Warship Wednesday October 22, 2014 the Overachieving Gresham

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week.

– Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday October 22, 2014 the Overachieving Gresham

USRC Gresham;705.  U.S.S. Gresham 1902; photo by A. Loeffler, Tompkinsville, N.Y.

USRC Gresham 1902; photo by A. Loeffler, Tompkinsville, N.Y.

Here we see the gunboat (err. Revenue Cutter) Walter Q. Gresham of the United States Revenue Cutter Service (USRCS) in 1902. This hearty little Great Lakes cutter had a life far removed from the one she was originally designed for.

The USRCS was a branch of the Treasury Department established by an act of Congress on 4 August 1790, (which predates the actual U.S. Navy’s official establishment date however that service uses the older date of the establishment of the Colonial Navy as its basis) and was tasked with counter-smuggling operations in peacetime and serving as a backup to the Navy in war. The USRCS merged with the Lighthouse Service and Lifesaving Service to become the USCG in 1915. But back to the ship.

The USRCS decided in the 1890s to build five near-sisterships that would be classified in peacetime as cutters, but would be capable modern naval auxiliary gunboats. These vessels, to the same overall but concept but each slightly different in design, were built to carry a bow mounted torpedo tube for 18-inch Bliss-Whitehead type torpedoes and as many as four modern quick-firing 3-inch guns (though they used just two 6-pounder 57mm popguns in peacetime). They would be the first modern cutters equipped with electric generators, triple-expansion steam engines (with auxiliary sail rigs), steel (well, mostly steel) hulls with a navy-style plow bow, and able to cut the very fast (for the time) speed of 18-ish knots. All were built 1896-98 at three different yards.


USRC McCulloch in full rig. Note that McCulloch is indicative of the five ship class she came from with the exception of having a three-masted barquentine rig where as the other ships, being about 15-feet shorter, had a two mast brigantine auxillary rig. Painting, Coast Guard Academy Museum Art Collection.

USRC McCulloch in full rig. Note that McCulloch is indicative of the five ship class she came from with the exception of having a three-masted barquentine rig where as the other ships, being about 15-feet shorter, had a two mast brigantine auxiliary rig. Painting, Coast Guard Academy Museum Art Collection.

These ships included:

McCulloch, a barquentine-rigged, composite-hulled, 219-foot, 1,280-ton steamer built by William Cramp and Sons of Philadelphia for $196,000.
Manning, a brigantine-rigged 205-foot, 1,150-ton steamer, was built by the Atlantic Works Company of East Boston, MA, for a cost of $159,951.
Algonquin, brigantine-rigged 205.5-foot, 1,180-ton steel-hulled steamer built by the Globe Iron Works Company of Cleveland, OH for $193,000.
Onondaga, brigantine-rigged 206-foot, 1,190-ton steel-hulled steamer built by the Globe Iron Works Company of Cleveland, OH for $193,800.

The fifth ship was the Gresham.


Launched on 12 September 1896, was a brigantine-rigged 206-foot, 1,090-ton steel-hulled steamer built by the Globe Iron Works Company of Cleveland, OH for $147,800. She carried the name of Walter Quinton Gresham, an epic overachiever.

Maj. Gen of Volunteers, the great and Honorable W.Q. Gresham (1832-1895)

Maj. Gen of Volunteers, the great and Honorable W.Q. Gresham (1832-1895)

Born in 1832 in Indiana, Gresham was a bar-certified attorney and elected state Representative by the time the Civil War broke out. He soon became the 29-year old colonel of the 53rd Indiana and fought at Corinth, Vicksburg, and Atlanta where he was invalided out with a shattered knee and the rank of (brevet) Maj.Gen. of Volunteers. This helped supercharge his political career and he soon became a federal judge appointed by Grant, then Chester Arthur’s Postmaster General and later his Secretary of the Treasury (for a month) before picking up a seat on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals while twice running for the Republican presidential nomination. At the time the gunboat, which carried his name, was ordered, he was serving as Secretary of State in President Grover Cleveland’s Cabinet and died in that office May 28, 1895, hence his name was used to christen the newest cutter. Again, back to the ship…

gresham loc

USRC Walter Q. Gresham commissioned on 30 May 1897 after being accepted by the government three months earlier. While two of these ships were intended for blue-water work on the East Coast (Manning) and West Coast (McCullough), Gresham and near-sisters Algonquin and Onondaga were ordered for Great Lakes service, hence their construction in Cleveland and their homeporting in Milwaukee and Chicago. Since the 200+ foot long cutters were too long to fit through the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway, they would be landlocked into the lakes their whole life (more on that in a minute).

When commissioned she caused a diplomatic crisis. You see, since these three cutters had a new-fangled torpedo tube and modern guns, the Canadians and their British big brothers objected that the ships were in violation of the 1817 Rush-Bagot Convention and the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. These two acts limited U.S./British-Canadian arms build-ups along the border region between the two countries and to this day regulate how heavily armed ships can be along the Great Lakes.

http://lighthouseantiques.net/Revenue%20Cutter%20Serv.htm Crew of the Gresham around 1900. Note the old school Donald Duck caps.

Crew of the Gresham around 1900. Note the old school Donald Duck caps.

Well, just 11-months after Gresham‘s commissioning, war broke out with Spain and, as her two blue water sisters were rushed to serve with the Navy, the USRCS decided to withdraw the three lake-bound ships and put them to good use elsewhere. To get them past the locks in the St. Lawrence, they sailed to Ogdensburg, NY, where they were cut in half, shipped through the canal, and rejoined on the Atlantic side. Gresham officially belonged to the Navy 24 March-17 Aug 1898, but she saw no service in that war.

Gresham cut cleanly in two and barged through the St. Lawrence locks. Her other two sisters were subjected to the same fate.

Gresham cut cleanly in two and barged through the St. Lawrence locks. Her other two sisters were subjected to the same fate.

However, the war ended in August 1898, before Gresham could be reassembled. Not wanting to get the Canadians riled up again, the USRCS left Gresham, Onondaga, and Algonquin on the East Coast where they served as any respectable white-hulled cutter of the time did. Algonquin set off for the West Indies and Onondaga moved to Philly while Gresham lived the life of a New England cutter, based in Boston.

She used her popguns to sink derelict vessels found at sea. She patrolled fisheries looking for interloping foreign trawlers and poachers. Nantucket Island was only able to get supplies and mail during especially harsh winters by the use of Gresham as an ersatz icebreaker.

U.S.R.C. Gresham, flagship of the patrol fleet, America's Cup races. Library of Congress photo.

U.S.R.C. Gresham, flagship of the patrol fleet, America’s Cup races. Library of Congress photo.

She served as the official government presence at a number of the fashionable sea races of the time. This led to a collision during a regatta with Sir Thomas Lipton’s beautiful steam yacht, the Erin, in which the Gresham‘s torpedo tube scraped alongside the hull of that fine ship. The fault was all on Lipton’s ship by the way.

Gresham saved mariners in distress, including famously the “palatial” steamship RMS Republic of the White Star Line (yes, the Titanic‘s company) when she collided with the Italian liner Florida near Nantucket and foundered in 1909. That incident was the first time a CQD distress call was issued on the new Marconi radio device. Standing alongside the stricken ship, Gresham along with other ships and the cutters Mohawk and Seneca helped save more than 1200 passengers and crew.


In 1915 she, along with the rest of the cutter service became part of the new U.S. Coast Guard and she was given pennant number CG-1, her name by that time just shortened to Gresham, without the Walter Q. part.

When war erupted, she was transferred to the Navy for the second time in 6 April 1917 and remained in the fleet until Aug. 1919. Her sail rig was removed as were her 57mm and 37mm popguns, her wartime armament was greatly increased and was depth charges were fitted, which added several hundred tons to her weight and several feet to her draught. During the war, she escorted coastal convoys, watched for U-boats and naval raiders, and helped train naval crews. Interestingly enough, her old collision-mate Erin, while serving as the armed yacht Aegusa in the Royal Navy, was lost to a German mine during the war.

Returning to her normal peacetime cutter activities in the Coast Guard, to which was added policing and chasing after rumrunners in the 1920s (for which some water-cooled Brownings were installed) Gresham entered a quiet chapter in her life. Her armament was greatly reduced and by 1922, her torpedo tube was deactivated as all of the Navy’s stocks of the aging Whitehead Mk3 torpedoes were withdrawn from service.

In 1933, Gresham was again assigned to the Navy and was sent to Cuban waters to monitor the situation there. As part of the Navy Special Service Squadron she was used to patrol the Florida Straits during a series of revolts that eventually put Fulgencio Batista in power in Cuba. In this she served with a number of other Coast Guard vessels sheep-dipped to the Navy to include the Unalga for two years, alternating between Key West, Gitmo, and San Juan.

She was decommissioned 19 January 1935 just before her 40th birthday, which is about right for a Coasty hull. She was then sold for her value in scrap metal on 22 April 1935, the last of her five-ship class to remain in the Coast Guard’s service. Cleveland-built sisters Algonquin and Onondaga had been sold in 1930 and 1924 respectively and disposed of. Cramp-built McCulloch, who served with Dewey at Manila Bay, was sunk in a collision 13 June 1917. Boston-built Manning likewise was sold for scrap in 1931. The Coast Guard just did not have use for a bunch of slow old tubs.

Until World War II came along, anyway.

In 1943, the Coast Guard found Gresham still afloat in some backwater somewhere in the Chesapeake and reacquired her, the sole remaining ship of her class. She was old, with 47 years on her hull. She was in exceptionally poor condition– still with her original cranky vertical, inverted cylinder, direct-acting triple expansion steam engine fired by four single-ended boilers fed by coal.

Nevertheless, she could hold a few guns and maybe scare off a U-boat or two so she was bought (sum unknown) on 21 January 1943 and renovated in Baltimore.

Gresham during WWII. Photo from Navsource

Gresham during WWII. Notice her sail rig is long gone and, for the first time, she has a visible hull number. Photo from Navsource.

Two months later she was relatively seaworthy and, armed with a sonar, radar, depth charge racks and guns, placed into commission as the USS Gresham (WPG-85) on 25 March 1943. Assigned to coastal convoy escort, moving from port to port up and down the East Coast, she was not liked very well. Since her best possible speed was just 8-knots, she slowed the convoys down and they often decided to leave Gresham in port rather instead. In these terms, she served as a guard ship in New York for most of her 13-month WWII service.

Decommissioned 7 April 1944 before the war even ended, she was sold for scrap for a second time.

However, she just wouldn’t die.

In 1946, she was being used by one Nicholas D. Allen of Teaneck, NJ, converted to a tug and renamed T. V. McAllister. He apparently wasn’t very successful with Gresham as in turn he sold her to the Weston Trading Co. of Honduras who renamed the elderly vessel, Trade Winds.

She became a coaster and banana boat along the Caribbean, flying a Panamanian flag. Then in February 1947 she quietly became one of the 12 vessels purchased in America by Ha’Mossad Le Aliya Bet to carry Jewish refugees from Europe, many only months out of concentration camps, to Palestine past the British blockade. Appropriately, Gresham was in good company, as at least three of the other vessels, Unalga (who she had served with in the old Navy Special Service Squadron), Northland, and Mayflower, had served in the Coast Guard at one time or another as well.

Her scant 27-man crew consisted mostly of young American Jewish volunteers with former naval and military service under their belt. She was prepared for its voyage to Palestine at Lisbon, Portugal and PortoVenere, Italy. Yehoshua Baharav Rabinowitz was in charge of the work in Portugal and Avraham akai was in charge in Italy. The vessel, under the Hebrew name “Hatikva” (The Hope) sailed from Bocca di Magra, Italy on May 8th 1947 carrying 1,414 Ma’apilim refugees. Israel Rotem was its commander and those accompanying him were Alex Shour and Meir Falik; the radio operator was Nachum Manor. Soon five Royal Navy destroyers, enforcing the blockade on Palestine, were tailing the old tub.

c. May 1947 Hatikva loaded with Jewish refugees Algerine Associates photo from Paul Silverstone's Aliyah Bet Project Aliyah Bet Project http://books.google.com/books?id=psggYctbdlQC&pg=PA105&lpg=PA105&dq=Hatikva+ship&source=bl&ots=SwRWx-nabd&sig=RH27Lu1ARpWj1UoEWq4FTtSzK08&hl=en&sa=X&ei=aBI2VMj-L5SryATovoK4Dg&ved=0CFUQ6AEwCw#v=onepage&q=Hatikva%20ship&f=false

c. May 1947 Hatikva loaded with Jewish refugees Algerine Associates photo from Paul Silverstone’s Aliyah Bet Project Aliyah Bet Project. Note that her mast has been stepped. 

One of these ships pulled alongside and called to the captain, “Your voyage is illegal, and your vessel is unseaworthy. In the name of humanity surrender.”

On May 17, 1947, the Hatikva was forcibly intercepted, rammed, and captured by the destroyers HMS Venus and HMS Brissenden. Upon boarding, RN sailors and Royal Marines used tear gas, rifle butts, and batons to enforce their directives and ordered the ship to Haifa to unload where it sat while the American crew was interned on a British prison ship. (For an excellent in-depth story of this action and the American’s fate, read Greenfield’s, The Jews’ Secret Fleet: Untold Story of North American Volunteers Who Smashed the British Blockade)

With Royal Marines coming aboard. Note her old pilot house, a relic from the 19th century.

With Royal Marines coming aboard. Note her old pilot house, a relic from the 19th century.

Later the Israeli Navy was able to reclaim Hatikva in 1948 after independence, but after sea trials, the desperate organization realized they were not that desperate, and sold her for scrap in 1951.

ex-Gresham, then Hatikva of the Israeli Navy (אוניית_מעפילים_התקוה) around 1948. This is the last known picture in circulation of her.

ex-Gresham, then Hatikva of the Israeli Navy (אוניית_מעפילים_התקוה) around 1948. This is the last known picture in circulation of her.

However, Hatikva/Gresham beat the scrappers once more it seemed. She popped up in Greek ownership in the 1950s and found herself back on the other side of the Atlantic again as an unpowered barge, her superstructure, funnel, and mast removed. She was last semi-reliably seen in the Chesapeake Bay area as late as 1980.

Her ultimate fate is unknown, but she may in all actuality be afloat somewhere in Blue Crab country, hiding out as a houseboat in some back eddy or grounded on a mudflat somewhere. If only boats could talk, Gresham would have had much to say. The Spanish American War, both World Wars, a revenue cutter that was deconstructed then reassembled, gunboat, coast guard cutter, freighter, refugee ship…talk about an epic tale. After all, how many ships have been sold to the breakers and lived to tell the tale not once, or twice, but three times!

The Gresham/Hatikva is well remembered in Israel and in the European Jewish community as a whole. This summer a group of 800 French Jewish students announced plans to recreate the voyage of the historic ship.

As a final note on the ship, Israel’s national anthem is named Hatikva, of course it is about the movement overall, but still; there is a small hatttip to the tiny Gresham in there every time it is played.

And Walter Quintin Gresham himself? He was buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery a little to the right of the grave of Union cavalry master Phil Sheridan.

The former seaplane tender made cutter USCGC Gresham

The former seaplane tender made cutter USCGC Gresham

In 1947, the Coast Guard took possession of a 311-foot long gently used seaplane tender, USS Willoughby (AGP-9; AVP-57) and renamed her USCGC Gresham (WAVP/WHEC/WAGW-387) in honor of this long serving vessel and remained in service until 1973. However, if the reports of the original Gresham making it to 1980 are true, her namesake outlived her by almost a decade.


USRC Gresham as built. USCG Historians Office

USRC Gresham as built. USCG Historians Office

Displacement 1,090 t.
Length 205′ 6″
Beam 32′
Draft 12′ 6″
Speed 18 designed, 14.5 kts.by 1930, 8 by 1943
1897: 9 officers, 63 men
1917: 103
1919: 71
1943: 125

1896: Two 6-pounder 57mm, one 1-pounder 37mm, three .50 cal. machine guns, and one bow torpedo tube
1918: 3 x 4-inch guns; (1500 rounds of ammunition stored in two magazinesfore and aft); 16 x 300-lb depth charges; 4 x Colt machine guns; 2 x Lewis machine guns; 18 x .45 Colt pistols; 15 x Springfield rifles.)
1930: 2 x 6-pdrs RF, 3 x .50-cal watercooled for rumrunners, tube deactivated.
1943: 2x 3″/50 (singles) 4x20mm/80 (singles), 2 depth charge racks, 2 K-gun depth charge projectors, 2 mousetrap depth bomb projectors, QCL-8 sonar, SF-type surface search radar.

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