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USS Fern during the 1890s
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Class: FERN (later GOPHER)
Design: Supply ship, 1871
Displacement (tons): 840 displ.
Dimensions (feet): 160.0' pp x 28.0' x 11.8' mn
Original Armament: 1-6pdr (1897)
Later armaments: 3-6pdr 2-3pdr 2-1pdr (1898);
1-6pdr 2-3pdr 2-1pdr (1910)
3-3pdr 4-1pdr (1916);
Speed (kts.): 9
Propulsion (HP): 467
Machinery: Vert. compound, 1 screw
||30 Jan 91
||Delamater & Stack
||22 Apr 91
||21 Aug 23
||29 Aug 23
||21 Aug 23
In 1871 the U.S. Light House Board took delivery of the 548 gross ton wooden-hulled supply steamer FERN. Based in the Third Light House District, which included Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, she was used to supply the light houses along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts with oil and other supplies. In 1884 the Board reported to the Secretary of the Treasury that the 15-year old FERN was too small to carry all the supplies needed and was expensive to maintain in proportion to the work done. She was able to distribute the needed supplies when lard oil was used as the illuminant in light houses, but now that mineral oil had been substituted for it nearly twice as many gallons were required, though at about one third the cost of lard oil, and hence twice the capacity was required to carry it. In the previous year FERN had delivered over 150,000 gallons of oil in addition to an enormous mass of other supplies, but quite a quantity of light house stores, buoys, and their moorings, which the supply ship would have carried if she had sufficient capacity, had to be sent out by freight lines. The Board proposed replacing FERN with a new iron steamer of about 1,200 tons burden and using FERN as a buoy tender. Congress was slow in appropriating the funds, and it was only in 1890 that the twin-screw, 1,053 gross ton steel steamer ARMERIA, built at Camden, N.J., replaced FERN as the Board's supply steamer. The Light House Board then transferred FERN to the Navy on 30 Jan 91.
From 1891 to 1898 FERN served the Navy as a freight boat, carrying coal and general cargo between the several Navy Yards on the Atlantic Coast. She also located and destroyed by gunfire wrecks of ships obstructing navigation and assisted in the pre-commissioning trials of new ships. After 22 Jan 98 she was based at Key West to carry mail and supplies to ships in the Caribbean and, after the war began, to the fleet at Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba. She was turned over to the Naval Militia, Washington DC as a training ship on 16 Oct 98 and was decommissioned on 22 Oct 98. Listed as unfit for sea service in 1899, she was laid up in 1904 at the Norfolk Navy Yard.
FERN was reassigned to the Minnesota Naval Militia in 1905 and was renamed GOPHER on 27 Dec 05. She was taken to Detroit in 1906 and repaired for Naval Militia duty but was still rated as unfit for sea service. With U.S. entry into World War I, she was assigned duty as practice ship at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and was returned to commission on 30 May 17. She trained members of the Naval Reserve at ports in the 9th Naval District, principally Chicago, until placed out of commission on 19 Apr 19. She was ordered sold by the Secretary of the Navy on 10 Jul 19 and was stricken and placed on the sale list on 23 Jul 19.
On 6 Nov 19, however, GOPHER was assigned as station ship for the Naval Reserve Force at Toledo, Ohio. In view of this, SecNav withdrew her from sale on 19 Nov 19. She was recommissioned on 15 May 21 for service with the Naval Reserve at Toledo. Com-9 on 30 Sep 21 recommended that the ship be transferred to the state to which she was then assigned. She was placed in reduced commission on 1 Oct 22. In 1922 Navy file clerks assigned GOPHER the file symbol IX-11, although the ship was long gone when these symbols became formal hull numbers in February 1941.
In 1923 GOPHER was scheduled for relief by the gunboat WILMINGTON (PG-8). On 18 Jul 23 the Department ordered GOPHER to proceed from Toledo, Ohio, to Boston Mass, to be placed out of commission there with a view to sale. She was to steam to Montreal and be towed from there, as she was not equipped for steaming in salt water on account of being equipped with jet condensers only. She departed on 5 Aug 23 but on the way rammed and damaged a lock in the Soulanges Canal and was apprehended and held by Canadian authorities. Upon release she was taken in charge on 12 Aug 23 at Montreal by WANDANK (AT-26) and departed for Boston on 18 Aug 23. However GOPHER sank under tow on 21 Aug 23 in a northwest gale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence after her seams opened and air ports and the ash hopper carried away. In view of this the Department considered GOPHER placed out of commission on the date of sinking, 21 Aug 23.
||Ex Light House Board supply ship FERN. To GOPHER 27 Dec 05, to the Great Lakes for Naval Militia training duty in 1906. Sank under tow in a gale in Gulf of St. Lawrence enroute Boston for sale 21 Aug 23.
Compiled: 01 Jan 2013
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2002-2013