Navy Mine Depot, Yorktown, Virginia 1926: When the United States, during the World War, undertook stupendous operation of laying the North Sea barrage, it was necessary that there be a plant in the United States on the Atlantic Seaboard where mines, after being manufactured, could be stored, assembled, loaded, tested and issued to the Service in quantities sufficient to meet the insistent demands of war. Also a place was needed to build up and train a mine personnel in the adjustment and operation of mines. On August 7, 1918, by Presidential Proclamation, a tract of land, about eighteen square miles of area near Yorktown, Virginia, was selected as the best location on the East Coast to concentrate the Navy's mine activities. The Bureau of Ordnance of the Navy Department assumed possession one month later.
It is an oddity of the past peace-times that old seventeenth century Yorktown, situated near the mouth of the York River on its south bank, has been forgotten and neglected in the strategic schemes of things military. Yet, in the war of the American Revolution, the War of 1812 with England, the Civil War between the States, and in the World War, the naval and military authorities were not long in rediscovering quiet little Yorktown, with the consequence that many events of world-wide significance have taken place here.
In 1918, however, the imprint of the World War left the Virginia Peninsula with an Army post permanently located at Fort Eustis, Virginia ten miles from Yorktown, the Navy Fuel Oil Station at Yorktown, Virginia, and the Navy Mine Depot, on the York River, two and one-half miles above Yorktown.
The reasons for selecting Yorktown as a Mine Depot are many. It is conveniently located with respect to the Navy Operating Base at Hampton Roads, the Norfolk Navy Yard, and the Fuel Bases of the Fifth Naval District. Excellent transportation facilities are available, the main lines of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad forming one of the boundaries of the Depot, and five miles of waterfront on the navigable York River, where ocean-going vessels of largest size and deepest draft can navigate, forming another boundary. Its location on the West Side of the Chesapeake Bay, ten miles within the winding mouth of the York River, particularly lends itself to protection from land and sea.
The Mine Depot is twenty-three miles from Newport News, Virginia, as measured along the State concrete highway from that city and two and one-half miles over concrete road to Yorktown, Virginia. It is twelve miles by motor from the old Colonial capitol of Virginia at Williamsburg. The total acreage of the Mine Depot is 12,562 acres, subdivided into 11,288 acres of hard, marsh and water land, and 1,274 of underwater land, making it the largest single reservation in the United States under Naval control.
To afford adequate protection of the waterfront, the State of Virginia conveyed to the Navy Department in fee of simple all underwater land to the pier-head line, which later the War Department (Engineer Corps) determined as the 30-foot depth curve. This insured a natural barrier or safety zone for the northeastern boundary.
A great proportion of the Depot, as originally commandeered, consisted of cultivated farm lands but most of the old farm houses were subsequently removed, and the cleared land, where not utilized for buildings, allowed to grow up with underbrush and trees. It is estimated that at the present time eighty percent of the Mine Depot is heavily wooded. A sawmill for the manufacture of railroad timber and lumber is kept in operation as funds permit, and with circumspect conservation, a continuous supply of timber is assured. In this section of Virginia it is regarded as but twenty-five years from "farm to forest".
There is comparatively little strictly smooth ground in the Depot. The terrain is generally rolling with occasional level tracts estimated to aggregate not over ten percent of the entire area. There are many low-rising hills reaching a maximum elevation of ninety feet above sea level and the entire waterfront is bordered by bluffs ranging from fifty to one hundred feet high. At extreme low water, the fore shore extends several hundred yards channelward.
The York River constitutes the northeaster boundary of the Depot. It is a tidal estuary of the Chesapeake Bay about one mile and a quarter in width at the Mine Depot and is navigable for a distance of forty miles above to the town of West Point, Virginia, (named for John West, an early settler). There are several small creeks in the Depot flowing from high ground into the York, most of which are tidal for considerable distance from their mouth. These streams are shallow and only navigable to small flat-bottom boats.
Within the Mine Depot there are twenty-three miles of sand and clay road, the main roads being excellent for automobiles, and starting at the Main Gate there is a charming motor drive of six miles to Stoney Point, thence two miles of perfect scenery along the banks of the York River to Indian Field and returning by the Indian Field road to the Main Gate. Due to the presence of explosives, no unauthorized persons are allowed on the roadways west of the main highway to Indian Field. To serve the magazines, pier and Industrial Area are twelve miles of standard gauge railroad connecting directly with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad at Lee Hall, Virginia.
The fresh water supply for the Dept is obtained by gathering the water of five springs into a central impounding basin. The water here is chlorinated and pumped to gravity tanks for use. A sewage disposal plant is in operation thus preventing pollution of waters of the York River.
All told, there are at present 192 persons residing within the limits of the Mine Depot. This community consists of the officers and families, Marines, Navy enlisted personnel and civilian employees and their families. There are twenty-four sets of civilian quarters. A private school, supported by the community, which has two teachers and an attendance of approximately thirty children, stands near the Main Gate.
The Marine guard consists of one commissioned officer, three warrant officers and forty-five enlisted men. Posts are maintained at the Main Gate and at the Mine Filling Plant. The borders of this eighteen square mile area are under daily surveillance and are guarded against trespassers by a Marine mounted patrol.
One of the chief functions of the Marine guard at this Depot is fire protection. It is organized and exercised to quickly reach the scene of a fire anywhere within the limits of the Depot and equipped to fight any kind of fire, the most dangerous of which, and dreaded by all, being a brush or forest fire, potentially probable in the section of the country during late fall and early spring. The presence of the civilian community here in the event of a forest fire is of great value as large numbers of people are required for a successful fight against fires of this type.