The Charleston Navy Shipyards, which opened in 1901, along with the Naval Station, the Naval Fleet, and Industrial Supply Center, Fleet and Mine Warfare Training Center and the Naval Reserve Center make up the Charleston Naval Complex. The complex is located roughly five miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, on the west bank of the Cooper River.
During World War I, the shipyards came to true prominence. Frigates, submarines, destroyers, and various other naval vessels were produced in large quantities. The shipyard quickly gained a reputation for quality, speed, and efficiency. Many locals found employment at the shipyards.
After the end of the war, production slowed until the United States government unveiled a new addition to the naval fleet. Needing to increase firepower, the cruiser program was born. The program was launched due in large part to concerns that the United States Navy would become second rate compared to the navies of Japan and European countries.
The cruiser program initially called for small numbers of cruisers to be built at the Charleston Shipyards. By the thirties, though, the United States government increased production of the cruisers. This, along with funds from President Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, helped Charleston to thrive while other U.S. cities were ravaged by the great depression.
Although the attack on Pearl Harbor both traumatized and infuriated the country, one side effect was expansion of the shipyards. As the war raged on, thousands of new workers were needed. Employment peaked in 1943, with the inevitable downsizing happening occurring after the end of the war.
During these times, shipyards used a natural mineral called asbestos for construction, insulation, and repair needs. Asbestos is fire-retardant and inexpensive, thus popularizing it among many shipyards. However, when asbestos fibers are released in to the air, they are inhaled by the workers and can collect in t he lining of the lungs, resulting in a deadly cancer called mesothelioma.
Still, the shipyards saw more expansion after the war ended, first in the late 1940’s when the shipyards started repairing submarines instead of just building them. During the Vietnam War, more buildings were added as the government started a missile building program at the shipyards. This lead to the creation of the Poseidon missile.
The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission was formed in 1993, and targeted the Charleston shipyards for downsizing. Many of the buildings were shut down in 1996.
After the downsizing, the South Carolina legislature voted to redevelop the shipyards, a project which is currently underway.