Essex: Sloop Of War

Essex; Historic Naval Vessel


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 in 1904.


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.


The Essex 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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