The Beginning

Above:  Early 20th century construction on the shipyard. 

Right:  An aerial view of the coaling and repair station, circa 1919.

Photos: courtesy of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard


Although it wasn’t until 1908 that Congress established the Navy Yard Pearl Harbor, the United States had set its sights on the landlocked waterway much earlier. In 1846, Lt. I.W. Curtis of the frigate USS Constitution, nicknamed Old Ironsides, saw Pearl Harbor’s potential as a naval base. In a letter to one of King Kalakaua’s Cabinet ministers, he noted “the perfect security of its harbor, the excellence of its water, the ... ease with which it can be made one of the finest places in the Islands,” according to Paradise of the Pacific.

In the 1870s, Maj. Gen. John Schofield and Lt. Col. B.S. Alexander recommended that the United States gain control of Pearl Harbor to establish a ship coaling and repair station. Kalakaua agreed in exchange for the U.S. allowing Hawaiian sugar, the Islands’ primary export, into the states duty-free—the Reciprocity Treaty of 1887 most of us learned about in grade school.

Pearl Harbor’s location grew more important to the U.S. over the next two decades. “In the Spanish American War of 1898, America gained control of the Philippines and Guam and became a serious Asia-Pacific power,” notes Kerry Gershaneck, the shipyard’s public affairs officer. “Congress needed to start getting serious about the opportunity they’d had since 1887.”

“The Naval Disaster of the Year”

Photo: courtesy of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard

After $2 million ($42.8 million in 2008 dollars) and four years’ worth of construction, Pearl Harbor’s first dry dock imploded on Feb. 7, 1913. Luckily, no one was killed in what Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels declared the “naval disaster of the year.” An engineering report later confirmed that Dry Dock 1 had succumbed to underground pressure—faulty piling and foundation design—but nearby residents weren’t convinced. The Navy had refused residents’ requests to bless the site to placate Kaahupahau, the Hawaiian shark goddess who lived in the harbor. Before the workers began reconstruction of the dry dock, the Navy hosted a blessing of the site. Dry Dock 1 was completed six years later, and the shipyard now has four.

Upon its completion, Dry Dock 1 measured 1,002 feet long, 138 feet wide and 32.5 feet deep. Now 90 years old, the dry dock has seen lots of action, housing the USS Downes and USS Cassin, two casualties of the Pearl Harbor attack, and the USS Greenville, the submarine that struck the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru in 2001.

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