WILLIAMSBURG – It sits in a corner of York County, just off Route 199, next to the York River in the heart of the “Historic Triangle”—Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown. The land is rich in history, from the first settlers in the New World and the colonist’s fight for independence to the infamous “Seven Days Battle” during the Civil War. It has been known as “Utimaria” and “Penniman” but today it’s called Cheatham Annex, or CAX, a part of Naval Weapons Station (WPNSTA) Yorktown. This sleepy little base provides a variety of services to the fleet, family and fighters of the U.S. Navy.
Commissioned on June 21, 1943, Cheatham Annex was a U.S. Navy Supply Depot, named after Rear Admiral Joseph Johnston Cheatham, a former Chief of the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts, a forerunner to Naval Supply Systems Command. Today it is a hub of activity from its diverse industrial complex to naval expeditionary training facilities and outdoor recreation sites for military personnel and their dependents. CAX has grown from very simple beginnings to a vital asset for the U.S. Navy.
Evidence exists that the earliest inhabitants of CAX were Native Americans, who lived in a village somewhere near Penniman Spit. Some records suggest a Spanish Jesuit Mission was established in this area until they were annihilated in an Indian massacre circa 1572. Starting in the 1700s, Native Americans were supplanted by colonial settlers. A grave marker for one of the first settlers in this region, the Burwell family, can still be seen on base today in the vicinity of the 9th hole on the Deer Cove golf course.
The first industrial use of the land came about as a result of World War I. The DuPont Company bought out the area farms and built a munitions plant with more than 10,000 employees. A small town sprang up around the new facility named Penniman, after Russell S. Penniman, the inventor of ammonia dynamite.
At its peak, the town of Penniman reached a population of more than 15,000 and included a hotel, bank, post office, restaurants, YMCA, sewage and water plants, railroad station and tram system. By the end of World War I, with production cuts, employment dwindled to less than 300 people. Almost overnight, the town of Penniman disappeared and returned to farmland.
By the start of World War II, military interest in the area quickly developed, not for munitions, but rather for supply. The site was selected largely due to its partially developed harbor, which could easily expand to accommodate large vessels. With major rail facilities and highway access, CAX was utilized as an assembly and shipping point for materials being shipped overseas during World War II.
One indelible image of CAX history that still resonates today is “Saucy Bossy,” the phantom cow that roamed CAX for more than 23 years. The thoroughbred Holstein was owned by E. M. Slauson, who owned a large dairy farm in Williamsburg. He rented land for pasture at the site of present-day CAX. Prior to the base commissioning in 1943, Slauson’s herd got out of the pasture and were running loose. All but one of his herd were rounded up and returned to Slauson. Random sightings and the occasional photograph of the “wild cow” were seen by people on CAX for more than 23 years.
It wasn’t until February 1963 that “Saucy Bossy” was found dead, on top of a hill where she used to stand guard over her home on CAX. She died of old age, helped along by the frigid weather, and was laid to rest by civilian employees at CAX. When told of the cow’s death, Slauson wrote a letter to the base commander, saying, “Thank you and the people of Cheatham Annex for their kind hearts and mercy to a dumb beast.”
As part of the Navy’s installation consolidation, Cheatham Annex was incorporated with WPNSTA Yorktown on October 1, 1998. Today, the annex is still home to rows of warehouses as storage for everything from ship propellers and shafts to small boats, diesel engines and jacking gears, including storage for artifacts for the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Additionally, expeditionary training for Navy logistics and cargo handlers, both active duty and reserve, is conducted at CAX. These units have deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan in support of operations on both fronts. CAX is also homeport to USNS Zeus (T-ARC 7), for Military Sealift Command (MSC). Zeus is capable of laying 1,000 miles of cable at depths of up to 9,000 feet and is the only ship of her type currently operated by the U.S. Navy.
On top of all the expeditionary training and logistics support going on daily at CAX, there is something more for the military family available year-round. CAX is home to the largest Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Outdoor Recreation facility on the East Coast. Active duty, reservists and military retirees and their dependents can take advantage of a wide range of facilities, including 54 cabins, 50 RV parking spots, 20 primitive campsites and more than 10 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Along with fishing on two lakes and the York River, swimming pool and an 18-hole golf course, the MWR Outdoor Recreation is ideal for military families looking for a chance to relax.
Cheatham Annex may be a sleepy little base in a small corner of the Virginia Peninsula, but it has supported our Navy through countless conflicts in defense of our nation for more than 71 years. It was home to a lost city, a phantom cow and the first settlers to the New World. CAX will continue to provide the training, logistics and relaxation to the fleet, fighter and family.
Mark O. Piggott is the Public Affairs Officer at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown.