Wednesday, August 19, 2015

130 Years Ago: The "New Navy" of 1885

USS Dolphin, commissioned on December 8, 1885, photographed during the 1890s (Naval History and Heritage Command image via Flickr
Nearly 130 years ago, the first in a line of new all-steel ships for the US Navy was commissioned, with three more either under construction or fitting out at a Pennsylvania shipyard or at the New York Navy Yard.  It was a long, difficult process which began 132 years ago.  These four ships were the first four steel ships approved by Congress.  There were a lot of hurdles and delays that had to be overcome to produce what later became known as the “ABCD Ships.”
On July 19, 1886, the protected cruiser Atlanta became the second of the "ABCD Ships" to be commissioned.  She appears here in a port bow view by the Detroit Publishing Company at the Brooklyn Navy Yard between 1884 and 1901. (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.

A port-side view of the third "ABCD Ship" to be commissioned, USS Boston.  This port view of the protected cruiser, commissioned on May 2, 1887, was photographed by the Detroit Publishing Company between 1890 and 1901 (Naval History and Heritage Command image via Flickr).
The first question asked was, “Do we need this?”

William H. Hunt (Wikimedia Commons)
Answering the question was Secretary of the Navy William Henry Hunt who, starting in 1881, used the Naval Advisory Board to ask Congress for $30 million to build 21 new ships.  Pointing out the poor shape of our old wooden and iron-hulled Navy, it was not hard to convince Congress that we needed new ships.  Building 21 of them, costing 30 million dollars (remember, this is 1881 and not 2015), was too much for Congress.  The idea to buy a few steel hulled ships from Britain, like many other countries did, was proposed.  National pride and self-reliance, however, led to this idea being shot down.  So too was the idea of purchasing ship plans from another country for an American shipyard to build.  

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).
This question was not as easy to answer. Building a naval ship out of steel was an endeavor not yet attempted by American industry.  New designs and construction techniques had to be developed for a material that had thus far been used almost entirely to traverse America’s mountains and plains instead of the world’s oceans.   For example, the Pennsylvania Steel Company, the first of its kind in the country, had been producing steel for American railroads for nearly two decades.  The quantity of steel needed to construct a modern warship out of the material, however, was in question.  It would take 13 months of study, investigation, and debate before Congress passed the Naval Appropriations Act of 1884 on March 3, 1883, authorizing $1.3 million for initial construction of the four steel-hulled ships.  

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.

Secretary of the Navy Joseph Daniels (second from right) and his wife Adelaide
disembark from USS Dolphin in 1913. Dolphin served as a special dispatch ship
for President Woodrow Wilson and other important officials and diplomats
(Library of Congress via
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 three remaining ships were all classified as protected cruisers, meaning that steel armor protected the vital mechanical parts of the ship.  No belt of armor protected their waterlines, however, which would have made them armored cruisers.  The three cruisers; USS Atlanta, USS Boston, and USS Chicago, all served the Navy for many years.  They were decommissioned and re-commissioned several times, used in war as cruisers and in peacetime as everything from training ships, experimental ships, and even receiving ships.

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
USS Atlanta was finally decommissioned in 1912 and sold for scrap.  USS Boston was converted to a freighter during World War I.  She then served as a receiving ship from 1918 to 1940.  After that, Boston was then renamed USS Despatch (IX-2) and served as a radio school until the end of 1945, before being towed out to sea and sunk in 1946.  USS Chicago was the biggest of the four ships, took the longest to build, went through the most refits, and served as the flagship for the “Squadron of Evolution” and several other squadrons until 1908.  She was assigned afterward to the Naval Academy until 1910.  Being reduced to the status of “commissioned in reserve”, from 1910 to 1917, Chicago was used by the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Naval Militias.  She went on to serve as a receiving ship, being renamed USS Alton (IX-5) in 1928, before being sold in 1936.

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

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