Wednesday, December 14, 2011
On March 4, 1925, the 68th Congress passed Public Law 611, Title 34, Section 596, which ordained "That hereafter the band now stationed at the Navy Yard...and known as the Navy Yard Band, shall be designated as the United States Navy Band..." While we use this date as the official start of the Navy Band, we must not forget the heritage that precedes March 1925. One of the more interesting stories of the very early years of the Navy Yard band has little to do with the band and more to do with our building.
The Sail Loft has been the home of the Navy Band since its inception (minus a few years- more on this later) and has proudly served as the "quarterdeck of the Navy." I am sure the alumni have fond memories of all that has happened in the Sail Loft through the years. From Navy Relief balls, to Navy Hour programs, to rehearsals with great conductors like Arthur Fiedler and Frederick Fennell, to high profile ceremonies, the Sail Loft has seen it all. The history of this building is immense and it is no wonder that the very first event that took place here set the tone for its historic future. It was Dec. 14, 1901 that the verdict of the Schley Court of Inquiry was rendered; a court of inquiry that was presided over by Adm. George Dewey.
The Sail Loft was built in 1901 in the area formerly known as Colson Square. The total cost of the building was $80,800. Known as building 105, it was 206 feet long, 60 feet wide and 39 feet high. It had two stories and a floor space of 22,408 square feet.
The building was built to be a gunner's workshop, known in the Navy as a sail loft. A gunner’s workshop had many components associated with it. First, there was a sail loft on the second floor. Because sails were no longer being made at the Navy Yard, men sewed canvas bags, awnings for ships, leather gloves, protective gun covers, flags and pennants, etc. Additionally, there was an ordinance shop on the first floor. Here men worked with plastic and rubber to make items such as elastic gas check pads, bumpers, “O” rings, washers, gaskets, firing key housing, electric firing contacts, junction boxes, firing cases, etc. Lastly, there was a rigging section on the first floor where all sizes of wire rope, cable, hoisting equipment, gun slings, etc. were made. Building 105 was a very diverse and productive shop.
Shortly after construction completed on building 105, the Navy held its first historic event in the Sail Loft. The event was the inquiry into events that surrounded the end of the Spanish American War. This event is known as the Schley Court of Inquiry and the presiding official was Dewey. With its immense space, the Sail Loft was perfect for the job.
This inquiry was called by Rear Adm. Winfield Scott Schley, who felt slighted in recognition of his victory over the Spanish squadron in Santiago, Cuba on July 3, 1898. It was on that day that the Spanish squadron attempted to squeeze by an American blockade. In the absence of Rear Adm. William Sampson, his superior, Schley assumed command and defeated the Spanish squadron “completely.” In his victory message, Sampson made no mention of the valiant work of Schley, which infuriated the subordinate. This omission was said to have been made out of Sampson’s frustration with the “insubordination” of Schley. This frustration led to a lengthy inquiry, which lasted 40 days, where Schley was criticized for his “lack of enterprise.” However, he was praised for sinking the Spanish squadron.
This brings me back to the question of what Adm. Dewey and Capt. Walden have in common. The answer is the office space. Today Capt. Walden’s desk sits roughly where Adm. Dewey sat as he studied the evidence and testimony of the Schley inquiry. It was 110 years ago today, Dec. 14, 1901, that Dewey rendered his historic verdict and set in motion a historic legacy at the Sail Loft that continues today.
Senior Chief Musician Mike Bayes is the Navy Band's head archivist and historian.