California's Ships
California's Battleship: The Story of USS Oregon
By Major Norman S. Marshall, Robert Tucker, and Margaret A. Owens, Esq.
USS OREGON (BB-3) was, in 1898, the most famous naval ship in America except for Old Ironsides. She was the third ship of the line to bear the name and was affectionately referred to as "McKinley's Bulldog".
OREGON, built and homeported in San Francisco, and over the years crewed by many Californians, won the nation's affections in a 15,000 mile race around the Horn, following which she and her sisters soundly defeated a Spanish Fleet, all within an incredible fourteen weeks.
When only twenty years old, she became California's first and only Battleship captained by a California Berkeley graduate and Naval Militiaman who later became the first Commodore and, later, the first Rear Admiral in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

This is her story.

Beginning in 1888, Congress encouraged the various states to sponsor naval militia units which in time of necessity could either assist civil authorities or defend the nation against its enemies. Partial funding was prescribed and Federal equipment and facilities were made available.

Accordingly, California was the third state to create such a naval militia on September 3, 1891, following Massachusetts and New York. Ultimately, twenty-four states had such naval militia units that were organized into engineering, deck and aeronautic divisions.

In 1898, California had two battalions scattered from San Diego to Eureka. They practiced their seamanship at weekly drills in local armories or aboard the ships loaned by the U.S. Navy to the state and in the summer months there were cruises on the state ships or the sailors were integrated into the crews of regular navy ships.

Our loaned ships were usually antiquated relics cast off the active cruising service but were sufficient for work in local waters and drills.

The first California militia ship was the USS MARION, a wooden sloop of the third class built in 1839 and assigned to the naval militia on January 20, 1898. She was based in San Francisco. She had been rebuilt as a screw steamer in 1871 and displaced 1900 tons with a length of 216 feet and a 37-foot beam. She served until 1907. Preceding her in 1896-97 was the 800 ton "cheesebox on a raft". The monitor
CAMANCHE built in 1863 in New Jersey, disassembled and shipped to California on board AQUIL which sank at her dock in San Francisco on November 14, 1863. CAMANCHE was salvaged, reassembled and commissioned in 1864. She mounted two 15 inch guns.

Southern California was served by stationing at San Diego the USS PINTA, a Civil War steamer being a sloop of the fourth class. She was iron, schooner rigged, displaced 550 tons and was 137 feet long. She had been built in 1865 and was about the size of a tug boat. She became part of the naval militia fleet on March 24, 1898]
Following the Civil War, the navy was downsized until in 1881 the entire U.S. fleet consisted of but twenty-six ships, only four of which were iron hulled. Our national energies were turned inward and westward toward the expanding frontier, railroading and industrialization. The long standing Monroe Doctrine had become essentially meaningless inasmuch as the nation had little power to enforce it.

Awakening to its weakness as an emerging nation without adequate naval resources, Congress in 1888 provided legislation to begin a modern fleet designated as Second Class Battleships. They were nine years in building not only because of financial constraints but because American steel mills struggled with the problems of producing nickel steel armor plate. English plans were used to build the first ship, USS TEXAS, but the second, USS MAINE, was of purely American design. She was destroyed at Havana just two and a half years after her commissioning, thus creating the opportunity for OREGON's race around the tip of South America and Teddy Roosevelt's dream of an Isthmian canal.

In 1890, Congress passed more legislation approving construction of a series of hybrids to placate both Navy expansionists and those favoring a defensive strategy. They were accordingly called Seagoing Coastal Battleships. They were the nucleus of the new fleet. Two were built in Philadelphia [USS INDIANA and USS MASSACHUSETTS] and the third contract was awarded to a robust young shipyard in San Francisco, the Union Ironworks. The shipyard was then only six years old.

OREGON was to be a 10,300 ton battleship mounting in her main battery four 13 inch 35 caliber guns; eight inch 30 caliber guns; four 6 inch guns; two one pounders; four guns of small caliber and two torpedo tubes.

Her armor belt along the water line was eighteen inches and her main battery turrets were seventeen inches in thickness. Conventional wisdom and practical experience had shown that plating should be at least as thick as the heaviest caliber of incoming shell. Deck armor was three inches. She was driven by two three cylinder triple expansion engines which developed 11,000 indicated horsepower. [In contrast, the W.W. II Iowa class battleships were rated at 212,000 horsepower.]

The boiler installation is the most important feature in connection with the great run around South America. There were four main and two auxiliary boilers. The main boilers were double ended with four furnaces in each end and fired from eight rooms. Each boiler contained 4,200 square feet of heating surface. The auxiliary boilers were single ended and had three furnaces apiece. Although the heating surface of the two auxiliaries was more than 11 percent of the main boilers it appears that they were never used at sea, even when the utmost speed was desired.

The keel was laid down on November 19, 1891, and she was launched at noon on October 26, 1893, and the misses Daisey Ainsworth and Eugenia Shelby, both representing the State of OREGON, christened her while the Presidio Army band played "Hail Columbia".

Irving Scott, one of the yard owners, told the crowd:

"When fitted out the ship will have cost the United States Government well over $4,000,000. Her displacement loaded will be 10,288 tons. The OREGON, like her sisters, was designed with a view of meeting in battle vessels carrying the heaviest guns and armor. She was designed after a careful study of the vessels of other powers, and with a view to being operated off the coasts of America. The OREGON is a vessel of great fighting power united with adequate protection in the shape of high resisting armor. Her draft is sufficiently small to enable her to operate in the shallow waters of the American Coast.

"The following are the principal features of the OREGON: length on the water line, 348 feet; beam, extreme, 69 1/4 feet; draft, forward and aft, 24 feet; ...designed speed, 16.2 knots; sustained sea speed, 15 knots."

Still being fitted out in the year was the
USS OLYMPIA which would win great fame two months before OREGON while under Admiral George Dewey at Manila Bay. [She is today a maritime museum in Philadelphia.]

OREGON's pre-commissioning sea trials went splendidly with the ship clocking 16.791 knots over a sixty-two mile course thus earning her builders a bonus of $175,000. She was commissioned into the service under Captain Henry L. Howison, USN, on July 15, 1896. Her designed complement was 32 officers and 441 men.
Circumstances Abroad
In Cuba, repressive measures by Spain led to rebellion by Cubans and American opportunists attempted to smuggle munitions into the colony aboard the U.S. registered steamer VIRGINIUS. The ship was seized on the high seas by a Spanish gunboat and fifty officers and crew, some American, were taken ashore and summarily shot.

Propaganda campaigns followed, fueled by the yellow journalism of Pulitzer and Hearst, attacking Spain's General Valeriano Weyler who had a reputation for repressive cruelty and corruption. He herded people into concentration camps where they existed in miserable conditions. Newspapers across the country demanded war and the country rang with the cry "Remember the Maine and to hell with Spain" all to the tune of "There'll be a Hot time in the Old Town Tonight".

This encouraged President McKinley to send the new Battleship MAINE to Havana harbor on a friendly visit which was reciprocated by Spain sending the cruiser VIZCAYA to New York.

Main was in port for three weeks, swinging on a buoy, when on the evening of February 15th, 1898, at 9:40 there was a terrific blast forward followed by another. Two hundred sixty-six men were lost and about one hundred crewmen were rescued by boats from an American passenger liner and a Spanish cruiser. According to the Americans, the MAINE was destroyed by a submarine mine and the New York Journal offered $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the persons responsible. The reward was never claimed.

During the first months of 1898, OREGON had been in Bremerton, Washington undergoing overhaul. On March 7th, Secretary of the Navy John F. Long wired the commanding officer: "The situation is getting worse. You should go to San Francisco as soon as possible and get ammunition."
Her skipper had foresightedly already left for Mare Island on Sunday, March 6th. She arrived three days later at an average speed of 11 knots and began coaling, receiving 1127 tons which with the on-board fuel loaded her to within 5 tons of her utmost capacity of 1594 tons.

A sudden illness of her captain, Alexander H. McCormick, USN, caused Captain Charles Edward Clark, USN, to be immediately detached from USS MONTEREY, then in San Diego, and speed northward to take immediate command. He arrived on March 17th and was ready for sea.

The administration made some efforts to avoid the conflict but a peaceful resolution was not possible. An Ultimatum sent to Spain on March 27th demanded the end of Weyler's concentration policies and amnesty for insurgents and the right of the Untied States to act as an arbitrator between the Spanish Government and the insurgents. Spain seemed ready to agree to such terms, provided a way could be found to do so without bringing down the monarchy. All this required time and patience on the part of the American public and their representatives in Congress but both had run out.

By prearrangement, USS MARIETTA had left Panama earlier and acted as an advance courier to arrange for coaling at ports enroute. She kept company with OREGON for much of the voyage and was a faithful companion.

Upon departure on March 18, OREGON carried 1600 tons of coal, 500 tons of ammunition and stores for six months, She was short twenty-seven men from the engine and fire rooms and sixty-seven deck hands.

Here began her epic journey of 15,000 miles in 66 days averaging 250 nautical miles a day.

Battle, gunnery and damage control drills commenced immediately and continued daily up to the date of the momentous battle off Santiago, Cuba on July 4, 1898.

Near the equator, fireroom and engine room temperatures ranged between 110 and 150 degrees in high humidity. Fresh water was extremely limited and rationed. The small amounts of ice that were produced on board were reserved for the firemen and coal passers. Discomfort was compounded by the filthy work of repositioning bunker coal and hauling ash residue overboard, a backbreaking job.

Upon arrival on April 5, re-coaling at Callao, Peru took 50 hours of non-stop all hands effort and the ship sailed on April 7, 1898 having learned that a Navy Board of Inquiry fixed blame on Spain for the MAINE incident; she left at night silently.

Enroute to her rendezvous point with the Atlantic fleet, diplomatic relations with Spain were broken off, international mediation failed and Congress declared war on April 21, 1898.

As she entered the Straits of Magellan on April 16, she encountered a terrific storm which Captain Clark described as "having some of the most violent wind gusts I have ever experienced." Rain was so dense that the great cliffs bordering the narrow and tortuous channel could not be seen. [Of course, there was no radar.]

The lateness of the hour made a night approach into Punta Arenas impractical and she anchored for the night at Tamar Island, Chile, amid gusts and heavy seas, leaving after only twelve hours. By 6:00 a.m. she was again underway and moving at close to her designed maximum speed of 15 knots.

Arriving at Punta Arenas at 6:00 p.m., on April 20, loading of coal commenced immediately. Five hundred tons were loaded by hand in 48 hours and she left on April 21 without knowledge that war had been declared that morning.

Reports of a very fast torpedo gunboat TEMERARIO [600 tons/20 knots] lying across her path caused both OREGON and the MARIETTA to steam together in war conditions with sealed hatches and compartments thus increasing the misery of her crew. No lights were shown, guns were loaded and searchlights were at the ready.

The leg to Rio was at a slower speed so as to conform to MARIETTA's slowness and it took ten days at 10 knots. Upon arrival at Rio on April 30 there was news aplenty. War had been declared and there were reports that Admiral Cervera was at sea with a powerful cruiser squadron. TEMERARIO was also reported to have left Montevideo and was headed for Rio. Accordingly, the crew busied itself tearing out woodwork and painting the ship a dull gray color which tended to diminish her visibility as much as possible under varying conditions of light and atmosphere.

While in port, OREGON kept her two steam launches on picket duty at night assisted by MARIETTA'S single launch.
The Brazilian navy sent out warships in the event TEMERARIO entered Brazilian waters.

It took three days and two nights to take aboard 1000 tons of coal and finish the other work necessary for combat, but this time there was some shore-based labor to assist the weary bluejackets. Joining OREGON at Rio was the auxiliary NICTHEROY, a dynamic cruiser purchased from the Brazilians but a poor steamer with frequent breakdowns. She slowed OREGON, being incapable of making more than seven knots.

The run to Bahia, Brazil was 850 miles but on May 7 and 8 there was a stubborn coal bunker fire requiring work parties to redistribute coal and extinguish the blaze. No coal was taken onboard at Bahia but there were communications from Washington urging haste. On May 9th she headed for Bridgetown, Barbados, 2250 miles distant under four boilers at 11.5 knots. The British, following the neutrality rules, allowed her to take aboard only 240 tones and she left the evening of May 18th having spent only twelve hours in port. The last long run to Jupiter Inlet, Florida took six days at 12 knots thence to Key West with only 200 tons remaining aboard. At Jupiter Inlet, Clark cabled Washington announcing his arrival and OREGON was ordered to Key West there to join Admiral Sampson on the blockade of Cuba.

She had circumnavigated a continent and passed through two oceans and in her two days at Key West she took on coal, additional crew and was again ready for sea.

The circumstances of the battle with the Spanish Fleet at Santiago are brilliantly described by Professor Sternlicht in his book and among other sources also but it is sufficient to say that the Spaniards made a tactical blunder by going into the protected harbor at Santiago to either wait the conclusion of the land war or make a desperate dash for the open sea against a greatly superior blockading force. They lost the gamble in the course of one morning thus suffering the defeat of both their Atlantic and Pacific squadrons in only two months.
The Impact of the Cruise
The "long and reasonably successful voyage" of OREGON, though less spectacular than the running fight of July 3rd, is of real significance to naval and national historians.

First, it swept away all opposition to the construction of the Panama Canal for it was clear that the country could not afford to take two months to send warships from one coast to the other each time an emergency arose. One hundred years later, America is again faced with the same dilemma since ownership of the canal has been transferred. There was an additional reason also. America now had an overseas presence. A naval base had been established in Cuba. Hawaii had been annexed. Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines has been acquired, and the Canal had become an enormously popular cause.

Second, there was superb labor, care, engine maintenance, judgment and leadership put forth by the whole engineering department. The record breaking transit was completed without any breakdowns. During the battle, OREGON led the fleet in the chase despite an additional 600 tons of coal and in doing so she exceeded 17 knots which was above her designed speed. Chief Engineer R. W. Milligan and several of his assistants together with her Captain all attained high rank including J. M. Reeves who as a Rear Admiral became Chief of Naval Aviation and young cadet William Leahey who was later an Admiral and a hero of the Pacific War.

Third, the Secretary of the Navy's admonition to constantly practice at the great guns proved again that continuous drill creates expertise which makes success seem deceptively simple. During the battle, OREGON's gunnery was superb and helped to end the naval war in one morning.

Fourth, American engineering and maintenance was superior and OREGON's readiness for continuous and sustained sea duty was unprecedented. She arrived in Cuban waters in a thoroughly efficient condition and was able to take her place in Admiral Sampson's fleet upon recoaling and with no necessity for overhaul.
Changes in Ship Design
The turn of the century was one of great international tensions as world powers tested their strength. There was the Japan-China War over Korea; the Russo-Japanese War; European powers quarreled over the division of Africa; and demands and financial concessions were extracted from China through the Open Door Policy. In 1901 and again in 1902, U.S. Naval forces were sent to the Isthmus of Panama to protect transit and communications. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt backed Panama's successful revolution and then negotiated canal rights with the new government.

In the ten years between the end of Japan's war against China and the beginning of its war with Russia, typical U.S. battleships carried four large guns [10 to 13 inches] and a large number of lesser caliber guns. Such ships were the backbone of the U.S. Navy and all other important fighting fleets.
Great Britain, feeling her imperial base threatened by France, Japan and Germany, seized upon a concept first espoused by Italian strategists and in great secrecy and incredible haste constructed a revolutionary new weapon. HMS DREADNOUGHT was laid down in February 1906 and competed by December. This was an unheard of achievement.

DREADNOUGHT was 17,900 tons, was driven by steam turbines and instead of mixed batteries she mounted ten 12 inch rifles. Theoreticians had worked out, and the Russo-Japanese War had conclusively demonstrated that mixing large and small batteries wasted weight and space. The big guns could fire before the smaller ones were within range and the smaller ones took up precious space which could be filled with more big guns. Additionally, manual local control by gunnery crews for range, train and elevation was erratic and a unified main battery fire director was shown to result in a greater percentage of hits. In sum, big guns delivered more bang for the buck.

DREADNOUGHT was larger, wider, faster, heavier and of higher freeboard than any previous battleship. Everything else became immediately obsolete. Sir John Fisher the First Sea Lord and promoter of her creation joked that she should be called the "hard boiled egg": "Why, because she can't be beat".

The message to maritime strategists was not missed. The new Delaware class of U.S. battleship was authorized by the Appropriations Act of 1907. In his annual message to Congress, Roosevelt said in the plainest of terms:
"To build one battleship of the best and most advanced type would barely keep our fleet up to its present force. This is not enough. In my judgment, this year we should provide for four battleships."


Teddy Roosevelt capped this comment thirteen days later by reviewing the Great White Fleet at Chesapeake Bay as it started its fourteen month 46,000 mile cruise around the world. [OREGON, then out of commission, did not participate].

At the beginning of the century, the U.S. Navy had been the sixth largest in the world; by 1909 it was second only to the Royal Navy. By then, many battleships including USS KANSAS, USS VERMONT and USS NEW HAMPSHIRE, all less than ten years old and being of the pre-Dreadnought type were obsolete at an early age and were being replaced with the new Delaware class [USS DELAWARE, USS WYOMING, USS NEW YORK and USS TEXAS] each having main batteries of twelve in guns.

War broke out in Europe in August 1914 and as the world was sucked into the conflict, America began building up its strength industrially and militarily. We were drawn nearer and nearer to active partnership in the conflict and when Germany tested the temper of the country on May 17, 1915, with the sinking of the Lusitania with a loss of 1198 lives, including 128 Americans, all neutral and all non-combatants, the nation was outraged.
Public sentiment for an interminable neutrality, or peace at any price, visibly declined. Nothing that Germany could do by way of official apology, moderation of policy or offers of compensation could stem the tide of bitter resentment.

Winston Churchill, in his book, The World Crisis, attributed German defeat directly to the ravaging of Belgium and the sinking of the LUSITANIA. "Only to these two grand crimes and blunders of history, were her undoing and our salvation due."

By 1916, only a little more than seven years since the sixteen battleships of the Great While Fleet had completed their voyage, nearly all of them had left active service. Only USS CONNECTICUT remained and she was also slated for the reserve fleet.

California had agitated for a larger ship for her naval militia. Even her most recent loaner,
USS MARBLEHEAD, built in 1894 and assigned to the State of California on March 31, 1910 was not sufficient in size for training and cruising and when OREGON became immediately available, though redundant and obsolete, she was the ideal candidate. She was homeported in San Francisco. She was transferred to the state on February 17, 1916 under the command of Captain George W. Bauer, C.N.M.

George Bauer had served the state continuously since 1903 as its senior naval officer, was a licensed master mariner, a superb administrator and oversaw the growth of the naval militia from 400 sailors at the turn of the century to over 1200 by 1917. It was he who led the long campaign for greater appropriations and readiness and led the entire naval brigade down the streets of San Francisco to their respective ships when the naval militia was placed in Federal service. He continued to pursue his naval duties and became the Navy's first Reserve Rear Admiral, passing away on December 25, 1950 in San Francisco. OREGON was assigned to California as a reserve Commission ship meaning she was assigned to duty with the Naval Militia but regularly in command of a naval officer having a crew of about thirty-five men for the proper care and preservation of the ship. She was used as a floating armory and school ship for cruising at which time the naval militia officers assumed command and the militia crew operated the ship.

As such, she made local cruises off the California coast drilling sailors in the states nine divisions in the arts and science of seamanship. Such training and hands-on experience made the 1200 who marched to join the squadron in San Francisco Bay immediately worthy of joining the regular ship's companies and they rendered distinguished service during the war.

When the U.S. entered the war, OREGON was placed in full commission on April 7, 1917 and was assigned to the Pacific Fleet as Flagship. Her mission was to assist in training officers and men for ships leaving the west coast for the war zone. According to one of her officers she was also a important factor in increasing and sustaining the war enthusiasm of the people who had a particular affection for OREGON which had for long been a fixture in the Bay. The entire state militia had been distributed initially to USS OREGON, USS SAN DIEGO and USS HUNTINGTON where some stayed as permanent ship's companies and others were assigned to other ships of the line and auxiliary ships in the Pacific and the Atlantic fleets.
Why California Got The Oregon
This is now speculation, but the most probable reasons for California getting the loan of a battleship were these:

1. The U.S. was gearing up for war. Congress ordered an increase in the size of the National Guard and the Militia units guard and the naval militia units remembering that militiamen had greatly increased the size of the Navy in 1898 from 12,000 to 16,000 sailors and that was in a war of only four month's duration. In 1898, California had an authorized strength of 414 sailors but 1200 marched down San Francisco's streets to join the fleet in 1917. Accordingly, the State required a more modern and larger training ship to fill the role. OREGON could handle twice the number as MARBLEHEAD which was needed by OREGON as a training ship. The southern California divisions were serviced by the small torpedo boat Farragut built in 1898 at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco and based at San Pedro beginning on January 12, 1915.

2. She was immediately available but had years of useful life remaining.

3. Doubtless there was sentiment involved. She had been built here and commissioned here. Since April 26, 1911, she had served as a training ship here for navigation, gunnery, and seamanship; many of her crew lived in the bay area and she was a prominent part of the popular 1915 Pan American Exposition in San Francisco making herself available for public tours.

4. Finally, there was the entire forgettable but poignant argument advanced which went as follows:

"The splendid availability of the state naval militia in formal functions of the governor, the adjutant general or their respective staff, goes without saying.

"At the launching of any great ship from the shipyards of the state when governors of other states are to be entertained what can be more impressive than for the governor to entertain the visiting party on board a vessel of his own State's navy and to render the man-of-war honors to which a governor is entitled? Is this not a more dignified manner for the state executive to attend a launching than a hack?

"When foreign men-of-war are in any of the harbors of the state and the governor desires to extend the courtesy of this great state, with a naval reserve at his call is he not entitled to go on board ship with all the ceremony incident to his high rank and to feel that his state has been properly represented?"

            Transactions of the Naval Militia Association of the United States
            Navy Department; February 20, 1919, p. 102
After the Great War
Following the war, OREGON served as an escort for U.S. Troops moving to Siberia and in an assistance role to the White Russian counter-revolutionaries.

She was saved from the ignominious end of being a practice target for the fleet in 1920 and then under the Washington Conference on Limitations of Armaments of 1920 she was to be scrapped but public sentiments were such that she was to be demilitarized and turned over to the state of OREGON as a popular maritime exhibit and museum on July 14, 1925 [Plate 6]. There she remained for sixteen years until the outbreak of World War II.

There were then divisive forces; some wanted her broken up for scrap to aid the war effort and President Franklin D. Roosevelt concurred in a letter dated October 26, 1942. She was sold for scrap on December 7, 1942 and taken to Washington for wrecking but as the steel shortage became less acute the scrapping process slowed. By September, 1943, all her armaments, superstructure and internal machinery was gone but there was still a role for her to play.

Her armored hull made her a perfect dynamite barge and she was towed to the South Pacific so Seabees could use her as a depot ship in constructing airfields. She was moored in Guam at war's end and stayed there until Hurricane Agnes tore her from her moorings in November 1948 ans she drifted 500 miles toward the Philippines before being found and recovered. She was sold for scrap on March 15, 1956 and was broken up in Kawasaki, Japan.

Today, only her mast remains, mounted in the seawall of Portland, OREGON as the beacon and fitting memorial for Battleship Park.
For more information on the USS OREGON, CLICK HERE


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Updated 8 February 2016