Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Charleston Naval Shipyard remained instrumental in the navy’s nuclear submarine program. After 1990 the lowcountry facility became less important.
Established in 1901 and deactivated 1995, the Charleston Naval Shipyard served as headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s Sixth District for most of its history. Variously known as the Charleston Navy Yard, the Charleston Naval Shipyard, and the Charleston Naval Base, the facility traced its origins to a U.S. Navy base located at Parris Island in Beaufort County. Following a lobbying effort by U.S. Senator Ben Tillman, the navy transferred the base in 1901 to a less isolated location on the Cooper River about ten miles north of the port of Charleston. Local leaders hoped that the navy base would provide a much-needed economic stimulus. But it would be nearly two decades before the facility began to realize these expectations. The workforce grew slowly, numbering about 1,200 by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917. Once the country was at war, the facility grew dramatically. At its wartime peak 5,000 civilians were employed, with the navy’s only clothing factory employing an additional 1,000 women. Furthermore, the yard’s training center taught 25,000 navy personnel in various skills and built a one-thousand-bed hospital. Numerous vessels were repaired, and eight submarine chasers and one gunboat were constructed.
With the end of the war in 1918, the yard’s workforce was steadily reduced until it numbered just 479 in 1924. Slated for decommissioning in 1922, lobbying efforts by local politicians and U.S. Senator Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith convinced the navy to keep the facility operating. While the base remained active through the 1920s, it had few duties. Only five small vessels were built, and not many more were repaired. As the Depression began taking hold of the nation in 1930, activity slowed even further. Looking for ways to cut costs, the navy again slated the Charleston facility for closure. But once again Washington’s intentions were forestalled when South Carolina’s congressional delegation protested.
New Deal spending and lobbying by U.S. Senator James Byrnes helped the Charleston Naval Base secure a $3.2 million contract in 1933 for manufacturing gunboats. This small windfall employed 500 workers and led to an order for the base’s first destroyer in 1936. By the eve of Pearl Harbor the once-stagnating facility had become a thriving shipbuilding and repair center for destroyers and other smaller navy craft. The workforce expanded to 10,000. Such accelerated growth caused strains on the city’s infrastructure. Housing, transportation, and schools became overburdened.
World War II saw the Charleston Navy Yard reach its highest employment and shipbuilding rate. Women and minorities joined the yard’s workforce, which reached an unprecedented total of 26,000 by 1944. Their efforts were crucial in making the facility a center for invasion-craft production, Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) and Landing Ship Mediums (LSMs). During the war more than 200 vessels of all sorts were built, including 20 destroyers and 140 LSMs. Many more vessels were repaired. The huge influx of workers and their families accelerated the need for housing, transportation, and schools in Charleston. The navy worked with local and federal agencies to improve the situation. Along with new schools and day-care centers, twenty thousand housing units had been built by the last months of the war.
In the last months of the war the Charleston facility began laying off its workforce. By September 1946 employment at the yard had fallen below ten thousand. Before the end of the decade Washington again proposed closing the lowcountry facility. However, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 revived the facility once again. During the cold war the Charleston Naval Shipyard (as it became known) became a center for refitting the navy’s nuclear submarine fleet. Until his death in 1970, the lowcountry congressman L. Mendel Rivers was the base’s biggest champion, using his political influence on the Armed Services Committee to strengthen and expand the facility. Some of these new installations included a fifth dry dock (1962) to overhaul Polaris submarines and other vessels, a navy missile assembly complex, and a fleet missile training center.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Charleston Naval Shipyard remained instrumental in the navy’s nuclear submarine program. After 1990 the lowcountry facility became less important. Despite efforts by the state’s congressional delegation, the base was deactivated in 1995, which dealt a serious, albeit temporary, blow to the Charleston area economy. Buildings and grounds have been turned over to a civilian agency for conversion to various uses.
Hamer, Fritz P. “A Southern City Enters the Twentieth Century: Charleston, Its Navy Yard, and World War II, 1940–1948.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1998.
Hopkins, George W. “From Naval Pauper to Naval Power: The Development of Charleston’s Metropolitan-Military Complex.” In Martial Metropolis: U.S. Cities in War and Peace, edited by Roger W. Lotchin. New York: Praeger, 1984.
McNeil, Jim. Charleston’s Navy Yard: A Picture History. Charleston, S.C.: CokerCraft, 1985.
Moore, John H. “Charleston in World War I: Seeds of Change.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 86 (January 1985): 39–49.
–––. “No Room, No Rice, No Grits: Charleston’s Time of Trouble, 1942–1944.” South Atlantic Quarterly 85 (winter 1986): 23–31.