The Virginian-Pilot
                            THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT  
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, July 23, 1995                  TAG: 9507210708
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   78 lines


Being an 85-year-old codger with a sentimental fondness for the picturesque, I glory in the fact that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard's 9 o'clock gun still booms over the Elizabeth River's inner harbor every evening.

When I hear it, I am always reminded that a baby's bawling silenced it for nearly two years early in the 1900s. But before telling that story, a few words are in order concerning the history of one of the area's most highly cherished links with the past.

In November 1847, the editor of Norfolk's American Beacon, observing the need for some means of accurately regulating timepieces throughout the area, suggested that the evening gun on the receiving ship Pennsylvania at the Gosport Navy Yard, now Norfolk Naval Shipyard, be fired at 8 p.m. during the winter and at 9 p.m. in the summer. Readily accepting the suggestion, the commandant of the yard ordered that the gun be fired from then on at 9 p.m. each evening. Since then the time-honored curfew gun has been a local institution.

Until 1919, it was fired from each successive receiving ship docked at the yard. After that, it gave its nightly signal from various places in the yard. Today, a three-pounder, breach-loading salute gun located in front of Building 1500 does the honors.

To return to the baby yarn - shortly after Rear Adm. Edward D. Taussig became commandant of the navy yard in 1907, he met the wife of Cmdr. William M. Cross, commanding officer of the receiving ship Franklin, at an afternoon party. Mrs. Cross, who lived with her husband aboard the Franklin at St. Helena opposite the yard, had recently given birth to a baby who was a light sleeper. Mrs. Cross complained bitterly to Adm. Taussig that every evening when the 9 o'clock gun was fired, the baby woke up, set up a howl and refused to go back to sleep.

The next morning Taussig canceled the nightly time signal that had regulated clocks and watches throughout the Norfolk area since it had been requested by the editor of the American Beacon in 1847. When the news of the cancellation leaked out, ``all hell broke loose,'' to quote one old-timer. Angry editorials appeared in all of the area newspapers, while the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce sent a delegation to Taussig to implore him to countermand his order. Finding him adamant, the committee went to Washington to complain to the secretary of the Navy.

At that point, one of Taussig's aides flippantly observed that if the people of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Berkley were so dependent on a gun to regulate their time, they might persuade the government to install a cannon on the Ghent Bridge. This only served to make everyone in the three communities hotter under the collar. Since the Navy Department backed up Taussig, however, the traditional 9 o'clock blast remained silent.

Two years later, when Taussig was replaced by Rear Adm. William A. Marshall, the matter of the silenced gun was taken to President William Howard Taft by Alvah H. Martin, clerk of the Norfolk County Court, Republican national committeeman for Virginia and great-grandfather of Frank Batten Jr., president and publisher of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star. Feeling an injustice had been done to the Norfolk community, Taft sent word down the line to Marshall to resume the sadly missed blast.

The night of Oct. 19, 1910, was a gala one in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Berkley. As 8 o'clock progressed toward 9, fathers took out their fat gold watches and held them expectantly in their hands; mothers paused before the family timepieces on their mantels, while children cavorting outside in the crisp air cocked reluctant ears for the resumption of their traditional curfew.

Finally, when the familiar hollow boom rattled the china on hundreds of plate rails, a monsoon of contented sighs went up all over the area. At the same time, Martin and President Taft were raucously toasted in every swinging-door saloon throughout the three communities. To top off the celebration, the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues fired a 13-gun salute in Adm. Marshall's honor. Later in the evening, the by-then-bibulous celebrants serenaded Marshall and his family with an outdoor concert at the commandant's quarters at the navy yard. ILLUSTRATION: Photo

Alvah H. Martin

by CNB