New Dahlgren Heritage Museum Officially Opens

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 – King George Journal

Article by: Doug Davant

 

Editor’s Note: In the year 1906, British Adm. Sir Jackie Fisher launched a revolutionary new type of a naval surface combat ship, reflective of his personal coat of arms motto: “Fear God and Dread Nought!”  The new ship would become known as HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first modern naval battleship,  and it brought about the world’s first arms race.

 

When HMS Dreadnought was built the U.S. Navy’s proving ground for large caliber naval weapons was at Indian Head, Md.  Built in 1898, Indian Head was relatively new at the time of Dreadnought. But, as the new British battleship began eclipsing all known records for long gun accuracy in the first decade of the 20th Century and rendering the rest of the world’s navies obsolete, it was soon realized that Indian Head was insufficient to support the longer ranges of the new weaponry that modern battleships would now have to have.  A new naval gun range would be needed.

It just so happened that a long stretch of fairly straight Potomac River existed approximately 20 miles downriver from Indian Head. It was located in King George County, and, when it was first built in 1918, it became known as “the Lower Station” of Indian Head.

Then, when test firing got under way in earnest and the war clouds of the First World War began threatening the shores of America, it became more familiarly known as “Dahlgren” to honor Rear Adm. John Adolphus Dahlgren, the acknowledged “Father of Modern Naval Ordnance.”

Flash forward 94 years of today as the drive for a museum to honor nearly a century of scientific technology, invention, and innovation was formally launched last week.

The museum, much like Fisher’s vision of his HMS Dreadnought, will serve to underscore the products of engineering; some of the finest that this nation has ever produced. And much of that engineering came from the minds of the women who served Dahlgren through the years.

At the official inaugural of the Dahlgren Heritage Museum, held at the Dahlgren campus of the University of Mary Washington, four of those women reflected on that service before an audience of more than 200 attendees who came to hear about their experiences.

Gladys West led off the panel of the four that highlighted the evening’s focus: “Women in Science and Technology at Dahlgren.”  West came to Dahlgren in 1956.  She had just graduated from Virginia State University and had originally set her sights on a career as a math and science teacher.

“I did well in high school in my classes,” West explained, “and an adviser encouraged me to go into math and science…I was teaching in Martinsville but I always had wanted a higher paying job and when I got feelers from Dahlgren I came down. It was closer to home as I’m from the country and Dahlgren was very rural and I found Dahlgren delightful.”

West went on to marry here and raise a family while at the same time working on what was then one of the nation’s first super computers, the Naval Ordnance Relay Calculator or NORC.  She also helped pioneer what was later to become the Global Positioning System and later earned a doctorate degree in public administration.

Next up on the panel was Ann Swope, at Dahlgren since 1981.  Swope came up through Dahlgren’s co-op plan, beginning as an environmental scientist and ending up as current chief of staff at the base’s largest tenant activity, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division.

“I was hired over the phone,” Swope remembered, adding that she came from a family steeped in biological science but stressed that she “didn’t want to go into med school” because of the hours demanded of doctors.

“When I got here I was the only female in my building and there was only one restroom,” Swope said, “and I discovered immediately that it was a men’s room!  Thankfully I was able to use another one across the road.”

Also awkwardly discovering a male-dominated environment was Dawn Murphy.

Murphy, who came to Dahlgren in 1983 as a computer scientist supporting the backbone of the Navy’s surface combatants, the Aegis fleet, found herself the lone woman on an Aegis cruiser.

“I ended up in the admiral’s quarters,” she said.  “It was a great week…I had my own facilities and my own room!”

Cynthia Holland anchored the panel and spoke about her job on the base’s current premier project, the Navy’s experimental electromagnetic railgun, while at the same time holding down her other job, that of a full-time mom.

“I’ve been a naval officer and lived in science…basically, I’ve been a nerd my entire life,” she said.  “Ninety percent of the challenges I’ve faced have nothing to do with my gender the other 10 percent do because they are maternity issues.  But I’ve found this place really supportive and helped me be a good engineer as well as a good mommy.”

The evening, hosted by the museum’s foundation, was emceed by Ed Jones, editor of Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star newspaper and president of the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation.

Jones, the son of a Dahlgren engineer and a graduate of Harvard University, grew up on the base and was educated through primary schooling at the Dahlgren School, which he has often described as the cornerstone of his learning experience.

Jones, along with several other advocates, started brainstorming for a Dahlgren museum two years ago and noted “when we began we had the key question: ‘Is there enough support in this community for a museum?’

“Looking out over this gathering of more than 200 people tonight the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’!” he said in declaring the museum “open for business.”

Thus far, the museum’s foundation has collected approximately $140,000 in various kinds of donations. Its goal is to raise a total of $1,500,000 to operate the facility, which will be located at the former King George welcome center off U.S. 301 at the foot of the Harry Nice bridge.

The U.S. Navy will donate several obsolete cruiser and destroyer gun barrels and carriages to enhance the building.  Additionally, the museum will feature a panoply of Dahlgren historical items that were built for the Navy.

Such items might include the famed Norden bombsight, static displays of guided missiles and remote controlled airplanes, possibly notes on the triggering device for the first atomic bomb, plus parts of the world’s first computers.

Shining a spotlight on ‘this fabled base’

The Dahlgren Navy base is a treasure trove of military history unrivaled in its focus on ordnance–all the things on Navy ships that go “boom.”

To gather, protect, display and explain materials dating to World War I, a group has been formed to start a museum.
“It is being shaped as a brand-new pilot project for the Navy museum system,” says Gary Wagner, a spokesman for the Naval Support Facility.

The Navy museum system comprises 13 sites around the country.
“As a new feature, they are creating Navy Heritage Centers and using this project as a pilot for that new [model],” Wagner said.
The museum will be run not by the Navy, but by the newly created Dahlgren Heritage Foundation.
The base was established in 1918 as the Naval Proving Ground, to test guns destined for Navy warships. Over the years, the site along the Potomac River evolved into one of the Navy’s premier research and development labs. It includes a 25-mile firing range along the river.
“Interest in establishing a museum about Dahlgren really took off following our celebration of the base’s 90th birthday in 2008,” Wagner said.

The event brought together people in the community who had lived and worked on the base. Many of them thought a museum would be a good addition.
Ed Jones, editor of The Free Lance-Star, spearheaded initial efforts to promote the idea to the Navy. Jones, who grew up on the base and whose father was a program manager with the former Naval Weapons Laboratory, said the timing is right.
“The professionals on this base have done a good job of telling the story of what Dahlgren has contributed to our region and our nation, but we need a bigger megaphone.

“We need to make sure our region and our country understand what went on–and continues to go on–at this fabled base.”
Jones said that, beyond ordnance and technology, “It’s also the social and economic history of this place–the story of a remote Navy outpost, carved out of King George County marshes and farms in 1918, that went on to become the nation’s most important ordnance testing facility, and then so much more.”
Coincidentally, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division–the base’s largest tenant command–had already begun to collect and archive important documents and artifacts related to the command’s history.

Base representatives, along with officials from the Naval History and Heritage Command, met in July and Jones was elected president of the foundation board.The next step is to finalize bylaws and a concept of what the museum will be, then going back to the community for help and guidance, Wagner said.
“We’ll be looking for folks who can support this initiative in a number of ways, drawing on their expertise in multiple areas,” Jones said.
Meanwhile, the group is exploring possible sites, which likely will be outside the base, so that it will be easier for the public to visit.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com

Copyright 2010 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.

Group Formed to Establish a Navy Museum in Dahlgren

“Interest in establishing a museum about Dahlgren really took off following our celebration of the base’s 90th birthday in 2008,”observes base spokesperson Gary Wagner. “The event brought together folks in the community who had a long-standing personal history either working or living on the base, and some of them opened a dialogue with us about the possibility of creating a museum.”

Ed Jones, editor of The Free Lance-Star, spearheaded initial efforts to promote the idea to the Navy. Jones, who grew up on the base as a youngster, his father employed as a program manager with the former Naval Weapons Laboratory, says, “The professionals on this base have done a good job of telling the story of what Dahlgren has contributed to our region and our nation, but we need a bigger megaphone.”

Jones emphasizes, “We need to make sure our region and our country understand what went on and continues to go on at this fabled base.”

To him, it’s not just a story about technology either. “It’s also the social and economic history of this place; the story of a remote Navy outpost, carved out of King George County marshes and farms in 1918, that went on to become the nation’s, and the world’s, most important ordnance testing facility, and then so much more,” says Jones.

Coincidentally with a groundswell of community interest in a Dahlgren museum, the largest command on the base, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, had already begun a project to collect and archive important documents and artifacts related to the command’s history, which is rooted in the base’s founding as the Naval Proving Ground in 1918.

“We agreed to host a stakeholders’ meeting on the base in July,” explains Wagner. “We brought together representatives from the military commands on the base, along with a broad range of leaders and representatives from the community, to validate support for a Dahlgren museum.”

Officials from the Navy Heritage and History Command also participated, and added their endorsement to the idea of establishing a museum at Dahlgren that would showcase an important part of Navy history that isn’t captured in other museums.

“The enthusiasm in that meeting was pretty remarkable,”adds Wagner, and through the course of a number of follow-on discussions, momentum for the initiative has continued to build as a group of community leaders has worked to develop an organization to run the museum.

A board of directors organized in July, with Jones appointed as president, and the group’s application to incorporate the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation was accepted by the Virginia State Corporation Commission in August.

The board of directors will continue meetings with the Navy over the next few months to develop support agreements. “An important next step for us in the near future,”adds Jones, “will be for us to reach out to others in the community who might be interested in serving on an advisory board.

“We’ll be looking for folks who can support this initiative in a number of ways, drawing on their expertise in multiple areas,” said Jones.

Members of the board of directors for the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation presently include Johnny B. Ashton, a King George native with an international business and a passion for area history; Jim Colvard, former technical director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division; Ruth Herrink, publisher for Journal Press, Inc. in King George; Elizabeth Lee of the King George Historical Society; retired Navy Capt. Joseph McGettigan of King George, a former commander of NSWCDD; John Mitchell, a businessman who has been active in battlefield preservation in the area; Stan Palivoda, a King George businessman and realtor with a passion for history; Lisa Rossbacher, a Dahlgren School graduate and currently president of Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.; Elmore Tyler, who has been active in many history projects in King George County; and Ed Watson, president emeritus of the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center.