It can be said that behind the USS Constitution, no other ship is as important to the development of the United States as a nation then the USS Oregon. While she was involved in four wars, it was her time in the Spanish American War that made her famous.
After the Samoan Crisis in 1889 showed the United States just how unprepared the US Navy was for the United States’ place in world politics, an reluctant, isolationist and heavily Republican Congress Authorized the construction of three battle ships on June 30th, 1890. The act authorizing called them seagoing coastal battleships, a name chosen to appease those who thought the United States shouldn’t involve itself outside of it’s own coastal waters and the “Big Navy” expansionists who believed the the US would need large seagoing vessels in the near future.
These three ships were the Indiana, the Massachusetts, and the Oregon. The Indiana and Massachusetts were built in Philadelphia, but the Oregon was built at Union Iron Works in San Francisco. Construction of the Oregon started on November 19, 1891. She was launched almost two years later on October 26th, 1893 in front of a crowd of over 100,000 people.
Her amour, built by the Carnegie Steel Corporation, was installed in 1894, and her sea trials were held in May 1896. The USS Oregon handily beat the sea trials, even putting in a better average time then her two sister ships, and she was officially given over the US Navy on July 15th, 1896.
In March 1898 the Oregon was ordered to Juniper Inlet to join with the Atlantic Fleet in preparation for war with Spain. Captain Charles E. Clark took command after on March 17th after the previous Captain, Alexander H. McCormick, had become seriously ill. The Oregon set out on March 19th, 1898 to join the American fleet assembling in Florida. It successfully weathered a gale as it was passing the Straights of Magellan, dodged the rumored Spanish Fleet outside of Brazil and finally arrived at Key West on May 6th, 1898.
At the time, this 66 day trip of 14,500 miles was a record. It proved two things. First that a properly engineered and kept up Battleship could steam swiftly to any part of the world (the United States still follows this train of thought,) and more importantly this voyage became a major argument in building the Panama Canal.
But it was not until July 3, 1898 that the Oregon saw action. After part of the fleet had left that morning with Admiral Sampson to conference with General Shafter a few miles away. About 45 minutes afterwards, the Spanish fleet attempted to run the blockade of Santiago. The Oregon, who’s engines were kept running hot during the blockade, immediately rushed to catch them even though it was the furthest away. The sight of her cutting through the ocean to create a huge bow wave, known in the Navy as “having a bone in her teeth,” led to the ships nickname “McKinley’s Bulldog.”
As she passed the harbor she participated in attacks on the Spanish torpedo destroyers Pluton and Furor. The were finished off by the Indiana, the Iowa, and the armed yacht USS Gloucester.
The next up was the Teresa. It had slowed down, possibly to delay the pursuing ships, at 10:00 on the dot. Ten minutes later she was on fire and limped to the coast where she could be beached. Captain Clark and the Oregon, with the support of the Brooklyn then chased down, and fired upon the Almirante Oquendo which was out of the battle in only twelve minutes. The Almirante Oquendo beached itself only half a mile away from the Teresa.
The next in line was the Vizcaya. It had been firing upon the Brooklyn and crossed the bow in an attempt to fire at both ships at once. The Oregon hit the Vizcaya, who then turned sharply back to it’s original course. Minutes later, it too was surrendering and beaching itself.
Afterwards the Oregon really came into its own. The Spanish Flagship, the Cristobal Colon, was six miles ahead. The Oregon increased speed to 16 knots and came within gun range at 12:50. With just the forward gun firing, the Oregon forced the Cristobal to surrender at 1:12. At this point, the Spanish American War was effectively over even though the crew didn’t know it.
While the Oregon certainly proved itself, it has to be noted that the Cristobal was technically the faster ship. The crew of the Cristobal had been seconded as soldiers the day before, were mostly running on alcohol to keep them awake, the Cristobal had run out of it’s better coal halfway through the battle and the ship’s hull was heavily barnacled. All of these factors led to her surrender.
In 1899 with a new captain, and a mostly new crew, the newly outfitted Oregon headed to the Philippines where it acted as flagship of the Asiatic Squadron and supported action in the Philippine-American War.
After that war, she was sent to Hong Kong to pickup sailors and marines who were needed in China to support the Boxer Rebellion. While doing so, it anchored during a heavy fog outside the Gulf of Pechili on June 28th, 1900. Unfortunately when the fog cleared, the USS Oregon struck Pinnacle Rock. The shipped was holed and the forward compartment flooded.
Luckily the weather held for three days and the damage repaired enough for the Oregon to limp to the Japanese naval base at Kure. The Japanese, eager to support the Americans, did the best they could in repairing her, but the Oregon was ordered to return to San Francisco for repairs. The City, learning of this and her estimated time of arrival on June 13th, 1901 planned a celebration in her honor. The Oregon messed up those plans by arriving a full twenty four hours ahead of schedule. Fortunately the city is always ready to party and showed the Oregon a good time.
The USS Oregon made it’s way back to China in 1902, where she enforced the neutrality of Shanghai by training search lights on a Japanese Navy ship chasing a Russian Navy ship into the port on February 8, 1904. The Chinese Nationalists instituted a boycott of American goods on July 20th, 1905 which spread to the Philippines, Hawai’i, and some Japanese ports.
The Oregon patrolled off the coast of Hong Kong in February 1906 to force the Chinese to buy American goods again. The Emperor of China gave in to President Theodore Roosevelt’s demands and the Oregon came home, only to be moth balled at Bremerton Washington. She was there for exactly five years, April 26, 1905 to April 26, 1911.
She rejoined the Pacific Fleet under command of Captain Charles F. Pond, but by this time was heavily out classed by newer ships. As part of the reserve, it was petitioned for her to lead the way through the Panama Canal when it opened in 1914. The war in Europe made any celebration of the opening unfeasible, but the USS Oregon made it to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. It did so again in 1916 serving as the review ship as the entire Pacific Fleet passed in review.
The United States’ entry into WWI saw the Oregon sent back to Bremerton where it was upgraded at the cost of $1 million. It was used as a training ship, where officers and men were taught seamanship, navigation, and gunnery to officers and men who soon be entering the war.
In October 1917, the Oregon acted as an escort ship to the transports that took soldiers to Siberia during the Bolshevik Revolution. After the failure of the “Siberian Adventure,” the Oregon returned to the United States where it was out of commission again. This time two thirds of the crew was affected by the 1919 Influenza.
The USS Oregon, under command of William T. Tarrant, visited Portland Oregon officially one more time. This time during the Victory Liberty Cruise in April and May 1919. This cruise was a fund raising drive meant to pay off lingering debt from the first World War.
In August 21 of the same year, President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, welcomed the Pacific Fleet home on the deck of the USS Oregon. But the reprieve was only temporary, she was decommissioned for the last time on October 4th, 1919.
On to Part Two – The End