑15.

Thayer's Note:

a In his autobiographical memoir One Man's Fight for a Better Navy, Naval Constructor Holden Evans lays out the "last minute political considerations" that led to Meyer's appointment as Secretary of the Navy (pp224‑225); Meyer's rôle in certain key naval reforms comes in for a hard, detailed look in pp251‑259.

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