Warship Wednesday Aug 17, 2016: The quiet but everlasting Alert
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off 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. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Aug 17, 2016: The quiet but everlasting AlertHere we see the Alert-class Federal warship USS Alert around 1901, an iron gunboat rigged as three-masted barque. She would go on to serve from Arctic tundra to Pacific tropics– and everywhere in between– and between her and her sister would put in over 100 years of service to the nation.
One of the few new naval ships built after the Civil War, Alert was built with funding authorized by the 42nd Congress and listed at the time as a Sloop of War. Powered by both sail and steam, she was the leader of a three-ship class and was 175 feet long, displaced 541 tons and were designed to carry up to a half-dozen Civil War surplus 9-inch guns split between broadsides.
Laid down at John Roach & Sons Shipbuilders in Chester, PA in 1873, Alert was commissioned 27 May 1875.
While under construction, her armament scheme was converted to a single 11-inch smoothbore Dahlgren rifle, two 9″ Dahlgrens, one 60-pounder Parrott, a single 12-pounder “boat” howitzer that weighed only 300-pounds in its carriage, and one Gatling gun– the latter two of which could be sent ashore by a naval landing party to conduct business with the locals as needed. Speaking of which, she could afford to send her small Marine detachment as well as up to 40 rifle-armed bluejackets on such festivities, but more on this later.
Alert had two sisters completed at the same time, one, Huron, was built at Roach and lost tragically on her first overseas deployment off the coast of North Carolina 24 November 1877 near Nag’s Head.
Although the Life Saving Service had been started three years prior to the Huron running aground, due to massive under funding the Service only manned stations in North Carolina for three winter months beginning December 1; one week too late to be of help to the crew of the Huron. The outrage over the Huron tragedy prompted Congress to fund the Service year-round. The Life Saving Service eventually evolved into the modern U.S. Coast Guard.
The second sistership to Alert, Ranger, was constructed at Harlan & Hollingsworth and commissioned 27 Nov 1876.
The trio were the last iron warships to be built for the U.S. Navy, with follow-on designs moving to steel.
Alert‘s first decade was quiet, being assigned to the Training Squadron where she carried Annapolis mids on summer cruises until being assigned to the exotic Asiatic Station in May 1876. There she would continue operations from China to Australia and Japan for more than a decade, only venturing back to the West Coast for regular overhauls.
In 1882, she was embarrassingly involved in a nighttime crack up with the Japanese ship Jingei, a side-paddle steamer that served as the Imperial yacht for Emperor Meiji. It was the Jingei‘s fault and no members of the court were aboard at the time.
Besides fighting the occasional Chinese pirate gangs on the water and warlords ashore, improving U.S. charts of the region, showing the flag, and just generally protecting American interests from Hawaii to Singapore to Alaska, Alert had to come to the rescue of lost and wrecked vessels from time to time.
This included responding to the disastrous 1889 hurricane in Samoa that left German, British and U.S. naval vessels alike wrecked and battered. Once she arrived, her crew helped perform repairs on the immobilized USS Nipsic and escorted her back to Hawaii.
Following this effort, the 15-year-old gunboat with lots of miles on her hull sailed for Mare Island for refit.
In 1891, with seals in Alaska facing near-extinction, the U.S. and Britain formed a joint 11-ship Bering Sea Squadron that operated in the area to enforce a prohibition on hunting over the summer. During this period, Alert intercepted and ejected dozens of interloping vessels from the exclusion zone.
Spending the next few years summering in Alaska chasing poachers and wintering in the Pacific Squadron’s stomping grounds in Korea and China, Alert was transferred to operate off the coast of Mexico and Central America in 1895, where she would spend the majority of three rough and tumble years in the politics of the banana Republics.
During this time, in 1898 Nicaragua’s President Zelaya decided to extend his tenure for still another term, the local U.S. consular agent requested Alert to anchor in the harbor of Bluefields, and stand by in case of an attack on the city.
On the morning of 7 February, the American flag rose union downward over the consulate– a sign of distress. In answer to this signal, an expeditionary force of 14 Marines and 19 Sailors was landed by Alert, Gatling gun in tow. On the following day, the government forces agreed to guarantee the safety of all foreigners, and the landing party was withdrawn, though she remained on station there through April.
Returning to Mare Island, she remained on guard against a possible Spanish attack (there was something of a war going on with Spain at the time) but when no such attack likely after Mr. Dewey’s actions in Manila Bay, Alert was decommissioned and partially disarmed on 4 June 1898.
After three years in ordinary, she was used as a training ship after 1901 and loaned off and on to the California Naval Militia until 1910.
During this period, her Civil War-era guns had been landed and replaced with what appear to be a half-dozen long barreled 6-pounders (57mm) though I can’t tell if they are Hotchkiss or Driggs-Schroeder models. As Mare Island was home to a number of vessels decommissioned after the SpanAm War at the time which carried both of these models, this should come as no surprise.
Once again emerging from ordinary, Alert was further converted to allow for transient sailors and became one of the Navy’s first official submarine tenders (AS-4), placed back in full commission 1 July 1912.
This mission ended for her when the U.S. entered World War I and, for the first time in decades, she left the Pacific and made her way to the waters of her birth along the Eastern seaboard, briefly serving as a depot ship in Bermuda for outbound convoys to the Great War in Europe.
With the war winding down, she reverted to the Pacific Squadron, once again serving as a submarine tender until she was decommissioned 9 March 1922 after a very respectable 47 years of service. She was sold three months later for scrap and I can find no trace of her today.
During her time in service, Alert had 23 official captains, including future RADM. William Thomas Sampson, known for his later victory in the Battle of Santiago.
As for her sisters, 60 sailors from the wreck of the Huron are buried together in Section Five of the United States Naval Academy Cemetery in well cared for lots while the ship herself is protected by federal mandate in her watery grave. A highway marker near Nag’s Head mentions her loss.
Alert‘s other classmate, USS Ranger, (later renamed USS Rockport and USS Nantucket PG-23/IX-18), was involved in the Barrundia Affair with Guatemala, patrolled the coast during WWI, and served as the training ship for first the Massachusetts Nautical Training School then the Merchant Marine Academy, only passing to the scrappers in 1958.
Ranger‘s original engine — the only back-acting type known to be still in existence—was saved from destruction and is on display at the American Merchant Marine Museum in Kings Point, New York.
The last of her class.
Displacement: 1,202 long tons
Length: 175 ft. (53 m)
Beam: 32 ft. (9.8 m)
Depth of hold: 15 ft. (4.6 m)
Draft: 13 ft. (mean)
Installed power: Five boilers driving 1 × 560 ihp, 64 rpm compound back-acting steam engine
Propulsion: 1 × 12 ft. diameter × 17.5 ft. pitch propeller, auxiliary sails
Speed: 10 knots under steam
Complement: 138 officers and enlisted (typically including a 15 man Marine detachment until 1898). Berthing for 200 after 1901.
1 × 11 in (280 mm) Dahlgren gun
2 × 9 in (230 mm) Dahlgren guns
1 × 60 pdr (27 kg) Parrott rifle
1 × 12 pdr (5.4 kg) howitzer
1 × Gatling gun
spar torpedoes for her steam launch (provision deleted after 1889)
6 small pieces in gundeck broadside, possibly 6 pdrs or 3-inchers
Largely disarmed other than saluting pieces (1-pdrs) and small arms.
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