By James Donahue
Construction of the wooden
sloop-of-war USS Essex was ordered by President Abraham Lincoln although Congress didn’t get around to appropriating
the money for the work until 1873, about a decade later.
Commissioned in Boston for Naval sea duty in 1876, the Essex sailed the world and went through at least five retirements
and recommissionings until the ship was assigned to the Great Lakes as a naval training vessel
The Essex remained in
active service on the lakes until 1930 and it was scrapped and burned the following year on Minnesota Point, at Duluth.
During its years on the
lakes, the ship, like the iron hulled Michigan, became a familiar sight to coastal communities,
especially on Lakes Erie and then Michigan, where the Essex helped young naval recruits learn the ropes
of handling a ship at sea.
was unique because it was both a steam-powered vessel, and a three-mast sailing ship. Consequently sailors serving on its
decks learned not only the essentials of operating a modern steamer, but also learned the essentials of working with ropes,
sails and rigging.
Prior to its time on
the lakes, the Essex was an active Navy Ship that sailed the high seas. The vessel served
during peacetime, going into commission just after the Spanish-American War and then out of active Naval service prior to
World War I. Yet it cruised the North Atlantic, traveled to the west coast of Africa, and
then joined the South Atlantic Squadron. In 1881 it sailed on the Pacific Station and then went to the Asiatic Station before
returning to the United States to be taken
out of commission in 1885.
The following year the
Navy re-commissioned the Essex and sent it back through the Suez Canal to join the Asiatic
Station once more. While there the ship was involved in protecting American missionaries at Ponapai following a reported massacre
of Spaniards. In 1889 the sloop was brought back to New York
to be taken out of commission for the second time.
The Navy re-commissioned
the old ship again in 1890. It participated in Reunion Ceremonies of the Army of the Potomac at Portland, Maine, during July 4 celebrations. After that
the vessel joined the South Atlantic Station where it serviced until January, 1893. It was brought to Annapolis in April with cadets on board for instruction, then was taken out of commission
for a third time in June, 1893.
But that was not the
end of the old ship. The Navy re-commissioned her yet again in 1894 for service as an apprentice training ship until April,
1898, when it was retired a fourth time. A fifth re-commissioning occurred in September, 1898, and the ship was again used
as a training ship at Portsmouth, New Hampshire,
until it was taken out of commission again in 1903.
The following year the
Essex was chosen from among three obsolete naval vessels to be used as a training ship for
the Naval Militia of Ohio. After being brought up the St. Lawrence River and locked through
into the lakes in 1904, the ship served in that capacity until 1916.
Old news reports said
the Essex’s engines were in such poor condition the Toledo naval crew was forced to operate
it mostly under sail for the trip to Ohio. During the trip
the Essex nearly collided with an ocean liner in dense fog on the North Atlantic, then ran aground on the St. Lawrence, near
the mouth of the Saguenay River.
A tug was used to pull the vessel back into deep water after the tide rose the following day.
The Essex was reactivated
by the Navy as part of the Ninth Naval District during World War I, although it probably never left the Great
Lakes and never saw action. When the war ended and the Navy was willing to return the ship to reserve duty, Toledo was no longer interested.
The ship was sent to
the Naval Reserve for the State of Minnesota in 1927. There
it was housed over, the engines removed, and it was docked for use as a receiving ship.
It was there that the
ship was sold for scrap for $400. The vessel was stripped of its equipment, parts were removed as souvenirs. The old hull
was towed out on the lake and burned. The old ship thus went up in flames on Oct. 13, 1931.
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