USS Dolphin, commissioned on December 8, 1885, photographed during the 1890s (Naval History and Heritage Command image via Flickr)
The A, B, C, and D came from the names of the four ships: USS Atlanta, USS Boston, USS Chicago, and USS Dolphin. These ships also became the central elements of what would come to be called the “Squadron of Evolution” as new ships of an experimental nature were added. As with all endeavors into new territory, there are lots of questions to be answered before beginning, and many new things to learn along the journey.
The first question asked was, “Do we need this?”
|William H. Hunt (Wikimedia Commons)|
This brought on the next question: “Can we do this?”
This image from the archives of the Johnstown Corporation General Office, Johnstown, Pennsylvania,
shows a typical machine used for steel manufacturing in the late-19th Century, a rail bending machine
(Library of Congress).
The crew of USS Atlanta mans the yards and boat booms in Boston during the
reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1890.
The steam engines of the day were not trusted by the Navy or its Sailors for anything more than river and coastal service. This, along with the amount of coal the engines used and the limited locations to get it, resulted in the new ships having sails for normal cruising, using the engines for maneuvering and additional speed.The Navy did not have shipyards big enough to build these ships, so a contract was awarded to a civilian contractor, John Roach and Sons of Chester, Pennsylvania. Difficulties in construction, and politics, resulted in delays producing the first of the ships, USS Dolphin.
Dolphin was a dispatch vessel, meant for delivering messages before the age of radio, and for acting as a gunboat. Being the smallest of the four new ships, she would be the stepping stone to building the larger ones. Dolphin served the US Navy until the end of 1921 and was sold to Mexico shortly after her decommissioning. During her active service, she was used to transport many important government officials and was even designated as the presidential yacht for President Chester Arthur. Difficulties in producing USS Dolphin, and political maneuvering, resulted in the Navy voiding the contract with the civilian contractor and taking over production of the remaining three ships itself.
USS Chicago (seen here in 1893 with USS Vesuvius on her port side) was the last of the "ABCD Ships" to be commissioned, April 17, 1889 (Naval History and Heritage Command image via Flickr).
The model of the Protected Cruiser Chicago as she appears today at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (Photo by Jerome Kirkland)
All four ships had their engines updated several times. As engine technology improved, the sails on these ships became less important, until eventually they were removed. New breach-loading guns were initially the best the US Navy had, but these too would be replaced several times as they became outdated. In fact, all four ships were considered outdated by the time they were launched. They nevertheless were invaluable as stepping stones for the US Navy, and their descendants a generation later would become the Great White Fleet that would circumnavigate the globe from 1907 to 1909.
|Receiving Ship Boston in 1936 (U.S. Navy Photo via Navsource.org).|
These four steel-hulled ships may have been outdated by the time they were launched, but they paved the way for the United States Navy of the future.
This post was written by Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator Jerome Kirkland