There was a time when the battleship Oregon ranked among the most famous ships of the U.S. Navy. The Oregon’s nearly sixty-five-year career encompassed an epic sea voyage, action in a pivotal battle of the Spanish American War, and service as a war memorial and museum on the Portland, Oregon, waterfront. From the ship’s launching to its unfortunate demise, generations of Oregonians took the Oregon into their hearts as a point of pride.
After the Civil War, the United States looked to its internal growth, and by the 1880s the once mighty U.S. fleet had declined to the point where it was eclipsed by the major navies of the world. England, Germany, Russia, and Japan were building steam-powered, steel-hulled navies of increasing size and power, while new advances in armor plate and naval armament rendered the United State’s Civil War–era fleet obsolete. These new forces were used both to project national power and to protect countries’ colonial interests. Under the influence of strategists such as Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan of the U.S. Navy and Benjamin Franklin Tracy, secretary of the navy in President Benjamin Harrison’s cabinet, the United States recognized the need to modernize its sea forces and began to rebuild its fleet, first with cruisers and lightly armored second-class battleships such as the USS Maine and then with its first true battleships — the USS Indiana, the USS Massachusetts, and the USS Oregon.
Two U.S. Navy ships with the name Oregon preceded the battleship. In 1841, Lt. Charles Wilkes surveyed the Columbia River in a brig he had renamed Oregon (formerly the Thomas H. Perkins), a replacement for the Peacock, which had wrecked on the Columbia River bar. The second ship was an iron-clad monitor of the Union Navy on which construction was begun during the Civil War but never finished. The keel of the third Oregon was laid down on November 19, 1891, at Union Iron Works in San Francisco. Although Union had been in business since the gold-rush days of the 1850s it had been building ships only since 1885 and the contract for over $4 million for the Oregon was its largest yet. The launching of the hull took place on October 26, 1893, as Eugenia Shelby and Daisy Ainsworth, representatives from Oregon, christened the ship by pressing electric switches to send it down the ways. A large, enthusiastic crowd — onshore and afloat — viewed the launching ceremony in San Francisco Bay.
After two and a half years of outfitting and sea trials, the Oregon was commissioned on July 15, 1896, and the U.S. Navy had its first full-fledged modern battleship in Pacific waters. Following commissioning, the ship served on the West Coast and then in 1897–1898 was put into dry dock at Bremerton, Washington, for refitting and the installation of keelsons (keel-like structures on each side of the hull that improved stability). It was fortunate that the Oregon had just come out of a refit and was in superb condition, for it was to prove the right ship at the right time for the United States in the looming Spanish American War.
By 1898, tensions between Spain and the United States had been rising for some time, and Spain’s harsh treatment of its Cuban colony’s subjects during rebel insurrections had been widely and luridly reported in U.S. newspapers. The USS Maine had been sent to Havana to show the U.S. flag and bolster the nerves of American interests on the island, which had prompted Spain to send its cruiser Vizcaya to New York harbor on a “courtesy visit.” On February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded in Havana harbor and 266 lives were lost. A board of inquiry at the time favored an enemy mine as the cause of the blast, but most modern assessments blame cooking off of the powder magazines by the heat of a coal bunker fire. The U.S. Asiatic Fleet was sent to destroy Spain’s decrepit navy in the Philippines, resulting in Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay on April 30, 1898. Meanwhile, rumors of a new “Spanish Armada” sent to attack the East Coast of the United States bred panic in the population and calls for the Atlantic Fleet to protect coastal cities.
As relations between the United States and Spain continued to sour in early 1898, the USS Oregon was ordered to join the U.S. Atlantic Fleet with all haste. Before construction of the Panama Canal, this meant a voyage down the Pacific coasts of North and South America, through the Straits of Magellan, and up into the South Atlantic with several calls at ports along the way to replenish coal supplies and to receive orders by telegraph. From Bremerton in Puget Sound, the Oregon made a short run to San Francisco, where the ship coaled and took on provisions and ammunition. Here, the captain became ill and was replaced by Capt. Charles Clark, a veteran of the Civil War and an experienced sailor who had diligently worked his way up the chain of command.
Clearing the Golden Gate on March 19, 1898, the Oregon proceeded on a voyage of 13,675 nautical miles (15,737 statute miles) to Jupiter Inlet, Florida, arriving on May 24, 1898. The sixty-six-day trip shattered previous records for ships of the Oregon’s size. The obstacles that had to be overcome were substantial: the ship was shorthanded by sixty-seven deck crew and twenty-seven men in the engine room. The crew voluntarily limited their use of fresh water. Using sea water in the boilers would have impaired their efficiency, so the men made do with short rations of warm water from the ship’s condensers, even when fire room temperatures rose to 150 degrees as they passed through the tropics. They were plagued with poor quality coal and fires in the coal bunkers caused by spontaneous combustion. Many tons of coal had to be dug out by hand, in terrible heat and foul air, to extinguish the fires. They stopped to take on coal at five ports, and forty-one hundred tons of coal was shoveled by hand into the fireboxes during the voyage.
In the Straits of Magellan they faced a severe storm, forcing a perilous overnight anchorage and a dangerous, high-speed run the next day to clear the narrow passage. Having to maintain position with escort vessels slowed the ship, and the Oregon finally had to leave the escorts behind. Communications with Naval Command were spotty at best. In these days before radio, communications came through cable connections in ports and often contained conflicting orders and unreliable news from the United States, particularly about the disposition of Spanish forces.
Thanks to Clark, his officers and crew, and the skill of the Union yard’s shipbuilders, the battleship arrived in the Caribbean at a high level of readiness — a remarkable feat for a coal-fired ship after an ocean voyage of over two months. The U.S. press had followed the passage of the Oregon with breathless accounts heightened by dramatic periods of speculation while the ship was out of sight. This only improved the ship’s standing with the public. The Pacific-to-Atlantic transit had also underscored the need for completion of the Panama Canal and given ammunition to canal proponents.
The united states had formally declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898, a month before the Oregon joined the Atlantic Fleet. Spain’s Atlantic Squadron had left the Cape Verde Islands, west of Senegal, Africa, eluded the U.S. naval forces searching for them, and anchored in the harbor of Santiago de Cuba on the southeastern coast of the island, where they were blockaded by the U.S. fleet on May 29, 1898. Spain’s squadron included five cruisers — the Infanta Maria Teresa, Vizcaya, Cristóbal Colón, Almirante Oquendo, and Reina Mercedes— along with two destroyers — the Furor and the Pluton— plus some torpedo boats and auxiliaries, all under the command of Adm. Pascual Cervera y Topete. While theoretically a strong force, the Spanish ships were in poor condition, and the Colon had sailed without its main gun batteries mounted. Against the Spaniards stood a powerful U.S. battle fleet that included, with the Oregon, four first-class battleships. Adm. William Sampson led the U.S. fleet, with Commodore Winfield Scott Schley second in command.
The U.S. blockade and land assault on Santiago de Cuba was dogged by poor planning, bad communications, yellow fever, and a nearly disastrous lack of cooperation between the navy and the army. After the U.S. Army landed troops for an assault on Santiago, Cervera was ordered to take his ships out through the channel that connects Santiago Bay to the sea. Around 9:00 in the morning on Sunday, July 3, the Spanish squadron made a break from the harbor. The naval action that followed proved to be a decisive battle of the campaign.
The battleship Massachusetts and the cruisers New Orleans and Newark had gone to replenish their coal at Guantanamo Bay, and Admiral Sampson had left that morning in the cruiser New York to confer with Gen. William Shafter, the U.S. Army commander. This left the cruiser Brooklyn (Schley’s flagship); the battleships Texas, Indiana, Iowa, and Oregon; and a few smaller ships on the blockade line. To save coal, many of the ships had only half-fired boilers at the time of the breakout, and the Brooklyn, the fastest of them, had two of its four engines uncoupled from the propeller shafts and could not attain top speed without coming to a full stop to connect them. This left the Oregon as the only large ship with a full head of steam.
Cervera’s flagship, the Maria Teresa, led the Spanish ships from the harbor channel to the sea and opened fire with its forward gun. The Americans concentrated heavy fire on the Teresa, and thick powder smoke shrouded the U.S. ships, nearly causing them to collide. As signalman Joseph Gannon from the Oregon recalled in his book on the Battle of Santiago: “At the time, I figured a good long toss, and I could have landed a potato on the deck of the Iowa.”
Hit hard, Admiral Cervera moved the Maria Teresa toward the beach to be run aground, allowing the other Spanish ships to sail west along the Cuban coastline. The Oquendo was also driven ashore, and the Spanish destroyers were engaged and dispatched near the harbor channel. The Brooklyn and the Oregon were in hot pursuit of the Viscaya and the Colón with the Texas bringing up the rear when a shell from one of the American ships touched off a torpedo warhead on the Viscaya, blowing out its bow. The third Spanish ship turned toward a shore now littered with burning wrecks, while the Iowa stayed to rescue men from the Viscaya and drive off Cuban insurgents who were attacking the survivors. In an 1899 Century Magazine article, Capt. Robley D. Evans of the Iowa described the view as the Oregon set off after the Spanish cruiser: “We could see her for a moment only as she sped on after the Colon, completely enveloped in the smoke of her own guns — a great white puff-ball, decorated every second with vicious flashes as her guns spoke out.”
The remaining Spanish ship, the Cristóbal Colón, now had a six-mile lead over its American pursuers. The ships settled into a stern chase with the Brooklyn in the lead and the Oregon charging along at sixteen knots, burning a carefully hoarded supply of top-quality Cardiff coal that had been reserved for battle. The chase continued for sixty miles along the coast, but the Colón was trapped inshore of the Americans without enough sea room to effectively maneuver and was losing speed. Finally, the forward thirteen-inch guns of the Oregon came into range. A series of shots landed just astern of the Spanish cruiser and then bracketed the target with rounds forward. The doomed ship struck its colors, and then the crew ran it aground and scuttled it, denying the Americans a prize.
The American naval victory was complete. When the Reina Mercedes, which had remained in the harbor, was sunk the next day, the Spanish Navy was effectively destroyed. When news of the battle reached the United States the next day, which happened to be the Fourth of July, it touched off wild celebrations. The Spanish garrison at Santiago capitulated on July 17, and the war was over on August 12. The United States had established itself as a major naval power and had extended its influence to the Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
By this time, the Oregon had taken on the nickname “Bulldog of the Navy.” The ship’s tenacity on its Pacific-to-Atlantic cruise and during the Battle of Santiago likely influenced this choice, but also the Oregon threw up an especially large, foaming bow wake when it was fully underway. In nautical terms, the ship had a “bone in her teeth.”
After the Spanish American War, the Oregon was used for gunboat diplomacy. In March 1899, the Oregon became the first battleship assigned to Admiral Dewy’s Asiatic Squadron and was stationed in the recently annexed Philippines to provide a symbol of U.S. power. In 1900, while cruising on a mission to Hong Kong, the Oregon struck an undersea pinnacle rock. The ship was badly holed and a forward compartment was flooded, requiring three days’ labor to free it and make temporary repairs. Escorted by a Japanese cruiser, the Oregon limped to Kure, Japan, where more substantial repairs were made. The ship returned to the West Coast of the United States in 1901 and then was sent back to Asian waters for four years of supporting U.S. interests during turbulent situations, including trade disputes and the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
In 1906, the Oregon was taken out of commission and laid up at the Bremerton Navy Yard in Washington until 1911, when it was put into service as a training vessel based in San Francisco. Naval armament and technology had advanced so rapidly that the ship was fast headed for obsolescence, and the Oregon had not taken part in the round-the-world voyage of the Great White Fleet in 1907–1909. A proposal to have the Oregon lead the fleet in the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 did not come to fruition, but the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco drew public attention to the ship. During World War I, the Oregon saw no combat but continued to serve in training duties and as flagship of the Pacific Fleet. It then commenced a mission to Vladivostok in August 1918, serving as an escort for ships transporting U.S. troops of the American Expeditionary Force.
When the U.S. Navy adopted a system of ship symbols in 1920, the Oregon was classified as BB3 (Battleship No. 3). Limitations on armaments in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty dictated the reduction of naval forces, and the Oregon’s sisters, the Indiana (BB1) and the Massachusetts (BB2), were decommissioned and used as target ships. The people of Oregon petitioned the Navy Department to preserve the Oregon. Because of its historic status, the ship was declared a “naval relic,” and June 1925 found the old veteran — with guns disabled and propeller shafts cut — being nudged by tugboats into a moorage near the Broadway Bridge on the east bank of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. An article in the June 15, 1925, Oregonian reported that twenty thousand people waited for hours to tour the vessel during a one-day stop in St. Johns, downriver from Portland.
For the next sixteen years, the Oregon served as a war memorial and museum and was a popular meeting place for social groups, veterans, school tours, and scout troops. During 1941, over a hundred thousand persons signed the ship’s guest book. In 1938, the Oregon was moved to a more sheltered moorage at a basin near the southwest end of the Hawthorne Bridge, the site of a proposed Battleship Oregon Marine Park. Eventually, the park was dedicated and a few improvements were made. There were also plans to surround the ship with concrete to make the berth permanent, but funds were not available to proceed with the entire project.
In fact, the USS Oregon was only on loan to the state. The Navy had retained ownership, and after the start of World War II, Oregon Governor Charles Sprague naively offered to return the ship to active service. The navy quickly declined, but the stage was set for its demise. Although the navy denied that there were plans for scrapping the Oregon, the War Production Board had decided to claim the ship for the war effort. In the end, President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally settled the matter, turning the Oregon over to the board for scrap metal.
The Battleship Oregon Commission and the ship’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post lodged formal protests with the navy, but to no effect. Despite the mounting fervor of wartime metal drives, the scrapping of the ship did not go unquestioned. Expressing “the proper spirit of patriotic resignation,” Marjorie W. Hennessey of Hillsboro wrote to the editor of the Oregonian:
If we in future years must contemplate a yawning vacancy where now the grand old Oregon lies in her carefully prepared moorage basin, let us be extremely sure that we can say “It had to go, so we gritted our teeth and gave it” rather than “The Oregon went for nothing and need not have gone at all.”
The Oregon was put up for sale on November 2, 1942. Through a closed bidding process, it was sold for thirty-five thousand dollars.
On a cold, slushy December 7, 1942, one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a parade commemorating the ship marched through the streets of downtown Portland. Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson flew in to deliver the keynote speech, and a quarter of the front page of the Oregonian was taken up with a fifteen-stanza ode to the ship by Oregon poet Ben Hur Lampman. The last lines read:
The gray, gray mists where once she lay —
(Ah but her name is pride!)
She loosed her moorings and bore away
To serve again in a thunderous day —
The Oregon sails with the tide!
The Oregon was towed down the Columbia River to Kalama, Washington, where the superstructure was stripped and bronze, brass, and copper were reclaimed from the rest of the vessel. Valuable machinery was also apparently sold off around this time. As it turned out, the need for scrap metal from the ship was hardly critical, and Portland newspapers reported that piles of scrap from the Oregon never left the area. It was not until 1945 that nine hundred tons of steel from the ship’s armor was finally sent to Seattle to be melted down. Public remorse over the fate of the ship grew, and former governor Sprague proclaimed that he was grieved at the lack of use and waste in reconverting the battleship.
The Navy, embarrassed by public criticism of the project, reclaimed the hulk and reinstated it as Miscellaneous Vessel (IX-22). The empty, armored hull of the Oregon became a huge munitions barge, and, loaded with fourteen thousand tons of dynamite and other explosives, it was towed to Port Merizo, Guam, in July 1944. After the cargo was unloaded, the ship lay rusting in Guam until November 1948, when a typhoon hit the island. The Oregon was torn from its moorings and struck out to sea, unmanned. It was presumed that the ship had sunk, but on December 8, a Navy aircraft spotted the hulk happily bobbing on the waves nearly five hundred miles southeast of Guam. An oceangoing tug returned the ship to harbor. The Oregon again languished in Guam while proposals to save it came to naught. In March 1956, the hulk was sold for $208,000 to Massey Supply Company, then resold to the Iwai Sanggo Company, which towed the hull to a scrap yard in Kawasaki, Japan, where it was broken up. The Oregon was gone.
Parts of the USS Oregon survive. Most prominent is the mast, which graces the Battleship Oregon Memorial at Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland. The ship’s stacks can be found farther down the Willamette shore, near the Broadway Bridge at Liberty Ship Park. Before the ship was towed away for scrap in 1942, its museum collections had been taken ashore, first to be stored at Failing School and eventually to be relocated to two houses in Portland’s Lloyd District. This land-based Battleship Oregon Museum lost public funding in 1955 and closed in 1958. Attempts were then made to return materials to the original donors, and other artifacts came under the care of the Oregon Historical Society. The Society’s Battleship Oregon collection includes scale models, artifacts, photographs, and manuscript materials. The ship’s magnificent silver punch bowl is a featured artifact in the Society’s Hayes Maritime Gallery. Pieces from the Oregon can also be found in the collections of the Oregon Maritime Museum in Portland and the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, and some objects remain in private hands.
Had it remained in Portland, the Oregon would have faced serious challenges. The preservation of a ship dating from the 1890s would have been difficult. An example of the problems involved in keeping an aging warship can be found in Admiral Dewy’s flagship from the Battle of Manila, the cruiser Olympia— like the Oregon, a product of Union Iron Works in the 1890s but half the tonnage of the battleship. The Olympia, berthed in Philadelphia and the only surviving vessel of the Great White Fleet, struggles with problems such as corrosion and leaking decks. Even a decommissioned ship needs never-ending maintenance and repair, and during its time as a monument and museum the operations of the Oregon were chronically underfunded. A 1935 maintenance report on the ship gives a sense of the amount of work required:
The crew of 5 men do all janitor work, repairing, plumbing, electrical wiring, inside painting, make show cases for the museum, and act as guides. The secretary does all clerical work, caring of books, banking and etc., advertising, contacts clubs and organizations, keeps up intrest [sic] in evening entertainments, — thereby increasing the revenues of the ship — solicits war trophies for the ship’s Museum, catalogs and cares for same, acts as hostess day and evenings if required, arranges visitations of school children and all other work promoting the public interest.
Why did the old battleship stir such passion in Oregonians? In the beginning, the mere association of the state’s name with an object of national power brought a sense of prideful recognition. Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy had proposed that naming U.S. warships after states and cities would create a sense of regional identification, and the Oregon seems to be a prime example of the succes of that suggestion. In a deeper sense, the battleship’s story may have resonated with the descendants of western pioneers who still felt personally connected to the pioneer experience during the first half of the twentieth century. As the pioneers had done, the ship made an epic journey and served famously in the expansion of the United States. Like the pioneers, the Oregon established a home in the state and became a sentimental symbol of civic pride. The symbolism of the ship would have been congruent with certain Oregonians’ experience of their pioneer heritage. Among those who remember the old battleship, there remains a sense of nostalgia and loss.
The boat basin on the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge where the USS Oregon once rested is now a site for music festivals and riverside strolls. One wonders what the Portland Harbor might be like now, had the “Bulldog of the Navy” become the centerpiece of a major maritime museum, as some envisioned.
The Oregon Historical Society will open a new permanent exhibit, The Battleship Oregon: Bulldog of the Navy, in March 2005. For more information, visit www.ohs.org/exhibits/battleship.cfm.
1. Joseph C. Gannon, The U.S.S. Oregon and the Battle of Santiago (New York: Comet Press, 1958), 24.
2. Robley D. Evans, “The Iowa at Santiago,” Century Illustrated Monthly, May 1899, 55.
3. See Sanford Sternlich, McKinley’s Bulldog: The Battleship Oregon (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1977), 134.
4. Marjorie W. Hennessey, letter to the editor, Oregonian, October 25, 1942.
5. Sanford Sternlict describes the purchasers, Edwin M. Ricker and William O. McKay, as “Portland businessmen,” but the 1941 Portland City Directory shows no listing for either man, nor are they listed in the combined 1943–1944 edition of the directory (no directory exists for 1942) (McKinley’s Bulldog, p. 117). They apparently were not businessmen of long standing in the Portland area. News stories show Ricker’s company as being based in San Francisco. Oregon Journal, April 21, 1944. The sales price seems immodestly low considering reports that the ship’s two anchors alone were worth in the neighborhood of five thousand dollars apiece and the main electrical generators had an estimated worth of ten thousand dollars each.
6. Oregonian, December 7, 1942.
7. Oregonian, February 11, 1945.
8. “Report on the Status of the Battleship Oregon Museum,” OHS Marine Vertical File, “Oregon Battleship: General and Miscellaneous,” Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Portland.
BY: Ken Lomax