Newport News, VA: the shipyard

I’ve been coming down to Virginia for approximately 15 years, since we have family in Newport News and often meet up in the Virginia Beach/Sandbridge area for summer family reunions. Since the launch of The Arts Adventurer is only a month old, it gave me an additional purpose to go in search of some arts adventures on this year’s trip.

Newport News, which is located in the Hampton Roads area, is part of Warrick County, which was part of the original Virginia Colony set up by England in 1634. It was primarily farm and undeveloped land until the 1880’s, when it underwent rapid development under the leadership of Collis Potter Huntington, who first developed railroad lines and later developed the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company.

The shipbuilding industry is still going strong here even today, and the current iteration of this company is the Huntington Ingalls Industries. Over the years that we’ve been driving down to visit family in Newport News, we almost always pass by these shipyards, which are an enormous presence in the downtown area, on the southwest corner of the city. I decided that this year, rather than just driving past the shipyards, I would stop in and poke around to see what I could see.

The first stop was the Victory Landing Park, at the end of 23rd Street in downtown Newport News. Docked to the left of the park were two huge ships: the one on the left is named the “SS Cornhusker State,” and the one to the right is the “SS Gopher State.”

SS Gopher State, a U.S. Maritime ship berthed at Newport News VA

How big are these ships? The SS Gopher State is 668 feet long … and as a reference point, if the ship was upright, it would tower over the Washington Monument at 555 feet, and would dwarf the Statue of Liberty, at 305 feet.

height comparison between SS Gopher State, the Washington Monument, and the Statue of Liberty

How about weight? If nearly empty of cargo, the SS Gopher State itself weighs almost 14,000 tons, but if filled with cargo, it’s capacity for total weight approaches 31,000 tons. Let’s make an art world comparison here: the sculptor Richard Serra, who is known for his massive steel sculptures, had an exhibition last fall at the Gagosian Gallery in NYC. This show featured two huge sculptures that nearly filled the 25,000 square foot space, and together these sculptures weighed 441 tons. You’d have to multiply that show 70 times to match the full weight of the SS Gopher State!

So what exactly are these ships used for? I took an interest specifically in the SS Gopher State ship, due to having grown up in the “Gopher State” of Minnesota. I learned that it is part of the Navy’s “Ready Reserve Force,” and is “on call” from the Newport News base for any cargo or supply transportation needs that the U.S. military might request. The ship sits empty while awaiting a mission, and must be ready to respond to a mission within a 5 day period. The ship has had some important missions in the past, including taking earthquake relief supplies to Haiti in 2010, as well as a secret mission in 2008 in which it transported 500 tons of low-grade uranium out of Iraq and over to Canada.

A few hundred yards away from the docked location of those two ships are several Huntington Ingalls Industries buildings, including this ship-shaped building used for research and technology related to their shipbuilding efforts. You can’t see it from this picture, but the building has an open area at the base of the structure, which includes a small pool of water, further providing a “ship at sea” feel for the building. I thought it was pretty creative that the company would make a ship-shaped building for their shipbuilding business.

a ship-shaped building at the shipyards in Newport News VA

After getting the vantage point of the shipyard from this park, I got back in my car and drove further into the shipyards area – at least what is accessible to the public, since a fair amount of the area is closed off for national security purposes, due to the fact that they build submarines and other ships for the U.S. Navy. Below is a slideshow of some of what I found to be visually interesting elements of the area.

  • Old Point Packing building at the Newport News shipyard
  • lighthouse mural at Newport News shipyard
  • boat mural at Newport News shipyard
  • ship at the Newport News shipyard
  • Newport News shipyard
  • No fishing sign at Newport News shipyard
  • ship with skull symbol at the Newport News shipyards
  • skull image on ship at Newport News shipyards

I might have gone into this adventure with the preconceived movie-inspired notion that a shipyard would be host to shady characters, run-down buildings and other interesting visuals, something like the ship port scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or Marlin Brando in “On the Waterfront,” but it wasn’t really this way at all. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, considering that this shipbuilding area is both big business and has government involvement. Granted, my time exploring this area was somewhat limited, but I certainly didn’t see anything like the movie scenes pictured below.

Captain Katanga from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront