Nearly 200 years ago, Pensacola was a growing port city along the Gulf Coast, newly seized from the Spanish Empire by the formidable General Andrew Jackson and the American democracy, which was itself rapidly growing. The nation was in the midst of an expansion that was destined to stretch from coast to coast.
Pensacola was a critical part of this expansion. Through the centuries, many countries recognized the ideal conditions of Pensacola’s harbor. In 1686, a Spanish sailor called Pensacola Bay “the best I have ever seen.”
In 1825, the city known as America’s First Settlement would take the next step to establish itself as a naval stronghold for the United States. One hundred and ninety years ago today, President John Quincy Adams approved the site for the Pensacola Navy Yard.
After a year of construction, the Navy Yard was opened in the Winter of 1826. Occupying an area in the southeast corner of the present-day Naval Air Station Pensacola, many original structures from the Navy Yard still exist, including portions of the yard’s brick walls.
The Navy Yard was born out of the need for the Navy Department to establish a strong naval base on the Gulf of Mexico in the 19th century. With the American acquisition of the Floridas in the early 1820s, the Spanish were entrenched in Cuba and Puerto Rico to the south — presenting a constant threat to the southern expanse of the new American democracy.
Accordingly, in 1825, President John Quincy Adams appointed a board consisting of three famous naval officers—Captain William Bainbridge, Captain Lewis Warrington, and Captain James Biddle — to select a site on Pensacola Bay for a navy yard. Embarking at Norfolk, Va. aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, the three arrived at Pensacola on October 25, 1825.
On November 4 of that year, the board wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, in which they recommended the present site of the Naval Air Station as the preferred site for a navy yard. President Adams approved their recommendation on December 4, 1825.
After a few of facilities had been constructed, an extensive building program was launched in 1837. At that time, eighty acres in the southeast corner of the tract were set aside for development into a first class navy yard and arsenal. Around this area was built a brick wall, most of which is still standing today.
A substantial building slip, a floating dry dock and other necessary facilities for the docking, repairing and construction of the then largest ships were built. By 1861, the Yard was considered one of the best equipped in the country.
After opening, the Navy Yard became a hub for the U.S. naval fleet in the fight against the slave trade and piracy in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
During the Civil War the Navy Yard was destroyed, as was most of the city. In 1911, the Pensacola Navy Yard was closed, a victim of a final yellow fever epidemic in 1905 and a devastating hurricane in 1906. Three years later, however, the station would reopen as the nation’s first aeronautical base. In 1935, the first cadet training program was started, and since then, the base has been known as Naval Air Station Pensacola.