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USS Houston on 27 June 1918
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Class: HOUSTON (AK-1)
Design Cargo, 1903
Displacement (tons): 9,000 normal
Dimensions (feet): 392.0' oa, 375.7' pp x 50.75' wl x 25.3' mn
Original Armament: 4-3"/50
Later armaments: none (1920)
Complement 146 (1920)
Speed (kts.): 10.5
Propulsion (HP): 2,800
Machinery: Vertical quadruple expansion, 1 screw
||22 May 17
||11 Apr 03
||3 Jul 17
||23 Mar 22
||27 Sep 22
In 1903 and 1904 the Deutsche Dampfschifffahrts-Gesellschaft "Hansa" took delivery of a class of five freighters: LIEBENFELS, WERDENFELS, EHRENFELS, WARTENFELS, and AXENFELS. The ships were built to one design by four shipbuilders, three German and one British. This was but one of a series of similar classes of freighters built by this firm during the years before World War I for its large worldwide freight service. LIEBENFELS arrived at Charleston, S.C., with a cargo of fertilizer on 4 Aug 14 and took refuge there. Of her sisters, WARTENFELS and WERDENFELS were seized by Britain in 1914 at Aden and Port Said respectively, AXENFELS was seized by Italy in 1915, and EHRENFELS was ceded to Britain as reparations in 1920.
On 31 Jan 17 Germany notified the United States that it intended to resume unrestricted submarine warfare the next day and the crews of many of the German ships in the U.S. began to sabotage the machinery of their ships to prevent their use when the U.S. entered the war, which occurred on 6 Apr 17. The master and 8-man German crew of LIEBENFELS took a different approach and on 31 Jan 17 opened the sea valves of the ship with the result that she sank in shallow water in Charleston Harbor up to her main deck on 1 Feb 17. The Collector of Customs at Charleston took possession of the ship on 2 Feb 17 and, as she was an obstruction to navigation, the Army Corps of Engineers raised her with the assistance of Navy divers. She was pumped out and taken to the Navy Yard at Charleston for repairs on 20 Mar 17. On 22 May 17 Presidential Executive Order 2624 ordered the Secretary of the Navy to seize LIEBENFELS at Charleston for the use of the Navy. She was one of 14 seized steamers for which SecNav announced new names on 4 Jun 17. These, including HOUSTON for LIEBENFELS, were promulgated in Navy General Order 301 of 9 Jun 17. Of these, ten became cargo ships (later AK 1-10), three became tenders (later AD-10, AS-6, and AS-8), and one became the gunboat SCHURZ (lost). HOUSTON was not badly damaged and was fitted for use as a collier and cargo ship. She was commissioned at Charleston on 3 Jul 17.
HOUSTON made four transatlantic supply voyages between New York and France between August 1917 and November 1918. She then made four voyages between the East and West Coasts of the United States between December 1918 and April 1921, carrying coal, ordnance, lumber, and general supplies in support of naval activities. She was designated AK-1 when the Navy's standard hull classification scheme was implemented on 17 Jul 20. Arriving at San Francisco from New York on 4 Jul 21 she joined NEWPORT NEWS (AK-3) and PENSACOLA (AK-7) in trans-Pacific service with one voyage between September 1921 and January 1922 from San Francisco to Manila and back. On 2 Nov 21 the new freighter SIRIUS (AK-15) was designated to proceed to the Pacific as the relief of HOUSTON after being placed in commission at the New York Navy Yard, and HOUSTON was placed on the sale list on 21 Nov 21. On 6 Jan 22 CNO informed the Bureaus that HOUSTON was now to be relieved by VEGA (AK-17) which would be assigned to the Trans-Pacific freight service in her place and that VEGA would depart the Boston Navy Yard around 25 Feb 22 for Mare Island. HOUSTON was decommissioned at Mare Island on 23 Mar 22, and was sold there on 27 Sep 22 to Frank M. Warren of Portland, Oregon, acting for the Alaska Portland Packers Association.
Renamed NORTH KING and fitted at San Francisco for the Alaska salmon trade, the former HOUSTON arrived at her new home port of Astoria, Ore., on 28 Jan 23. Each season (May to August) she went north from Astoria to Bristol Bay, Alaska, with the salmon fishing fleet carrying cannery workers and supplies, then served as accommodation ship for the workers and storage facility for the canned fish, and then returned to Astoria and laid up until the next season. At the end of 1929 the canneries and ship were sold to Pacific American Fisheries and the ship's home port changed to Bellingham, Washington. Beginning in 1933 she made occasional trans-Pacific voyages under charter during the off-season.
In late 1940 a law banning the use of floating canneries took effect and NORTH KING was sold in November 1940 to a Panamanian firm. Moving to New York in January 1941 she began making long-haul voyages with war cargoes, including trips in 34 trans-Atlantic convoys between September 1941 and May 1945. She was taken over under bareboat charter from her Panamanian owner by the War Shipping Administration on 30 Dec 41 and released to her owner on 26 Feb 46. In 1946 she was sold to a Portuguese firm under the Panamanian flag. With her superstructure enlarged by the addition of at least one deck and lots of lifeboats, she made many voyages carrying hundreds of migrants and displaced persons from Europe to Brazil and Argentina. NORTH KING was laid up for the last time at Lisbon on 19 Jul 56, arrived at Osaka, Japan, for scrapping on 1 Jun 57, and began demolition in April 1958.
Source note: Many thanks to Mark H. Goldberg, who provided nearly all of the details of this ship's career after 1922.
||Ex merc. LIEBENFELS (completed Jun 03). Converted by NYd Charleston, S.C. Merc. NORTH KING 1922, scrapped 1957.
Compiled: 26 Aug 2012
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2002-2012