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By Jonathan H
The first of five slips, or “quays,” at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historic Park. These semi-subterranean walkways surround the quay.
In my entry on the SS Red Oak Victory ship, I told you I would return in a few weeks with the story of the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards. Shipyard number three is the most significant of the yards, primarily because it is the only remaining permanent drydock complex. Some of the other shipyards (though built earlier) were constructed to be temporary.
Today, the shipyards sit in a dilapidated state. During rains, water drips through the ceilings of the subterranean drydocks. The access stair cement is slowly decaying into the saltwater. An old crane sits across from the Red Oak Victory, near the main Kaiser warehouse. The old pumps pumped out a massive 50,000 gallons per minute if an emergency arose. They operated on an average of 11,000 gallons per minute.
HAER documentation prepared for the National Park Service mentions that each of the five basins was equipped with gates, which could block out water, allowing for the construction of the ships. Each of the whirley cranes (one of which still survives on the yard) would lift the massive gates out of the water when the ships were ready to be towed out to water.
Walking among this site was nothing short of a life-altering experience. Before descending the stairs into the subterranean drydocks, I was well aware of the cultural significance of Richmond Shipyard #3. At its peak, in 1943, Kaiser employed over 90,000 people in his four Richmond yards, who — all told — constructed 747 ships during the war. It was such an incredibly huge operation that Kaiser’s Richmond shipyards employed 10% of the wage earners in California’s durable goods industry.
An unfortunate conclusion is drawn regarding the shipyard’s demise. Dorthea Lange’s haunting portraits give us a glimpse into those most affected:
When the Kaiser shipyards closed in 1945, thousands of workers lost their jobs. Today, Richmond, my hometown, once a city of success and a blue collar community that was safe to walk at night, has become a haven for gang violence and drug sales.