In preparation for war with Spain in the spring of 1898, battleship Oregon
embarked on a 14,000-mile, sixty-six-day cruise from California, through the Straits of Magellan in South America, to Florida. There was no guarantee Oregon
would make the voyage expeditiously, or even at all. The journey, the longest yet undertaken by one of the new Indiana
-class coastal battleships, not only demonstrated the global reach of the U.S. Navy, but ultimately proved the capability of the technologically novel ship. Oregon
’s epic voyage also spurred Senate Committees to devote resources to the construction of a pan-isthmian canal that would substantially reduce the distance, time, and fuel necessary to shift warships between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
was one of the first battleships constructed entirely in the United States. Indeed, few American civilians had ever seen a battleship. At the same time laborers employed by the Union Iron Works riveted together the steel plating of Oregon
at Mare Island, California in 1893, wide-eyed tourists were admiring her scale replica thousands of miles away on Lake Michigan. World’s Columbian Exposition officials agreed that an inoperable mock replica of the new Indiana
-class coastal battleship was worthy of exhibition as an American technological marvel. World’s Fair patrons strolled leisurely across the decks, admiring the “four thirteen-inch breechloading rifle cannon, [eight] eight-inch breechloading rifle cannon, four six-inch breech-loaders, twenty six-pounder rap’d-firing guns, six one-pounder rapid-firing guns, [and] two Gatling guns” of the inoperable USS Illinois
. Within the superstructure itself, Fair attendees navigated through the “staterooms, lavatories, laetrines [sic
], messrooms, galleys . . . lockers, berthings, &c.” that authentically reproduced the physical conditions of the new steel ships of the U.S. Navy. The New York Times
—and by extension the triplet coastal battleships she replicated—“an object lesson, not alone in naval architecture, but on the rules and practice of the navy and its present development.”
Accepted by engineers as a superior deterrent against attack and a reliable defender of territorial waters, armored battleships, also known as “pre-dreadnoughts,” saw substantial improvements with the complete shift to steam power in the late-nineteenth century.
The design of triple-expansion steam engines provided great increases in power while burning coal more efficiently. These steam propulsion improvements certainly increased speed and maneuverability, but the boiler’s fuel—coal—was bulky and demanded regular replenishment during long-distance voyages. American diplomatic efforts expanded in the Pacific, South America, and the Caribbean predicated on the coaling needs of the U.S. Navy to operate in these waters.
In fact, Oregon
herself would make five coaling stops at neutral ports during her journey to the Atlantic.
At 11,688 tons full displacement and with a maximum speed of 16 knots (approx. 18 miles per hour), Oregon
and her sisters Indiana
were outfitted with two triple-expansion steam engines, with four main and two auxiliary coal-fired boilers. Union Iron Works received a significant bonus for exceeding the ship’s designed speed during sea trials after Oregon
recorded a turn at 16.79 knots.
Such speed would prove invaluable for the battleship to arrive at Florida in time to prepare for surface actions against Spain in the Caribbean.
In 1898, President William McKinley authorized USS Maine
to dock at Havana Harbor “on a courtesy visit,” Navy historian Craig Symonds concludes, “as a signal of American concern.”
On the night of 15 February 1898, however, plumes of ocher billowed into the night sky after an explosion rocked the otherwise calm waters off Havana. The following month, on March 21, the Court of Inquiry released its report, concluding the battleship “was destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine which caused the partial explosion of two or more of her forward magazines.” At the time of the report’s publication, the authors had not received evidence identifying the person(s) responsible for the incident.
Just over a month later, on April 25, the United States declared war on Spain.
In anticipation of hostilities with Spain, Oregon
departed San Francisco Bay on March 19, 1898, for an unprecedented voyage of over 14,000 miles around South America to Jupiter Inlet, Florida. This journey would come to represent the new steel Navy’s combat potential. “Her presence on the east coast was considered so essential,” her captain, Charles E. Clark, wrote in his memoir, “that the government felt the risks of the long voyage, till then untested by a vessel of her class, must be undertaken.” The days leading up to embarkation were a flurry of stevedoring as coal and provisions made their way into Oregon
’s holds. According to Clark, the first days at sea were “uneventful” which gave him the opportunity to acquaint himself with the ship and his crew. Clark ordered the ship’s boilers “at a full head of steam” for the duration of the voyage, which made life below decks “almost intolerable,” particularly when they navigated the muggy tropical climates that buttressed the equator. The boilers, Chief Engineer Robert W. Milligan insisted, were to be fueled with fresh water only, as the saline in salt water produced scale that would reduce engine efficiency and ship speed. The crew, therefore, had a diminished freshwater drinking supply, often rationed from the boiler’s lukewarm feed water.
At the outset, the voyage was generally calm and smooth, with favorable weather. Upon approaching the Straits of Magellan in the southern hemisphere in mid-April, however, a change in climatological conditions disrupted the generally peaceful cruise. Clark noted how Oregon
“dipped her bows deep in foaming surges” as he navigated the ship through violent gales, with a snowstorm chasing the battleship through the narrow Straits. “The thick, hurrying scud obscured the precipitous rockbound shores,” but Clark laid anchor and waited for the storm to pass overnight. The next morning, Oregon
docked at Punta Arenas, Chile and for four days had her coal stores replenished. Despite the “sheer cliffs on either hand and fathomless depths below, there could be no pause of hesitation in this exciting race.”
Accompanied now by the American gunboat Marietta
, the pair reached Rio de Janeiro on 30 April.
While docked at Rio de Janeiro, Captain Clark received a cablegram from the Navy Department informing him of intelligence indicating that the Spanish torpedo boat Temerario
reportedly left Montevideo (Uruguay) for Rio. “If the torpedo boat should arrive and had an ordinarily enterprising commander,” Clark reflected almost two decades later, “I felt he would not hesitate to violate the rights of a neutral port, if by so doing he could put one of our four first-class battleships out of action.”
Not wishing to sour the amicable and beneficial relationship between the United States and Brazil, the American minister communicated with the Brazilian government of Clark’s defensive stance: “that if the Temarario
] entered the harbor and approached the OREGON with hostile purpose, [he] must destroy her.” After evaluating the potential threat from Temerario
, Clark navigated Oregon
farther up Guanabara Bay, leaving Commander Frederick M. Symonds of Marietta
“to send her steam launch to the Temarario
] if she appeared and inform her commander that if he approached within half a mile of the OREGON he would be sunk.” Symonds had the additional instruction to keep Marietta
’s searchlight on the hostile vessel at all times. As Oregon
settled in its new berth, Clark received news from the American minister that the Brazilian admiral ordered Temerario
“be stopped from entering the harbor, or if permitted to enter, would be convoyed by a Brazilian man-of-war to an anchorage well up the Bay.” For the duration of their brief stay at Rio, a Brazilian cruiser sentried the entrance to the harbor. In a letter to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, Clark praised their hosts, “the Brazilian officials showed by their acts that their expressions of sympathy and hopes for our immediate success were genuine.”
because, according to a brusque two-sentence missive published in the New York Times
, the Spanish torpedo boat was actually at
Rio de la Plata, Argentina for repair.
A series of cablegram dispatches from the Navy Department in the first three days of May indicated the dramatic diplomatic decline between the United States and Spain as officials awaited reports from the Asiatic Squadron in the Philippines. Finally, a 3 May dispatch imparted news of the American victory at Manila Bay. By this time Oregon
had added the Brazilian auxiliary cruiser Nictheroy
to their number, and, as a result, the party had slowed to ten knots.
could sustain fourteen knots for extended periods and, according to Clark, “in a running fight could beat off and even cripple [the] Spanish fleet,” he and his crew proceeded from Cape Frio to the Caribbean without an escort.
On 18 May, Oregon
anchored at Carlisle Roads, Barbados in the British West Indies for coal, finally reaching Jupiter Inlet, Florida on 24 May, untouched by Spanish surface vessels.
Secretary of the Navy John D. Long sent a celebratory telegram: “The department congratulates you, your officers and crew, upon the completion of your long and remarkably successful voyage.”
The battleship had travelled over 14,000 miles in an extraordinary sixty-six days, consuming over one-third of its weight in coal. This remarkable journey spurred discussion and proposals for the construction of a trans-isthmian canal that could decrease the time required to transport warships from one coast to another. Hydraulic Engineer Lyman E. Cooley, in an interview with the New York Times
, cited the Atlantic Coast as “the concentration point for the cream of our navy. New York City is 14,000 miles from San Francisco without the Nicaragua Canal.” Cooley estimated that, following the construction of a canal, the journey from San Francisco to New York could be made between ten and eighteen days, depending on a ship’s sustained speed. “The Spanish war and the journey of the Oregon
will awaken the general public to the necessity of having the canal as nothing else could have done.”
Indeed, within a month of Oregon
’s arrival in Florida, on June 16, 1898, Rear Admiral Asa Walker informed the Senate Committee on the Nicaraguan Canal that the proposed plan for a manmade waterway was feasible, estimating the cost of construction at $125,000,000. Oregon
’s fantastic voyage in 1898 prompted government officials to initiate negotiation—and instigate international rivalries—over territory in Central America for the construction of a trans-isthmian canal.
“The Nations at the Fair: Buildings Representing the Countries of the Earth,” New York Times
(April 30, 1893), 20; Bert Webber, Battleship Oregon: Bulldog of the Navy: An Oregon Documentary
(Medford, OR: Webb Research Group, 1994), 21.
Lawrence Sondhaus, Naval Warfare, 1815-1914
(New York: Routledge, 2001), 160.
,” Spanish-American War Documentary History, Naval History and Heritage Command, accessed February 22, 2023.
Ken Lomax, “Research Files: A Chronicle of the Battleship ‘Oregon’” Oregon Historical Quarterly
106, no. 1 (Spring 2005), 134.
Craig L. Symonds, The U.S. Navy: A Concise History
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 62.
“The Maine Inquiry Report: Battleship Was Blown Up by a Submarine Mine Placed Near Her Keel That Exploded Magazines,” New York Times
(March 29, 1898), 2. According to historian John Fahey, “the explanation that makes the most sense with the available evidence” is that a coal fire in bunker A-16 went unmanaged long enough to heat stored 6-inch shells to the point of detonation, which caused the rest of the magazine to explode. To read more about the theories—“from the ludicrous to the plausible”—see John Fahey, “Why did the USS Maine explode?
” The Sextant
(February 7, 2023), accessed February 20, 2023.
Charles E. Clark, My Fifty Years in the Navy
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1917), 258, 260, 261, 262.
“The Temerario Laid Up for Repairs,” New York Times
(May 2, 1898), 1.
 Charles E. Clark to John D. Long
, May 9, 1898, Spanish-American War Documentary History, Naval History and Heritage Command, accessed February 23, 2023. The United States, “having taken measures to secure the friendship and good will of the Brazilians,” had been in sustained negotiations with Brazilian authorities for the purchase of Nictheroy
for several months by the time Oregon
paired with the vessel in Rio de Janeiro. According to Clark, the Brazilians “were sorely in need of money at the time, and we had offered them one million dollars for the almost worthless [ship].” Clark, My Fifty Years in the Navy
Clark, My Fifty Years in the Navy
, 266, 267, 272, 273.
Telegram quoted in Edward W. Eberle, “The ‘Oregon’s’ Great Voyage,” The Century Magazine: Illustrated Monthly
, vol. 58 (New York: MacMillan, 1899), 924.
“Nicaragua Canal Needed: Engineer Cooley, Who Has Traversed the Route, Points Out the Uses the Canal Would Serve the Government,” New York Times
(May 22, 1898), 2.
“Nicaragua Canal Project: Admiral Walker Tells Senate Committee It Wil Cost $125,000,000,” New York Times
(June 16, 1898), 3.