From its infancy during the Revolutionary War to its present day sophistication, the United States Navy has been an integral part of Narragansett Bay. As the first Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy, Rhode Islander Esek Hopkins used the bay as a haven for his small fleet between combat engagements. After the revolution, American men-of-war were common sights in the upper and lower bay, even though the Navy was small and often engaged in other conflicts on the high seas, such as the war with Tripoli, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.
However, there were periods when naval activity in the bay area was at a standstill. Following official recognition of U.S. independence in the Treaty of Paris, there was a general demobilization of the armed forces; the Navy, in consequence, was virtually forgotten.
During the Civil War, the Navy came back to life in Newport. To avoid capture by the Confederates, the government transferred the faculty and students of the U.S. Naval Academy from Annapolis to Newport, where it operated for about four years. When it moved back to Annapolis, the Navy had become more organized and had acquired a degree of permanence.
The year 1869 marked the beginning of one of the most significant and best-known Navy landmarks in Narragansett Bay. In that year, the Secretary of the Navy authorized establishment of an experimental torpedo station at Goat Island. The station was responsible for developing torpedoes and conducting experimental work on other forms of naval ordnance. Its fame, importance and contributions made during its 83 years are legendary in the Rhode Island area. A major economic and military installation in Rhode Island from the day of its establishment, the Torpedo Station reached its peak importance in World War II when more than 13,000 employees worked around the clock to manufacture 80 percent of the torpedoes used by the United States during the war. The station was the largest single industry ever operated in Rhode Island. In 1951, it was replaced by the Naval Underwater Ordnance Station on the base, and Goat Island was transferred to the city of Newport. Redevelopment of the island included a causeway, luxury hotel and restaurant, marina, shopping facilities and apartments.
A Sailor learned most of his trade on the job until the last two decades of the 19th century. In the 1880s a new concept of shore-based training for officers and men was developed, and again the Navy turned to Narragansett Bay.
In 1881, the Navy acquired Coasters Harbor Island from the state, and on June 4, 1883, the island became home to the Navy’s first recruit training station. On Oct. 6, 1884, the Naval War College was established on the island. By the turn of the century, classroom lecture notes of the college’s second president, Alfred Thayer Mahan, had been published in book form, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History,” and the Naval War College had taken its place at the forefront of maritime strategic thought.
The advent of steam-powered ships made it necessary for the Navy to set up coaling stations for the fleet. Just before the turn of the century, one of the largest coaling stations in the country was established at Melville and it attracted many battleships and cruisers to East Passage anchorages to “coalship.”
By 1913, the Navy had acquired Government Landing in downtown Newport and had constructed the Naval Hospital on the mainland of Aquidneck Island adjacent to Coasters Harbor Island. This extension of the Navy was accelerated several years later when the United States entered World War I. As thousands of recruits flooded into Newport, the Navy acquired Coddington Point to accommodate overflow from the Training Station on Coasters Harbor Island. After the war, the Washington Disarmament Conference drastically reduced the Navy’s budget and curtailed expansion of naval facilities.
The threat of a major war against the Third Reich perked up naval activity once again in Narragansett Bay. In 1940, the base developed rapidly; Coddington Point was reactivated to house the many thousands of recruits being trained at Newport; Coddington Cove was acquired as a Supply Station; and new fuel facilities were built at Melville, along with a PT-Boat Training Center and a Net Depot. In November 1942, then-Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy completed PT-Boat training at Melville. A memorial stone there marks the site of this former training area. The area went into a military growth boom with Anchorage housing being built; Sachuest Point was acquired; a harbor defense unit and communications station were constructed on Jamestown Island and Congress appropriated money to build a naval air station at Quonset Point on the west side of the bay. By the time the air station went into operation in 1941, plans had been completed for another facility adjacent to Quonset. In 1942, the Davisville Advanced Base Depot, predecessor to the former Davisville construction battalion, was established. Narragansett Bay became one of the Navy’s largest installations at the time in the brief period of three years.
After the war, many temporary units in the bay area began to deactivate. In 1946, the entire naval complex there was consolidated under a single military command, designated as U.S. Naval Base, Newport.
The Navy in Narragansett Bay adjusted to peacetime by increasing its activities in the fields of research, development, and training and preparing for modern warfare. Except for the brief period during the Korean War, when more than 25,000 Sailors trained at Newport, the Navy applied its efforts to these three major areas.
In 1951, the Torpedo Station was permanently disestablished and the manufacture of torpedoes was awarded to private industry. A new research and development facility, the Naval Underwater Ordnance Station, replaced the Torpedo Station. In February 1966, the Ordnance Station and the Naval Underwater Weapons Systems Engineering Center were combined to better coordinate all underwater programs pursued at the naval base. A merger in 1970 with another naval activity in New London, Connecticut, created what is now the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC).
In 1952, the Naval Training Station at Newport was disestablished by the transfer of recruit training to Bainbridge, Maryland. However, the Fleet Training Center and Naval School Command, established several years earlier at Newport, continued to provide specialized training to fleet personnel. The Officer Candidate School, which opened in 1951, became the Navy’s primary source for junior Naval Reserve officers.
Piers 1 and 2 were built in 1955 and 1958, respectively, to accommodate ships of the Cruiser-Destroyer Force and Service Force. Naval supply and public works facilities were expanded at this time to support the fleet, and Headquarters, Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Force, Atlantic, was established at Newport in 1962. This command moved to Norfolk, Virginia, in July 1973.
Earlier in 1973, a Shore Establishment Realignment study directed the closing of the Quonset Point Naval Air Station; a drawdown of facilities at Davisville; the movement of the active fleet from Newport; and a cutback of personnel and activities. Five previously independent commands were disestablished and their personnel absorbed by a new activity — the Naval Education and Training Center (NETC).
A ceremony on Oct. 1, 1998, established Naval Station Newport as the primary host command, taking over base operating support responsibilities from the Naval Education and Training Center. The Commanding Officer, Naval Station Newport, reports directly to the Commander, Mid-Atlantic Region.
The base continues to evolve as the Navy seeks ways to improve training and increase efficiency. As a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission study, Naval Station Newport acquired additional units and personnel. In July 2008, the Naval Station Newport Vision 2035 Master Plan was published, outlining the future direction for the Navy’s organization and infrastructure needs. Naval Station Newport is the Navy’s world-class Center of Learning Excellence.