The USS OREGON was one the first United States battleships. The thirteen inch guns of her and her sisters, USS MASSACHUSETTS and USS INDIANA were the largest guns in the U.S. fleet. She was a new and controversial type of vessel for the U. S. Navy. Officially, the OREGON was a "seagoing coast-line battleship." She had to be called a coastal defense battleship since there was great opposition in the United States Congress to developing offensive weapons. However, most naval and some governmental planners had realized that the only way for the U.S. to expand economically was for it to develop a navy capable of engaging an enemy at sea or carrying the war to an enemy's borders. Ships were needed that had heavy armor, heavy armament, good speed and, importantly, large coal bunkers to allow for freedom from the coaling stations of the U.S. coast. The OREGON and her sisters met all of these requirements.
There was much doubt that the vessel could run that entire distance without being subject to crippling mechanical breakdowns and other misfortunes. The trip was made somewhat more difficult since the OREGON would frequently be out of contact with the United States government. The ships and crew would not be kept abreast of the status of relations between the U.S. and Spain. She would not know if war had been declared, and therefore not know how to react if a Spanish vessel was sighted. Neither would the OREGON know if the Spanish were searching for her or if she was steaming headlong into a trap.
Preparing the OREGON for her odyssey was no small task. Her ammunition had been unloaded at San Francisco, and coal was unavailable on short notice in Bremerton because of the demands of the Klondike gold rush. The vessel was finally coaled and steamed out of Bremerton harbor on March 3, 1898, arriving in San Francisco on March 6. Here the crew worked around the clock to load coal and ammunition. Orders were received to proceed to Peru on March 18. At this point fate intervened. The vessel's commanding officer, Captain McCormick, became seriously ill only days before the OREGON was to begin its voyage. He was replaced by Captain Charles Clark of the monitor USS MONTEREY. Clark was a stupendous choice for command of the vessel, as subsequent events would show.
The second suggestion involved the vessel's coal supply. The best coal for use in the boilers was a "hard" bituminous coal. This would burn hotter and with less waste, ash and smoke than "soft" bituminous coal, and would result in greater speed with less coal and less work. Some of the best coal in the world came from Wales. The OREGON was lucky enough to have a supply, limited though it was, of Welsh "anthracite" (actually a hard bituminous coal, rather than a true anthracite. The vessel's chief engineer suggested that this coal should be saved for use in battle rather than for general steaming. For the Welsh coal to be of value in a time of need, it would have to be stored in close proximity to the boiler rooms. This meant that it had be moved from the more remote coal bunkers in which it was stored and placed in ready reserve in bunkers close to the boilers. This entailed much hot, dusty, and sweaty work for the coal passers while the vessel was at sea. Clark realized that speed was a necessity should the vessel meet with the Spanish fleet, and had his men complete this difficult task.
During the run from San Francisco to Callao, Clark had another problem to deal with. Smoke was seen coming from one of the coal bunkers. This could mean but one thing - the coal bunker was on fire! Coal bunker fires, started by the spontaneous combustion of coal dust were a somewhat common problem aboard all steamships of this period; a problem accentuated by the practice of using coal bunkers as additional armor around the vital areas of a warship - engines, boiler rooms and magazines. An unchecked bunker fire could heat a magazine to the point where it could explode. The OREGON's crew worked furiously in ten minute shifts to dig through the coal for four hours until the fire was located and extinguished. During this time, the vessel never slowed its progress.
The OREGON arrived in Callao on April 4, after traveling a distance of 4,112 miles in sixteen days. The only relaxation the crew experienced during this first leg of the dash was the traditional visit of King Neptune as the vessel crossed the equator. However, throughout the run, the ship's band was given permission to perform evening concerts to entertain the crew. At Callao, a friendly port, the crew worked furiously to replenish coal and supplies, with extra watches placed as a guard against any Spanish sympathizers who might attempt sabotage. The vessel was coaled from lighters in the safety of the center of the harbor rather than from the docks.
While in Callao, Clark was informed by cable from Washington that the Spanish torpedo boat, TEMERARIO had left Montevideo, Uruguay, and may be stalking the OREGON. Fear of torpedo boats ran high, since, for the first time in history, a small vessel with torpedoes could attack a large vessel and sink her through the use of the newly invented torpedo. The OREGON's crew would have to be on their guard against a torpedo attack, which could occur at any time and with little warning.
The OREGON next set a bearing for Rio de Janeiro. This leg of the journey would involve passing through the always dangerous Straits of Magellan. It was in the Straits that the OREGON would be most vulnerable to enemy attack, since there was little room to maneuver. She reached the entrance to the Straits late in the day on April 15, too late to begin the passage. Night was not a good time to attempt to enter the dreaded Straits. In addition, the OREGON found itself "in one of the severest gales of the season." The vessel pitched heavily, "with the jack staff sometimes disappearing under the solid seas that swept all but the superstructure deck," reported Clark. The vessel's commander took the OREGON into an anchorage at Tamar Island. With the fear that the vessel would run aground in the darkness nagging at Clark, he attempted to take soundings to determine the depth of the water. When that failed, he ordered an anchor dropped. Three hundred feet of anchor chain played out until the chain brakes could slow the fall. Eventually the anchor found the bottom. A second anchor was dropped also.
The next morning, the OREGON began the passage through the Straits with the aid of a Chilean pilot. By April 18, she had passed through the most treacherous portion of the Straits and put in at Punta Arenas for resupply and standard maintenance, leaving on the 21st. She was finally entering the Atlantic and was halfway toward her goal.
On April 30, OREGON entered Rio de Janeiro harbor. News was awaiting Clark from Washington. The United States and Spain were now at war, and the TEMERARIO was still unaccounted for. While in the Straits of Magellan, the OREGON was joined by the gunboat USS MARIETTA. At Rio, the two vessels were joined by yet another vessel, the recently purchased Brazilian dynamite cruiser NICTHEROY. Her dynamite guns were never installed, being replaced by more traditional guns. The vessel would eventually be renamed the USS BUFFALO. Both the MARIETTA and the NICTHEROY were quite slow.
The Brazilians seemed to welcome the Americans. The OREGON anchored in mid-harbor, out of the typical travel lanes. Coal was brought out in barges and loaded aboard the vessel. Meanwhile, the Brazilian Navy aided the Americans by placing a cruiser to patrol outside of the harbor entrance, to combine her searchlights with those of the forts to spot any Spanish vessels attempting to make the harbor. Guards were placed on the coal barges since Spanish sympathizers with explosives were caught nearby.
It was while the OREGON was in Rio that the news of Dewey's victory at Manila Bay became known. The outcome was made even more spectacular when it was realized that Dewey's forces suffered no fatalities. The OREGON's crew went wild at the news. For Clark, the news was a relief. His son-in-law was serving with Dewey's squadron.
Also awaiting Clark at Rio were secret dispatches from the Secretary of the Navy. He notified the OREGON's commanding officer that four Spanish armored cruisers, and three torpedo-boat destroyers left Cape de Verde and went west. It was not known where they were headed...possibly toward the OREGON. Several messages passed between Clark and Washington, however Clark put an end to the exchange. First, the messages caused some confusion regarding the Oregon's orders. Secondly, Washington had more leaks than an old sloop! The newspapers hungered for information on the Oregon's whereabouts and the Spanish kept up with this source of information. Clark ended his conversations with the Department by stating "Don't hamper me with instructions. I am not afraid, with this ship, of the whole Spanish fleet."
On May 4, Clark and the OREGON steamed out of Rio de Janeiro harbor, in company with the MARIETTA. Convinced that the vessels were headed toward certain death, the Brazilian government sent a cruiser out ahead of the ships to be sure that the expected fatal action did not take place in Brazilian waters. At the request of the Brazilian government, the NICTHEROY did not steam out in company with the OREGON and MARIETTA, but waited nearly a full day before making for the harbor entrance to join the waiting American vessels.
Clark now had a small flotilla which some considered to be more beneficial should the OREGON have to fight. Clark knew better. He quickly recognized that the two smaller vessels could not keep up with the OREGON. The MARIETTA could make ten knots in a smooth sea, but only eight in a rough sea. The NICTHEROY could only make seven knots! The OREGON would be better protected by her own speed than by the guns of the smaller vessels. He ordered the MARIETTA and NICTHEROY to proceed together, while on board the OREGON, the crew prepared for battle. The crew was notified that it was believed that a large Spanish force was looking for the OREGON. The vessel was cleared for action. Her woodwork was removed and thrown overboard, including much of the expensive mahogany paneling on her pilot house. The OREGON was repainted a wartime gray. The vessel and her crew were now prepared for war, either as part of Sampson's North Atlantic Squadron, or alone.
On May 8, the OREGON steamed into the harbor at Bahia, Brazil, announcing that the vessel would be staying for several days. Instead, to keep any Spanish informants off guard, she left the very next day. Prior to his secret departure, Clark cabled Washington that "The OREGON could steam fourteen knots for hours and in a running fight might beat off or even cripple the Spanish fleet. With present amount of coal on board will be in good fighting trim and could reach West Indies. If more should be taken here I could reach Key West; but, in that case, belt armor, cellulose belt, and protective deck would be below the waterline." In other words, if he had to load enough coal for the long run directly to Key West, the weight of the coal would place much of his defensive armor below water where it could not help save the vessel in a fight. Also, the added weight would slow him down.
On May 14, Clark had a brief but interesting encounter. Famed sailor Joshua Slocum, with his small sailing vessel, SPRAY, was on his way to making the first solo circumnavigation of the world. His path crossed the Oregon's path. Basic information and pleasantries were exchanged. Slocum, on finding out that the United States was at war, jokingly suggested that the two vessels should travel together "for mutual protection." Clark didn't even take the time to respond. The OREGON was making headway toward Bridgetown, Barbados.
The OREGON was very welcome in Barbados, where the general population had a dislike of Spain. However, neutrality laws were strictly enforced. The OREGON was allowed to stay in port no longer than twenty-four hours and was only provided with enough coal to make it to a U.S. port In a strange twist of events, the American Consul in Bridgetown managed to get a cable message through the censor stating that the OREGON had arrived before the censor could stop it the transmission. In accordance with neutrality laws, the Spanish Consul was allowed to issue a similar communiqué to his own government concerning the OREGON's presence. This was particularly dangerous since rumors had the Spanish fleet within ninety miles.
During the night, the OREGON steamed out of the harbor with lights blazing. A few miles outside of port, she turned out the lights, abruptly took a radically different course for Florida. Clark took this action to confuse any Spanish sympathizers who were watching the course the vessel took on leaving the harbor.
On May 24, 1898, the OREGON steamed into Jupiter Inlet, Florida. She had completed her fourteen thousand mile dash in sixty-six days, a remarkable achievement! The voyage was considered to be "unprecedented in battleship history," and a "triumph of American technology and seamanship..." Even more amazing was that OREGON and her crew were ready for battle without any major repairs. She had earned her nickname of "McKinley's Bulldog."
Secondly, and possibly more importantly, the OREGON's odyssey demonstrated the need for a canal across Central America to allow the American navy to pass easily between the oceans without having to undertake the enormous journey around South America.
San Francisco, California, USA to Callao, Peru - 4,112.0 nautical miles.
Callao, Peru to Port Tamar, Chile ( western end of Strait of Magellan) - 2,549.0 nautical miles.
Port Tamor, Chile to Punta Arenas, Chile (eastern end of Strait of Magellan) - 131.4 nautical miles.
Punta Arenas, Chile to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 2,247.7 nautical miles.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Bahia, Brazil - 741.7 nautical miles.
Bahia, Brazil to Bridgetown, Barbados - 2,228.0 nautical miles.
Bridgetown, Barbados to Jupiter Inlet, Florida, USA - 1,665.0 nautical miles.
The average speed throughout the voyage was 11.5 knots.
Clerk of Joint Comittee on Printing, "The Abridgement of Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress", Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899. 4 vols. (all are documents relating to the war)
McCullough, David, Mornings on Horseback . (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1981).
Naval History Department, Navy Department, "Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships", Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1959.
Nofi, Albert A., The Spanish-American War, 1898 . (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1996).