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USS Vulcan circa November 1898
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Design: Passenger & cargo, 1884
Displacement (tons): 2,729 gross, 3,530 displ.
Dimensions (feet): 265.3' x 40.0' x 17.25' mn
Original Armament: 2-6pdr (1898)
Later armaments: --
Speed (kts.): --
Propulsion (HP): --
Machinery: Compound, 1 screw
||2 May 98
||American SB Co. Phila.
||31 May 98
||12 Jan 99
||9 Jun 99
||19 Jul 99
In around 1884 the short-lived American Shipbuilding Company of Philadelphia received an order from the Merchants and Miners' Line for the iron-hulled passenger and cargo ship CHATHAM. The construction of the ship was reportedly sub-contracted to Neafie, Levy & Co., which had been building iron ships in Philadelphia since the 1850s. CHATHAM was the last and largest of the four ships listed as having been ordered from the American Shipbuilding Co.
On 12 Mar 98 the U.S. Secretary of the Navy appointed a Naval Board on Auxiliary Cruisers to select and purchase civilian vessels for Navy use in the impending war with Spain. The Board initially focused on potential auxiliary cruisers and on tugs and yachts, but by the end of March it also had orders to find six colliers, two repair ships, and two distilling ships. The Navy wanted to have a vessel accompany the fleet that was thoroughly equipped for making extensive repairs. On 22 Mar 98 the Board recommended to the Navy Department the purchase of the Morgan Line's steamer CHALMETTE for use, in case of war, as a repair ship. Built in 1879, she was one of the older vessels of the Morgan Line. While not adapted to use as an auxiliary cruiser, the Board thought her particularly suitable as a repair ship. The report that the CHALMETTE had been selected was officially contradicted at the end of March, although the Navy reportedly tried again in early April to obtain her. Finally another old passenger and cargo ship, CHATHAM, was purchased instead from the Merchants and Miners' Line. The work of installing machine tools, cupola, forges, brass furnaces, etc., was rapidly prosecuted by the Boston Navy Yard. The ship was to carry about 140 mechanics and helpers, including machinists, boilermakers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, patternmakers, and moulders, along with a large outfit of stores. A large force could be sent on board any ship needing extensive repairs to help the mechanics of the vessel, while on the VULCAN repair work of very large size could be done.
The VULCAN joined the fleet at Guantanamo on July 1, and reports up to the end of August showed that she had made repairs to 63 ships and supplied stores to 60. The Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering later concluded that, "with the exception of the battle ship OREGON, there was not a vessel on the south side of Cuba that contributed indirectly more to the destruction of Admiral Cervera's squadron." The crew of VULCAN worked day and night to keep the battleships near the entrance to Santiago, and their work showed "the necessity of providing a repair vessel for every large squadron of war ships." It was the wish of the Department to provide another ship of this character for service in the Pacific, as recommended by the Engineer in Chief. On 29 Oct 98 VULCAN took the salvaged Spanish armored cruiser INFANTA MARIA TERESA in tow from Guantanamo to Norfolk, but the ships encountered a severe storm, the tow line was cut, and on 1 Nov 98 the cruiser drifted on to Cat Island in the Bahamas. VULCAN was sent back out from Norfolk later in November to survey the wreck but found it to be beyond salvage.
Soon after the war the hull of VULCAN, which had lacked both the speed and size needed for a fully capable repair ship, was found to be in such bad condition that she had to be stripped and sold. All the power tools formerly in the VULCAN were shipped to the Norfolk Navy Yard and plans were made for placing them on the collier MARCELLUS and fitting this vessel for a repair ship. This was afterwards changed to the collier ABARENDA, but the project was not pursued. In the meantime the Bureau of Steam Engineering urged properly designing and building a repair ship which, while being constructed for efficient service in time of emergency, might be retained without use (in ordinary) and without serious deterioration for many years. Similar arguments, repeated for many years, ultimately led to the conversion of the colliers VESTAL and PROMETHEUS to repair ships and the construction of MEDUSA (AR-1).
Decommissioned at League Is., probably on 12 Jan 99, VULCAN was stricken from the Navy list on 9 Jun 99, advertised for sale on 13 Jun 99, and sold on 19 Jul 99 to Michael Jenkins of Baltimore, Md., for $175,750. She returned to service as CHATHAM with the Merchants and Miners' Line. On the morning of 14 Jan 10 CHATHAM was finishing up her trip from her home port of Baltimore, Md., to Jacksonville, Fla., when she soundly struck the north jetty at the entrance of the St. Johns River, flooded through a massive hole and sank. The wreck was stripped and abandoned but remains a popular fishing site.
||Ex merc. CHATHAM 1898. Merc CHATHAM 1899, wrecked at Jacksonville 14 Jan 10.
Compiled: 01 Jan 2013
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2002-2013