The following content was contributed by Brian Stinson, Author of Newport Firsts: A Hundred Claims to Fame.
Forming the western boundary of Newport Harbor, Goat Island, was purchased in 1658 and has undergone various cosmetic changes over the years. The overall size has increased considerably from its original ten acres. Presently, thirty acres is the size, which includes dirt, concrete, rebar and all sorts of debris as fill in from the Urban Renewal project of the 1960’s, was used to extend the island northward toward the lighthouse. Some of the fascinating island history includes various fortifications and pirates. In 1723, twenty-six pirates were hanged at Gravelly Point, (now known as Long Wharf), and were “buried between the ebb and flow of the tide” on the northern end of Goat Island.
The founding of the torpedo station on Goat Island can be attributed to David Dixon Porter (1813-1891). Porter persuaded the Naval Department to establish an experimental station for the research and development of underwater weapons. It seems that during the Civil War the Southern states used various types of torpedoes to cause havoc on the Northerners. Torpedoes in that day are what we now consider stationary mines. Originally, Newport was not the chosen site of the torpedo station. There is even speculation on why Newport was selected. One reason suggests, that since Newport was a gracious host of the United States Naval Academy during the Civil War, due to its departure, the torpedo station was awarded to Newport. Whatever the reason or intentions were, on July 29, 1869, the occupation of Goat Island by the Naval Department, was authorized by the Secretary of War and placed under the direction of Commander Edmund O. Matthew.
The torpedo station was intended to be an experimental station for the development of torpedoes and torpedo equipment, explosives, electrical equipment and to instruct Naval officers in the manufacturing and repairing of torpedoes. Construction was begun on this complex and the island was not open to the public. The military officers and the civilian employees were under strict secrecy pertaining to their work. Due to the nature of work with explosives this was a dangerous place to work. The first accident that killed two men was on August 29, 1881.
The station over the years racked up many “firsts”, including the development of the first truly mobile torpedoes; the first self-propelled torpedo made in the U.S.; a torpedo specifically designed for aircraft launching and so on…
The station saw much activity over the years and during the two World Wars. The station was in around-the-clock production. The torpedo station in 1944 employed over 12,000 people and in 1945 the station was so productive and the stockpile of torpedoes so great, it was ordered to stop producing. It has been suggested that 80% of the torpedoes used by the Navy during the two world wars were produced at the facility.
From the end of the War to 1951, the torpedo station was left pretty much abandoned and the facility was closed. In that year, the research responsibilities would be absorbed by the newly organized Naval Underwater Ordinance Center. In 1970, this center became known as the Naval Underwater Systems Center. The torpedo complex and the final fortification (Fort Wolcott) were eventually bulldozed into oblivion in the late 1960’s. Today, Goat Island is privately owned with an assortment of buildings and complexes dotting its landscape. Only two of the original buildings of station still exist today. One is near the hotel on the west side of the island and the other used to be known as the Marina Pub. That establishment is now next west to that building.
The U.S. Torpedo Station Memorial, a granite monument to those who lost their lives in the service once stood on Government Landing next east to the Newport-Jamestown ferry slip (presently: Newport Harbor Hotel). Once thought to have been bulldozed, it now stands at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Middletown.
Stinson, Brian M. Newport Firsts: A Hundred Claims to Fame. Charleston, South Carolina. The History Press, 2018. 40: 106,107.
The book is available at the following retail outlets
- Newport Preservation Society of Newport County Museum Store on Bannisters Wharf
- Fort Adams Trust
- Naval War College Foundation
- One Stop Building Supply Center
- Newport Ace Hardware
- Spring Street Books
- Museum of Newport History
- Island Bookstore
- Barnes & Noble
- Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association
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