The Spanish american War: The battleship Oregon

[The following account of the battle-ship Oregon's remarkable voyage around Cape Horn was given by the vessel's chief engineer.]

United States ship "Oregon," blockading Santiago de Cuba, June 22, 1898.

The Oregon is a first-class coast defence battle-ship of about 10,000 tons' displacement at the so-called normal draught. In this condition, however, she has only a certain limited amount of stores on board and only four hundred tons of coal. When she goes to sea, with her bunkers full of coal, with all stores and all ammunition on board, her actual displacement is something over 12,000 tons, and her draught of water is then over twenty-seven feet. She was, of course, in this latter condition when we started out from San Francisco, having on board at that time about 1,500 tons of coal, all bunkers being practically full.

We all knew, of course, that we had a remarkably fine ship, but before starting out we felt some little anxiety as to our ability to keep the machinery fully up to its work during such a long cruise. Nothing approaching it had ever before been attempted by a heavy battle-ship. Fortunately, we had just come out of dry dock in Bremerton (and our trip should really be considered as starting from that point rather than from San Francisco) and were only nine or ten days in San Francisco before starting for Callao -- just long enough to fill our bunkers and magazines. Our machinery, both engines and boilers, were then in excellent condition, everything having been thoroughly overhauled by our own people while in dry dock, so it was not necessary to do any great amount of work in San Francisco.

Having finally filled up with coal, ammunition and stores, we left on March 19, and proceeded under three boilers direct for Callao, which port we reached on the morning of April 4, having expended, during this run of sixteen days, nine hundred tons of coal, leaving six hundred tons still in our bunkers. This we consider a remarkably efficient performance, having averaged 4.24 knots perton of coal. The revolutions of the engines during this run were remarkably steady, averaging at least seventy-five per minute, day after day without a variation of a tenth of a revolution.

On the afternoon of March 27 smoke and gas were discovered to be coming out of one of the coal bunkers. This bunker was over half full at the time, having probably between sixty-five and seventy tons in it. There was nothing to do but dig for the fire, as it was evidently down somewhere in the body of the pile. So we started in, working a couple of men in the bunker for about ten minutes at a time and then sending in a couple more to relieve the first. After about two hours' work the fire was reached, only about a shovelful of live coal being found, but probably a couple of tons so hot that it was giving off smoke and gas. After about four hours' steady work all the dangerous coal had been removed, and no further trouble was encountered.

On arriving at Callao we found that our coal had been ordered for us by the Marietta. The lighters had all been loaded, and were brought alongside as soon as we let go the anchor.

Then began some real work. I started in on the starboard engine and Reeves on the port engine, and we overhauled connections, scraped in brasses where necessary, examined, cleaned, and repaired air-pumps, circulating pumps, wiped out and oiled all the main cylinders and valve-chests. Fortunately for me, my engine was in pretty good shape, needing only a slight amount of keying up here and there. Reeves, however, found one of his main cross-head slippers so badly cut and scored that it was deemed best to remove it and put in place a spare one, which we carried on board. This sounds easy, but it required twenty-four hours' continuous work, as it had to be fitted exactly, the face carefully scraped to a true surface; and, finally, the guides nicely adjusted.

When we arrived here it was evident that war with Spain was inevitable, but it had not yet broken out. However, every precaution was taken to guard against any treachery on the part of Spanish sympathizers. The ordinary number of sentries was doubled and these men were armed with ball cartridges, ammunition was gotten up for the rapid-fire guns, and the steam launches were manned with armed crews and kept patrolling around the ship all night, to warn off and prevent any strange boats from approaching. These precautions were observed whenever we were at anchor in any port during the whole trip.

All our coal was finally on board by the afternoon of April 7, and out we started again, using three boilers and averaging something over eleven knots per hour until the evening of the 9th, when the fourth boiler was put on and the average speed increased to about thirteen knots, and this was kept up until the evening of the 16th, when we reached Port Tamar, just inside the entrance of the Straits of Magellan. We had a few leaky tubes in one boiler a day or so after leaving Callao, and, of course, stopped them as soon as possible. Soon after this, in some way which we have never been able to determine, a small amount of salt water got into our boilers, just enough to cause the density of the water to become about what it would be if one-quarter of it were sea water. This, of course, meant a certain amount of scale, but fortunately the amount was so small that it merely served to make our tube ends tight, without being enough to cause any bad effects on the boilers. At all events, from that time until long after our arrival off Santiago we did not have another leaky tube.

We spent the night at anchor in Port Tamar, and the next morning started out with the intention of making Sandy Point by dark. This, of course, required a semi-forced draught run, what is known technically as "assisted draught"; that is to say, the forced draught blowers are run, but the firerooms are not closed up air-tight, as under full forced draught. We ran our boilers at such a speed as to give an air-pressure of one-quarter of an inch of water, and were thus able to run the engines at a speed of 107.3 revolutions per minute, giving the ship a speed through the water of 14.6 knots per hour. As a matter of fact our speed from point to point along the shore was much greater, as there was a very strong current running through the straits in our favor.

While at Callao we had heard that a Spanish torpedoboat was at Montevideo, and we thought it just possible that she might attempt to intercept us in the straits, lying behind one of the numerous high points and darting out on us. So the rapid-fire gun crews were kept at their guns ready for instant work. However, we saw nothing of her.

Sandy Point was reached in the evening, and the next morning (April 18) began our usual work -- coaling ship, cleaning, repairing and overhauling machinery. Of course, the only way to keep the ship going, was to turn to at every opportunity and do everything possible in the time allowed; but it was beginning to tell on all of us. We all had to stand watch at sea, and as soon as port was reached, all hands of the engineer's force had to go at the work and keep it up, going for every little thing that showed the least sign of wear, and not waiting even for it to show, but hunting for things of which there was the least probability of their becoming out of order. But all hands stood the strain well.

We remained at Sandy Point until the morning of April 21, leaving with about 1,200 tons of coal in our bunkers. The Marietta accompanied us from Sandy Point to Rio, or rather until the morning of the 30th, when we increased our speed to about fourteen and a half knots an hour, in order to arrive in port during the afternoon, leaving the Marietta to follow in later. The run from Sandy Point to Rio was without incident, and was at a lower speed than our previous runs, on account of the Marietta.

It was at Rio that we received the news that war was on with Spain, and at the same time a rumor of Dewey's victory at Manila reached us. We also received a long cablegram from Washington, informing us that Admiral Cervera's squadron of four heavy armored cruisers and four sea-going torpedo-boats had left for Cuban waters, and we were advised to avoid them if possible. We remained at Rio until May 4, doing what repairing we could and filling up with coal, taking something over a thousand tons. During our stay in this port we were not allowed to visit the shore. Here, too, we found the Nichteroy, which had been bought by an American firm and was flying our flag, and which was to be convoyed by us to the United States. However, she was not allowed to leave port with us, so we stood up the coast a few miles to wait for her. She joined us the following evening, but her boilers were in such bad condition that it was decided not to waste time with her, so she was left in charge of the Marietta, and we went ahead, arriving at Bahia on the evening of the 8th. Here we put on our war-paint and made arrangements for refilling our bunkers, but on the evening of the 9th a cablegram was received from Washington, ordering us to leave, so out we went immediately, headed for Barbadoes, which was reached at about 3 o'clock on the morning of May 18. Here we took 240 tons of coal and left the same evening, standing well to the eastward, and finally reached the Florida coast at Jupiter Light on the evening of the 24th, reporting our arrival to Washington. Orders came back to proceed to Hampton Roads if in need of repairs, otherwise to Key West. There was no hesitation as to which direction to take under these orders, and, finally, Key West was reached on the morning of the 26th, thus completing the most remarkable and successful performance ever undertaken by a battle-ship.

I have since heard that there was great anxiety among our own people at home on account of this ship, and that foreign nations were watching our run with great interest, while many doubted our ability to successfully accomplish it.

In the first place the machinery of the vessel was beautifully and strongly built, and, above all, was set in position with the greatest care and thoroughness. Great credit is therefore due to her builders and to the inspectors who supervised the work. From the day she went into commission the greatest care has been taken to keep everything up as nearly to perfection as possible. On the discovery of the least defect in any part, it has been remedied immediately. Whenever a run has been made, no matter how short it may have been, on reaching port again the cylinders and valve-chests, air-pump valves, etc., have been carefully examined, cleaned and oiled. The most careful attention has been paid to the condition of the boilers, and every endeavor has been made to avoid the use of salt water in them; that, indeed, is the point to which our success is largely due. Every leak, however small, in the boilers themselves, in the steam-pipes, in the engines or in the condensers has been stopped just as soon as possible, and thus only has it been possible to keep down the amount of water necessary for make-up feed to such a point that our evaporators have been able to furnish it, in addition to the water required for all other purposes.


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