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Gunboat U.S.S. Dolphin

By Patrick McSherry

U.S.S. Dolphin in full dress
The Gunboat Dolphin in full dress and fresh paint.
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The DOLPHIN served with the blockade of Cuba during the Spanish American War, taking part in various bombardments and actions, including the Battle of Cuzco Well and the capture of a Spanish vessel.


The Gunboat DOLPHIN is very significant in that she was first vessel in the new American steel navy, when the navy was reborn after nearly being placed out of existence through obsolescence and lack of funding. The first new steel vessels were the AT\LANTA, BOSTON, CHICAGO and DOLPHIN, and were called collectively the "ABCD Fleet" because of their names. Of the four vessels, DOLPHIN was the first completed. DOLPHIN was built by John Roach and Sons of Chester, Pennsylvania, located outside of Philadelphia. Originally she was to be commanded by Capt. (later Adrmiral) George Dewey, however delays in her acceptance by the Navy forced Dewey to move on to command the PENSACOLA instead. She was two months later than planned for her sea trials. At her sea trials, DOLPHIN failed to make the designed speed and even suffered the breaking of her propeller shaft. The problems were eventually overcome and the vessel was commissioned on December 8, 1885.

After initally cruising off the east coast of the United States, DOLPHIN was sent on a world cruise from February, 1886 to September, 1889. During this  58,000 mile cruise - actually the equivalent to over twice around the globe - her engines were inoperative for only two hours. This was an amazing technical achievement which Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy indicated was "probably without parallel in the history of naval vessels” up to that time. Also on this cruise, DOLPHIN sported a coat of white paint which became standard on U.S. naval vessels, giving rise to the name "the White Squadron." After the world cruise she again cruised off the U.S. east coast and in the Caribbean. After being placed out of commission from May, 1 1891 to March 14, 1892, the DOLPHIN again resumed patrol duties in the same area. Because of her modern design but diminutive size, the Secretary of the Navy frequently used her for transportation.

On December 3, 1895, DOLPHIN began her service with the Special Service Squadron. Her duties included being sent to Guatemala on a surveying expedition during the first two months of 1896. President McKinley was aboard the vessel for transportation to the ceremonies commemorating the completion of the tomb for former president U.S. Grant in April of 1897. Later that year, in November, 1897, DOLPHIN  was again placed out of commission.

As the tensions rose that finally led to the Spanish American War, the DOLPHIN was recommissioned on March 24, 1898 and sent to serve in the Blockade of Cuba. Off Cuba, DOLPHIN, under the command of Commander H. W. Lyon, soon found herself in action. On April 27, she captured the 31 ton Spanish vessel, LOLA, with a cargo of fish and salt. On June 6, she was fired upon by the guns of the Morro Castle at Santiago. On June 14, 1898, she bombarded the Spanish position in the Battle of Cuzco Well, near Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After the battle, she carried the American and Cuban wounded, including including Captain William F. Spicer and First Lieutenant Wendell C. Neville back to Guantanamo Bay. On July 2, she was sent back to Norfolk, Virginia..

By now, her size greatly limited her use. After 1899, except during World War One, the vessel was generally relegated to the transport of the president, secretary of the navy, and other diplomats as needed, and to ceremonial activities, such as the Washington DC Peace Jubilee, the celebrations concerning the return of Admiral Dewey and the OLYMPIA in September, 1899, the ceremonies surrounding the return of John Paul Jones' remains to Annapolis and the departure of the Great White Fleet in 1907. During this time she carried President Theodore Rosevelt, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and the Japanese delegation negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, etc. In late 1899 and early 1900 she surveyed the mouth of the Orinoco River in South America.

From October 22, 1908 until 1917, DOPLHIN served as the flagship of the Third Squadron of the Atlantic Fleet. Notably, while in Tampico, Mexico, n April of 1914, a navy paymaster and two enlisted crewmen from DOLPHIN were arrested by the local authorities. This created an international incident and was one of the factors that eventually led to the 1914 invasion of Vera Cruz, Mexico by the U.S. Navy. The vessel took part in the occupation of Santo Domingo in May, 1916. In April, 1917, the vessel was sent to officially take possession of the newly purchased U.S. Virgin Islands. En route, she was notified of the Declaration of War placing the United States in a state of war in the European conflict. As part of her wartime duties, she tracked down and captured the steamship NORDSKAR, suspected of aiding the enemy. DOLPHIN was assigned as the flagship for the American Patrol Detachment, protecing shipping in the Gulf of Mexico. On October 16, 1920, the DOLPHIN was assigned as the flagship of the Special Service Squadron.

On December 8, 1921, DOLPHIN was decommissioned. The historic vessel was sold by the Navy on February 25, 1922.


The gunboat was intended as a dispatch boat, to carry messages to naval commands otherwise out of communication. This use, of course, was made obsolete with the use of wireless communcation in the beginning of the 1900's. Her size made her too small for much in the way of military use and she was "later officially characterized as 'more of a pleasure boat than a warship.'"

Among her other problems, her main machinery extended above the waterline of the vessel, making it more susceptible to damage in action. Her rated speed of 15.50 knots was actually quite slow for a vessel of this size. She had compound (double expansion) engines rather than the more modern and efficient triple expansion engines.

Also, built at time when the Navy was unwilling to take the full step to steam, DOLPHIN was equipped with sails, should they be needed, and to reduce the need for coal.



Steel Dispatch Boat
Keel Laid:
October 11, 1883
April 12, 1884
December 8, 1885
Three masted schooner
Three 4 inch rapid fire guns

Two 14-pounder rapid fire guns

Two 6-pounder rapid fire guns

Two 3-pounder rapid fire guns

Two Gatling guns
John Roach & Sons, Chester, Pennsylvania
240 feet
32 feet
Mean draft:
14 feet, 3 inches
1,486 tons
7 officers and 110 enlisted men, under the command of Commander H. W. Lyon.
Engine type:
Twin screw driven by a vertical compound engine capable of generating 2,255 horsepower 
Boiler type:
Two double-ended and two single ended cylindrical boilers
Coal Bunker Capacity
265 tons
Normal Coal Supply
15.50 knots
Endurance at 10 knots
3,180 nautical miles
Watertight deck was had 3/8" armor on the slopes

and 5/16" armor on the flat portion.


(As a service to our readers, clicking on titles in red will take you to that book on

Alden, Cmdr. John D., USN (Ret.), American Steel Navy, (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1972) 14, 16, 19..

Clerk of Joint Committee on Printing, The Abridgement of Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899) Vol II, ``94, 1195, 1248, 1249; Vol. 4, 318-319.

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Vol. II (Washington: Navy Department, 1963) 285-286.

Harris, Lt. Cmdr. Brayton, USN, The Age of the Battleship. (New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1965) 7.

Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, 1898 (Washington: Government Printing Offce, 1898) 18-19.

Spector, Ronald, Admiral of the New Empire : the Life and Career of George Dewey. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974). .

Sternlicht, Sanford, McKinley's Bulldog, the Battleship Oregon. (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, Inc., 1977) 35.

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