Warship Wednesday Dec. 21, 2017: The pirate chaser of Lake Michigan
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 Dec. 21, 2017: The pirate chaser of Lake Michigan
Here we see the one of a kind Cutter Tuscarora, of the Revenue Cutter Service, as she sails mightily around the Great Lakes in the early 1900s– note her twin 6-pdr popguns forward.
The mighty Tuscarora, in all of her 178-feet of glory, gave over three decades of service, fought in a World War, and even caught what could be considered the last American pirate.
Laid down at the William R. Trigg Company, Richmond, Virginia in 1900, she was commissioned 27 December 1902 (114 years ago next Tuesday to be exact), and was named after a Native American nation of the Iroquois confederacy.
A steel-hulled ship built for a service still shaking off wooden hulls and sailing rigs, Tuscarora was built for the USRCS for what was seen as easy duty on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior in what was then known as the Great Lakes Patrol, replacing the larger USRC Gresham (1,090-tons, 205-feet) which was removed from the Lakes by splitting her in half in 1898 to take part in the Spanish-American War.
Just 620-tons, she could float in 11-feet of freshwater and cost the nation $173,814 (about $4.7 million in today’s figures, which is something of a bargain). As her primary job was that of enforcing customs and chasing smugglers, her armament consisted of a couple of 6-pounder (57mm) naval pieces that were pretty standard for parting the hair of a wayward sea captain who wouldn’t heave to or to sink derlicts.
Based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she made regular calls on the Chicago area and, like all other craft on the freshwater Lakes, was laid up each winter. Replacements for her crew were generally recruited from Milwaukee by custom.
Tuscarora led a relatively uneventful life, policing regattas, entertaining local sightseers, provided support to U.S. Life Saving Service stations, assisting distressed mariners, exchanging salutes with the occasional British (Canadian) customs vessel, and waiting for the ice every winter.
But there was a guy in the Frankfort, Michigan, area, a former Navy bluejacket and one-time Klondike prospector by the name of Captain “Roaring” Dan Seavey who was a hell raiser. A big man for his day, Dan was also known to pack a revolver and when the mood or spirits struck him, shoot out street lights or occasional window encountered on his travels.
Then, he took to the water.
You see, sometime around the early 1900s, Seavey picked up a battered 40 to 50-foot two-masted schooner with no engines that he named Wanderer, and became downright notorious.
He ran anything he could across the Lakes for a buck. Reportedly, he used the Wanderer as an offshore brothel and casino and basically did anything he wanted– to a degree.
He would set up fake lights to entice coasters to wreck, then be the first one on hand for salvage rights, goes the tale.
Word is he sank a rival venison smuggler (hey, it was Lake Michigan) with a cannon somewhere out on the lake and made sure no one lived to tell the tale.
In June 1908, he took over the 40-foot schooner Nellie Johnson in Grand Haven, Michigan in an act that could be termed today, well, piracy.
In short, it involved getting the skipper drunk and leaving with the boat and her two complicit crew members while the Johnson‘s master slept it off.
However, unable to sell her cargo of cedar posts in Chicago, Seavey poked around with the pirated ship in tow for over two weeks– and Tuscarora, under the command of Captain Preston H. Uberroth, USRCS, with Deputy U.S. Marshall Thomas Currier on board, poked around every nook and cranny until they found Nellie Johnson swamped but with her cargo intact, and Seavey on the run.
There was a stiff breeze that day and Seavey was grabbing every bit of it he could with the Wanderer’s two sails. With the Wanderer now in sight, it might have now been no contest, but Uberroth wasn’t taking any chances. The Tuscarora’s boilers were so hot the paint burned off the smokestack. The final chase lasted an hour, ending, according to some reports (which many now doubt true), with a cannon shot from the Tuscarora over the bow of the Wanderer, finally bringing Seavey to a halt.
If reporters made up the cannon shot, they weren’t the only ones caught up in the action. Currier was quoted as saying, “I have chased criminals all my life, but this was the most thrilling experience of many years. I never before chased a pirate with a steamship, and probably never will again, but of all the jolly pirates Seavey is the jolliest.”
Whatever happened, Uberroth sent an armed crew aboard, placed Seavey in irons, and brought him to the Tuscarora, which then made for Chicago.
“Seavey was surprised, to say the least,” accord to Currier. “He said that we would never have caught him had he had another half-hour’s start.”
It was sensational news at the time and went coast to coast, with Seavey maintaining that he won the Nellie Johnson in a poker game and everyone just had the wrong idea. When the owner of the
When the owner of the Nellie Johnson failed to appear in federal court in Chicago, Seavey was set free to sail the fringes of the law for decades.
As for Tuscarora, she got back to work, responding to a very active season of distress calls on Lake Superior and surviving being grounded off Detour, Michigan with a government wrecking crew from Sault Ste sent to help refloat her without much damage other than to her pride.
In late 1912, she took part in the search for the lost Christmas tree boat Rousse Simmons, and served as a safety ship for John G. Kaminski, the first licensed pilot in Wisconsin, as he flew his primitive Curtiss A-1 Pusher aircraft over the water in an exhibition near Milwaukee.
In 1913, Tuscarora was part of the Perry Battle of Lake Erie Centennial Fleet, which toured the Great Lakes alongside the replica of Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship Niagara.
In 1916, she became part of the new U.S. Coast Guard and was rebuilt, bringing her displacement to 739-tons, which deepened her draft considerably.
Upon declaration of war on April 6, 1917, the United States Coast Guard automatically became a part of the Department of the Navy and the now-USS Tuscarora (CG-7) picked up a coat of haze gray, a 3-inch gun in place of one of her 6-pdrs, and made for the Boston Naval District, arriving on the East Coast in October.
Patrolling off Rhode Island and Connecticut, she came to the assistance of the USS Helianthus (SP585) in December and an unnamed schooner in January 1918 while on the lookout for German submarines. When in port at Providence, the crew was detailed to guard munitions and assisted with testing underwater weaponry at the Naval Torpedo Station at Goat Island, near Newport, Rhode Island. Setting south, she met transports bound for France out of Hampton Rhodes in February and picked up a set of depth charges and throwers in March of that year.
On March 13, 1918, Tuscarora rescued 130 from the beached Merchants and Miners Line steamer SS Kershaw (2,599-tons) off East Hampton, Long Island via breeches buoy after picking up her SOS from 15 miles away.
(Kershaw was later refloated only to be sunk in a collision with the Dollar Liner SS President Garfield in 1928 on Martha’s Vineyard Sound)
The next day, Tuscarora took the old broken down Velasco-class gunboat USS Don Juan de Austria under tow to bring her into Newport.
The ship then escorted a small convoy to Bermuda, then put in at Guantanamo Bay and Key West, reporting a submarine contact in May 1918. She finished her service
She finished her service at Key West and, returned to the Treasury Department at the end of hostilities, landed her depth charges, picked up a fresh coat of white paint, and resumed her permanent station at Milwaukee on 6 October 1920.
However the saltwater was calling to her and, with the onset of Prohibition nonsense, she was transferred to Boston again in 1926 to help patrol “rum row” and keep Canadian motherships from meeting with local rumrunners just off shore.
By 1930, she was reassigned to Florida where she was under temporary loan to the Navy in 1933 for the Cuban Expedition.
This came about when Fulgencio Bastista led the “Sergeant’s Revolt” on 4-5 September 1933 and forced then-Cuban dictator, General Gerardo Machado to flee Cuba. President Roosevelt sent 30 warships to protect our interests in Cuba. Due to a shortage of vessels on the east coast, the Navy requested that Coast Guard cutters assist in the patrols in Cuban waters. Because of the shenanigans, our hardy Lake Michigan pirate buster spent nearly three months at Matanzas and Havana taking part in gunboat diplomacy.
At the end of her useful life and a new series of 165-foot cutters being built as a WPA project for small shipyards, Tuscarora was decommissioned 1 May 1936.
In 1937, she was sold to Texas Refrigerator Steamship Lines for use as a banana boat, a job she apparently was ill-suited for, as in 1939 she was sold again to the Boston Iron & Metal Company, Baltimore, Maryland, for her value as scrap.
As for “pirate” Seavey, he may have smuggled alcohol during Prohibition– at the same time he was a Deputy U.S. Marshal sometime after the Wanderer was destroyed by fire in 1918.
He died in a nursing home in 1949.
However, there is a distillery that pays homage to Dan today with his own brand of maple-flavored rum produced in the Great Lakes area.
“Although the facts and fiction of Dan’s life have become twisted over the years, we do know Dan was the only man ever arrested for piracy on the Great Lakes,” says the distillery— who runs an image of Tuscarora in memorandum.
Displacement 620 t.
1916 – 739 t., 1933- 849 t.
Draft 10′ 11″
1916 – 15′ 3″
Propulsion: VTE, 2 Babcock & Wilcox single end boilers, one shaft.
Maximum speed 14.2 kts as built, 12 sustained
1916 – 64
Armament: 2 57/45 Hotchkiss 6-pdr Mk II/III or Driggs-Schroeder Mk I (as built)
1917: 1 x 3″/50 Mk 2 low angle, 1x6pdr, machine guns, depth charges
1919: 1 x 3″/50 Mk 2
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