in the Yard circa 1903
Following the American Revolution, the waterfront site was used to build merchant vessels. Federal authorities purchased the old docks and 40 acres (160,000 m2) of land for $40,000 in 1801, and the property became an active US Navy shipyard five years later, in 1806. The offices, storehouses and barracks were constructed of handmade bricks, and the yard's oldest structure (located in Vinegar Hill), the 1807 federal style commandant's house, was designed by Charles Bulfinch, architect of the United States Capitol in Washington, DC. Many officers were housed in Admiral's Row.
Military chain of command was strictly observed. During the yard's construction of Robert Fulton's steam frigate, Fulton, launched in 1815, the year of Fulton's death, the Navy Yard's chief officers were listed as: Captain Commandant, Master Commandant, Lieutenant of the Yard, Master of the Yard, Surgeon of the Yard & Marine Barracks, Purser of the Navy Yard, Naval Storekeeper, Naval Constructor, and a major commanding the Marine Corps detachment.
Early Brooklyn Navy Yard mechanics and laborers were per diem employees, in essence day labor. As such, the workers were subject to the whims of the annual Congressional appropriation and periodic seasonal reduction in the workforce. Like workers everywhere in the early nineteenth century they lived in a constant state of anxiety regarding employment and wage. Wages were subject to considerable change, and in some cases fluctuated dramatically. The following is an example from a letter from Commodore John Rodgers to Captain Samuel Evans dated 24 May 1820. "From and after the 1st day of June 1820 the pay of the Carpenters, Joiners &c in the Yard under your Command must be reduced & regulated by the following rates "carpenters $1.62.5 per day to $ 1.25, blacksmiths 162.5 to 1.12 and laborers 90 cents to 75 cents per day." 
The USS Ohio was the first ship of the line built at Brooklyn Navy Yard. She was designed by Henry Eckford, and launched on 30 May 1820. The expansion of shipbuilding led to rapid growth in the labor force as the Navy Yard became New York City's largest employer. In 1848 with 441 employees, wages at the navy yard were relatively high. The median wage of navy yard per diem employees was $1.00 per day. Highly skilled trades such as ship carpenters earned $2.25. The navy yard employees typically worked a ten hour day, six days a week.
The nation's first ironclad ship, Monitor, was fitted with its revolutionary iron cladding at the Continental Iron Works in nearby Greenpoint. By the American Civil War, the yard had expanded to employ thousand of skilled mechanics with men working around the clock. On 17 January 1863 the navy yard station logs reflect 3,933 workers on the payroll, with up to 6000 men by the end of the war. In 1890, the ill-fated Maine was launched from the yard's ways.
On the eve of World War II, the yard contained more than five miles (8.0 km) of paved streets, four drydocks ranging in length from 326 to 700 ft (99 to 213 m), two steel shipways, and six pontoons and cylindrical floats for salvage work, barracks for marines, a power plant, a large radio station, and a railroad spur, as well as the expected foundries, machine shops, and warehouses. In 1937, the battleship North Carolina was laid down. In 1938, the yard employed about 10,000 men, of whom one-third were Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers. The battleship Iowa was completed in 1942, followed by Missouri, which became the site of the Surrender of Japan on 2 September 1945. On 12 January 1953, test operations began on Antietam, which emerged in December 1952, from the yard as America's first angled-deck aircraft carrier.
At its peak, during World War II, the yard employed 70,000 people, 24 hours a day.
During World War II, the pedestrian walkways on the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges spanning the East River offered a good overhead view of the navy yard, and were therefore encased to prevent espionage.
The Brooklyn Naval Hospital, constructed 1830–1838, and rebuilt 1841–1843, was decommissioned in the mid-1970s. It was one of the oldest naval hospitals in the United States. The 60,000-square-foot (5,600 m2) complex was designed by Martin E. Thompson. The hospital had its beginning in 1825, when the Secretary of the Navy purchased 25 acres (10 ha) adjacent to the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The hospital was active from the Civil War through World War II, with the Navy Surgeon General reporting in 1864, an average of 229 patients, with 2,135 treated during the year. The hospital also counted on its staff some of first female nurses and medical students in the United States Navy.
Closure and commercial usage
A study initiated by the Department of Defense under Robert S. McNamara in late 1963, sought to accomplish savings through the closure of unneeded or excess military installations, especially naval ship yards. On 19 November 1964, based on the study, the closure of the navy yard was announced, along with the Army's Fort Jay on Governors Island and its Brooklyn Army Terminal, all to take effect by 1966. At the time, the yard employed 10,600 civilian employees and 100 military personnel with an annual payroll of about US$90 million. The closure was anticipated to save about 18.1 million dollars annually.
Seymour Melmen, an engineering economist at the Columbia University Graduate School of Engineering, looked into the plight of the shipyard workers at the Navy Yard and came up with a detailed plan for converting the then naval shipyard into a commercial shipyard which could have saved most of the skilled shipyard jobs. The plan was never put in place. The Wagner Administration looked to the auto industry to build a car plant inside the yard. No US car manufacturer was interested, and foreign car manufacturers claimed that with the conversion of the dollar, it was too expensive. The Navy decommissioned the yard in 1966, after the completion of the Austin-class amphibious transport dock Duluth. The Johnson administration refused to sell the yard to the City of New York for 18 months. When the new Nixon administration came into power, they signed the papers to sell the yard to the city. Leases were signed inside the yard even before the sale to the city was signed.
Base housing at Ryerson Avenue gate
In 1967, Seatrain Shipbuilding, which was wholly owned by Seatrain Lines, signed a lease with the Commerce Labor Industry Corporation of Kings (CLICK) which was established as a nonprofit body to run the yard for the city. CLICK's lease with the newly formed Seatrain Shipbuilding was not very business friendly. Seatrain planned to build five very large crude carriers (VLCCs) and seven container ships for Seatrain Lines. It eventually built four VLCCs (the largest ships ever to be built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard), eight barges, and one ice-breaker barge. The last ship to be built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard was the VLCC Bay Ridge, built by Seatrain Shipbuilding. In 1977, Bay Ridge was converted from a VLCC to a floating production storage offtake vessel. Bay Ridge was renamed Kuito and is operating for Chevron off of the coast of Angola in 400 m (1,300 ft) of water in the Kuito oil field. Employment inside the yard peaked in 1976, with nearly 6,000 workers with Seatrain Shipbuilding and Coastal Dry Dock and Repair accounting for 80% of the employment.
In 1979, Seatrain Lines closed its gates, ending the history of Brooklyn shipbuilding. In 1972, Coastal Dry Dock and Repair Corp leased the three small dry docks and several buildings inside the yard from CLICK. Coastal Drydock only repaired and converted US Navy vessels, and closed in 1987. CLICK had been replaced by the nonprofit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation in 1981. By 1987, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation failed in all attempts to lease any of the six dry docks and buildings to any shipbuilding or ship-repair company.