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The USS Leary gets a big send-off as it departs from Norfolk Naval Base (now Naval Station Norfolk) ca1934.
Photo by Charles Borjes. From the Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library.


Carrol Walker's Old Norfolk

Happy Birthday to Naval Station Norfolk!

By Peggy Haile McPhillips
Norfolk City Historian


There are many things to love about life in Hampton Roads. One of them is having the world's largest and greatest naval base - Naval Station Norfolk - right in our own backyard.

The US Navy presence in Norfolk began with a single ship - the USS Chesapeake, built at Gosport Shipyard in Norfolk County (now Portsmouth) in 1799-1800 as one of the original fleet of six wooden frigates commissioned by United States Congress in 1794, which formed the nucleus of the first United States Navy. Landmark events in naval and aviation history have taken place in Norfolk waters, including the battle between the first ironclads and the birth of the steel navy in 1862; and the birth of naval aviation in 1910; also, what may have been one of the Navy's earliest battle groups - when two squadrons composed of 16 American battleships, torpedo boats and transports, known collectively as the Great White Fleet, left Sewells Point in December 1907 to circumnavigate the globe in a show of American naval power. Charles Wilkes's Exploring Expedition sailed from Norfolk in 1838; Matthew Perry left Norfolk in 1852 on a journey that would open Japan to western trade; Admiral Richard Byrd's Second Antarctic Expedition stopped off at the Norfolk naval base for supplies on the way to the South Pole in 1933; Amelia Earhart had the dubious distinction of crashing her plane at the base in 1930; and naval personnel were on hand to pick up Sam the Space Monkey in December 1959, when he splashed down safely after a 55-mile trip into space as part of NASA's Project Mercury development program.

Before it was occupied by the Navy, Sewells Point was home to the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, commemorating the 300th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America. A complete city was created there, including street grids and utilities, perfectly suited for permanent occupancy - by someone - after the Exposition ended. During the Exposition, naval officials agreed that the site was ideal for a naval station. A bill was passed in 1908 proposing that Congress allow $1 million for the purchase of the property and buildings, but the initiative died when the Assistant Secretary of the Navy was given a choice between purchasing the property and funding a new coal ship. The Secretary insisted that a new ship was an absolute necessity, and the land sat vacant for nearly a decade. The idea was revisited after the United States entered World War I, and the Secretary of the Navy was persuaded to buy the property. In June 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill establishing a new naval installation on 474 acres that included the old Exposition site. It would be called Naval Operating Base, Hampton Roads - or NOB.

The name of the installation was changed to Naval Station Norfolk in 1953. The Naval Station Norfolk of today is a far cry from the one established here 100 years ago. There is more land, more ships, more planes, more personnel, more of everything. From 474 acres in 1917, Naval Station Norfolk has grown to 4,300 acres, and is the world's largest naval station today.

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