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Red Hook Graving Dock

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Civil War-era ship repair dock, now mostly part of Ikea's parking lot

Place Details

Borough : Brooklyn
Neighborhood : Red Hook
Infrastructure, Shopping

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Mary Habstritt

As of October, 2006, Graving Dock No. 1 is the only structure still standing to remind us of the mighty Todd Shipyards Corporation, once a nationwide company, birthed in Erie Basin. All the shipyard buildings have been demolished as part of developing the site for an IKEA store. Once one of the largest dry docks in the world, it is a symbol of Red Hook's long maritime history, of technological innovation, and of New York's contributions to national war efforts. It is a place where ships could still be repaired and it is part of what makes Brooklyn unique. It is a place that makes New York a place, different from all others.

In 1915, when Todd Shipyards Corp. was born, it was New York's largest ship repair facility with 29 acres of real estate and three floating dry docks in addition to the two graving docks.

World War I saw an intense period of activity with over 2,500 people at work in the Erie Basin yard converting ships to wartime use and repairing damaged vessels. It continued to emply an average of 2,000 workers through 1939 and was a community force, sponsoring a ladies auxiliary, baseball games, and parades as well as memorials to local war heroes. The Brooklyn Division of Todd Shipyards Corp., as it was by then known, reached its peak employment of 19, 617 workers in October 1943. The two graving docks were supplemented by five floating dry docks during this busy period.

By 1983 Todd had closed its Brooklyn yard and soon went through a bankruptcy and restructuring. It still exists as Todd Pacific Shipyards today with one yard in Seattle. The Red Hook property was sold to United States Dredging in 1985. It operated New York Shipyard Corporation there until 1993 when it too went bankrupt. U.S. Dredging later leased Graving Dock No. 1 to Stevens Technical Services which repaired tugs, barges, city sludge boats, and other ships until Februrary, 2005 when it was evicted as part of the sale to IKEA.

Graving Docks

Some have suggested that the term "graving" comes from the dock's resemblance to a grave, but one 19th-century engineer suggests that hte name comes from "grève," the French word for a flat sandy beach where ships were originally worked on before dry docks were developed. The location where the work was done led "graving" to mean cleaning the ship's bottom. In the days of wooden ships, this included scraping, painting, and replacing the caulk and pitch that sealed the seams between the planks in the ship's hull.

"Dry dock" refers generally to any enclosure into which a ship can be moved and its bottom exposed for cleaning or repairs. It ecompasses both stationary, or graving, docks, which are bu ilt into the shore, and floating docks, which are buoyant and can be lowered underneath a ship to lift it out of the water. A graving dock, such as the ones in Erie Basin, were built by excavating a basin along the shore and making the bottom watertight by lining it with wood, stone, or concrete, then adding either a gate or caisson (floating gate) to close the open end. Pumps were installed to pump out the water after a ship had entered.

The construction of 540-foot long Graving Dock No. 1 in Erie Basin was completed in 1866 for the Erie Bain Dock Co. It was quickly followed by Graving Dock No. 2, which at 630 feet, was large enough to take any ship then sailing but one (The Great Eastern, noted for laying the Transatlantic Cable).

(October 2006)

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