Monday, September 21, 2015

USS Nashville (PG 7) and the Building of the Panama Canal


Five weeks before USS Maine (ACR-1) exploded in Havana Harbor, USS Nashville (PG-7) is seen in her peacetime color scheme at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

By Elijah Palmer 
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

A small model of USS Nashville (PG-7) resides in the museum's Steel Navy exhibit.  Sharp eyed visitors might pick out some of the ship's crew on deck, as well as the ship's mascots.  However, many might not know about the important role it played in the building of the Panama Canal.

The desire to build a canal in Central America was not new by 1903, but by that year the United States viewed the need as urgent. An example of the convenience and military advantage that might be had with a canal was evident in the high speed run of USS Oregon (BB-3) from California to Cuba (14,000 nautical miles) in 66 days during the Spanish-American War.  A canal would have significantly shortened that trip, and others like it. 

USS Nashville (PG 7) painted in gray, somewhere on the Great Lakes between the Spanish-American War and its supporting role in the Panamanian "revolt," as American ships of this era were typically painted white during peacetime. (Chuk Munson Collection via NavSource Online)

The United States had guaranteed joint sovereignty over any canal going through Central America in treaties with both Columbia and Great Britain regarding potential canals in Panama (controlled by Columbia) and Nicaragua respectively. The treaty with Columbia originated in 1846, evincing that this concept was not a new one. As one of the terms of this treaty, the United States had helped Columbia put down the numerous revolts and revolutions that occurred nearly yearly in Panama during the latter half of the 19th century. 

A French company had first undertaken a canal project in Panama during the 1880s, but it failed due to the high costs, both monetarily and in lives, particularly deaths from yellow fever.  Once Theodore Roosevelt (a huge proponent of naval seapower) became president, the United States he bought the French property and pushed heavily for a treaty allowing for construction, offering to pay a large down payment as well as annual fees.  Columbia, however, wanted more money from the United States as well as from the French, and refused. 

Quickly following these discussions, Panama seized the moment and revolted again.  Unlike previous times, the United States supported their revolution.  USS Nashville was sent to block Colombian troops at Colon, Panama, arriving on November 2, 1903.  At stake was preventing troops on either side from utilizing the Panama Railroad, but as largely there were not many armed Panamanian rebels yet, keeping the railroad neutral was really meant to keep the Colombian soldiers at bay.  On November 4, 1903 the Colombian commander demanded use of a train or Americans would be killed.  The Americans were heavily outnumbered, but were fortified in a stone shed as well as being supported by the guns of the shallow-draft Nashville, which was able to come very close to shore.  After several tense hours, the Colombians backed down and decided to negotiate. 
Nashville's shallow draft is visible from these plans. The ship was ideally suited for traversing rivers and shallow bays on gunboat duty (Transactions of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Vol. 2, 1894 via NavSource Online)
Within the next two days, the American naval presence was increased with the arrival of the Newport News-built auxiliary cruiser USS Dixie and the protected cruiser USS Atlanta (of ABCD fame), both of which brought hundreds of Marines.  Colombia quickly came to realize that the United States was serious about their support for the newly formed Republic of Panama as the American government recognized the country on November 6, 1903.  The rights to the canal zone were quickly ceded to the United States, in exchange for American support of Panamanian independence from Colombia. 

Nashville played a key role in this instance of "gunboat diplomacy" which gave the U.S. Navy a central role in international affairs for years to come.  .

3 comments:

Elwin said...

Interesting history. I served on the LPD version of this ship many years later. What ever happened to this ship? All the old cool ships seem to be gone from this era.

Elwin said...

What cool old gunboat. I served on the LPD version bearing this name and she was decommissioned. Whatever happened to the PG 7? Scrapped?

Elijah Palmer said...

Hi Elwin,
As far as I can tell, the Nashville was sold after WWI and converted to a barge until the 50s when it was scrapped.