Located in the Wallabout Basin of the East River, Brooklyn Navy Yard – the more commonly-known name for the United States Navy Yard, New York – has been constructing and repairing ships since before the Civil War. Opened in 1806, the Yard oversaw the construction of Robert Fulton’s steam ship, the Fulton, as well as the USS Monitor, America’s first ironclad warship. The USS Maine, the ship whose sinking would initiate the Spanish-American War, launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1890.
As World War II approached, the Yard employed about 10,000 workers, one third of them from the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal project to provide jobs and public works in the years following the Great Depression. When the war broke out, employment at the yard swelled to over 70,000 workers. At this time, the Yard featured four drydocks, two steel shipways, a power plant, and a large radio station in addition to the equipment and facilities found at most shipyards. The Yard produced many battleships that were integral to the Allied victory, including the USS Missouri, which took aboard Emperor Hirohito for the formal surrender of Japan in September of 1945.
While the ships produced at the Brooklyn Navy Yard would go on to help turn the tides of war, those working in these facilities were faced with a new problem, asbestos. Asbestos is a fibrous material which has hundreds of applications in military and industrial technology, mostly for insulating and fireproofing. Unfortunately, those working with asbestos for extended amounts of times and without adequate protection dramatically increase their chances of acquiring the cancer known as mesothelioma. Shipyard workers and Navy men are afflicted with mesothelioma at a much higher rate than the general population due to their near-constant exposure to asbestos.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard was officially decommissioned in 1966 and sold to the City of New York, but its productive days were not yet over. Seatrain Lines build four VLCC (very large crude carrier) oil tankers, eight barges, and an icebreaker barge. These were the last ships to be built at the Yard, but it continued to offer ship repair and conversion for Navy vessels until 1987. Today, the docks are owned by GMD Shipyard Corporation, and the buildings of Admiral’s Row that served as accommodations for officers since the Yard’s founding are being considered for the National Register of Historic Places.