Warship Wednesday April 5, 2017: Of black cats, bad luck and tempests

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, April 5, 2017: Of black cats, bad luck, and tempests

LC-DIG-det-4a15636 Click to big up.

Here we see Peter Arrell Brown Widener’s custom-built schooner-rigged steam yacht Josephine visiting New York’s Larchmont Yacht Club in the summer of 1896 by the Detroit Publishing Co, John S. Johnston, photographer. This beautiful ship would go on to spend most of her life in military service and die a sad death at the hands of the ocean.

First off, who was Widener?

As noted by the Philly History Blog: 

There were few people in Philadelphia who could rival the wealth of Peter A.B. Widener. Born on November 13, 1834, to a bricklayer, Widener worked as a butcher and saved enough money to start one of the first meat store chains in the country. He also began buying stocks in street railways. Together with his friend William L. Elkins, Widener eventually controlled the streetcar system in Philadelphia. His wealth grew even more as he became involved in public transportation systems in Chicago and other cities. He later expanded his power by purchasing large blocks of stock in the United States Steel Corporation, Standard Oil, and Pennsylvania Railroad.

In late 1895, Mr. PAB, a director at the time of the White Star Line (future builders of the RMS Titanic) ordered from Lewis Nixon Shipbuilders, Elizabethport, NJ, a grand steam yacht for personal use. As described by the Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers of that year, for $400,000 the yard crafted a 257-foot (oal) vessel in just 10 months. Powered by a 1250 IHP quadruple expansion engine fed by two boilers, she could make 17 knots. She was exceptionally appointed:

The bridge extends across the boat, with wheel, compasses and chart table. Under the bridge will be the chart room and aft the captain’s room extending the width of the house, 12 feet. Next aft on the upper deck will be the library, 26 by 12 feet. Over this apartment will be an elliptical skylight for ventilation and a dome. The engine room skylight will be aft the library, and the remainder of the upper deck will be given up to a promenade, 145 feet in length.

At the forward end of the space under the bridge will be the owner’s rooms, each 19 by 15 feet. Aft, will be the bathroom, Between the bathrooms a stairway will extend to four lower guest rooms. From the stairs, a passageway will lead to the dining room, whose dimensions will be 30 feet 6 inches by 16 feet. Aft, the starboard side will be the reception room, 29 by 9 feet, extending half the yacht’s width and over the engine room. It will be finished in antique oak, paneled.

At the after end of the ladies’ room will be a mahogany staircase…

You get the idea. Besides the above, of course, was extensive pantry space, trunk storage, bunkerage for 240 tons of coal, a full kitchen, maids’ quarters with four berths, and separate messing/bunking and pantry space for the crew, quartermaster and ship’s captain.

Named after Mr. Widener’s beloved wife, Hannah Josephine Dunton Widener, the yacht Josephine was palatal.

On her first voyage, a planned summer cruise from Philadelphia along the Maine coast saw Josephine, with the Widener family aboard, call on Bar Harbor– then a popular getaway summer resort for the rich and famous– Friday, 31 July 1896. The next morning, Mrs. Widener was found expired in her bed, age 60. An attending physician ruled her death due to heart disease and the brand-new yacht, her gay bunting stowed, sailed sadly to New York where the late Mrs. Widener was taken back to Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery to be placed in the family vault.

The proud vessel was tied to pier side and sat swaying at her ropes.

When war with Spain came, Mr. Widener sold his unwanted steamship to the U.S. Navy for reportedly 1/10th of her value on 9 April 1898. Her life as a grand yacht had lasted less than two years.

As for Mr. Widener, his son and grandson perished on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic in 1912 and he died in 1915, aged 80. His daughter-in-law built Harvard University’s Widener Memorial Library to honor those lost on Titanic.

At the time the Navy needed to rapidly expand and among the ships acquired for Spanish-American War service were no less than 28 yachts. A baker’s dozen of these former pleasure craft were large ships, exceeding 400 tons. With relatively good gun-carrying capacity and sea-keeping capabilities, most saw service off Cuba where they were used as scouting vessels and dispatch ships.

Speaking of guns, the Navy needed some in a hurry to arm all these yachts with. After contacting Vickers, the company in March 1898 sold the Americans 16 Maxim-Nordenfeldt “1pdr Automatic Guns” from a Russian contract that had been reworked. These 37mm “pom-pom” heavy machine cannon had a cyclic rate of 250-300 rounds per minute and could perforate a 1-inch iron plate at 100 yards.

The Navy issued these guns to several armed yachts and up-armed Revenue Marine Cutters.

Our converted yacht was given two of these 1-pdrs

Click to big up. Note the great bushy lip lizards and the BM to the right smoking a square. Also, there is a three-piper warship in the distance. LC-DIG-det-4a13890

Plus, she was given two manually loaded 1-pdrs

Note the flat cap and the canvas bags marked ‘Tourniquet” LC-DIG-det-4a14809

And four 6-pdrs (57mmm) Hotchkiss breechloaders.


The Navy renamed most of these yachts and Josephine was no exception. She was the 6th Navy ship since 1803 to be christened USS Vixen (Patrol Yacht No. 4).

Vixen was commissioned on 11 April 1898– just two days after her sale– with Lt. (J.G) Alexander Sharp (USNA 1873) in command. Sharp had before the war had served as an aide to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.  Among the 5 officers and a 74-man crew were Midshipman Thomas C. Hart (later of WWII Asiatic Fleet fame) and Midshipman Arthur MacArthur III, (Douglas “I shall return” MacArthur’s brother). On 6 May 1898, MacArthur was promoted to ensign.

U.S.S. Vixen, Capt. and officers, 1898. Can you spot the very MacArthur-looking figure in the back row? LC-DIG-det-4a14811

There was also a mascot, a black cat appropriately enough given the ship’s history. U.S.S. Vixen, Miss Vixen, the mascot. LC-DIG-det-4a13999

Given a gray coat of paint, she was now a warship. LC-DIG-det-4a14831

Vixen 1898. Note the three-master schooner in the distance and a distinctive 1-pdr both forward and aft. This is the only photo I can find of her with canvas aloft. USNHC photo.

As noted by DANFS:

Assigned to the North Atlantic Station, Vixen sailed for Cuban waters on 7 May and arrived off the coast of Cuba nine days later. For the duration of the “splendid little war,” the graceful armed yacht performed a variety of duties, blockading and patrolling, carrying mail and flags of truce, ferrying prisoners, establishing communications with Cuban insurgents ashore, and landing reconnaissance parties. Among her passengers embarked during that time was Colonel (later President) Theodore Roosevelt, of the famous “Rough Riders.”

Vixen was present with at least two other armed yachts, USS Gloucester, and Hist during the Battle of Santiago on 3 July 1898.


Vixen was patrolling off Santiago between 0935 and 0945 and was at a point some four miles to the westward of the distinctive landmark, the Morro Castle. At about 0940, a messenger reported to the captain, Lt. Sharp, that there had been an explosion at the entrance to the harbor. Rushing on deck, Sharp almost immediately sighted the first Spanish vessel to sortie– the cruiser Vizcaya.

Sharp ordered full speed ahead and hard-a-port, a move was taken in the nick of time because of shells from his own ships, alerted to the sortie of Admiral Cervera’s fleet, splashed in the water astern in the yacht’s frothing wake. Vizcaya acknowledged the presence of the yacht in the vicinity when she sent a salvo toward her with her starboard bow guns. Fortunately for Vixen, the shells passed overhead, “all being aimed too high.”

As Vixen gathered speed, she steered south by east, clearing the armored cruiser Brooklyn’s field of fire, about two points on Vixen’s port bow. The yacht then steered west by south, as Sharp wanted to steer a course parallel to that of the Spanish fleet that was then under fire from the other American ships. Unfortunately, the helmsman erred and steered southwest by south-a mistake not discovered until Vixen had steered farther from the action.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn had engaged the leading ships of the Spanish fleet and was trading shell for shell in a spirited exchange of fire. Shells from Cristobal Colon passed over Brooklyn. One splashed “close ahead” and another splashed astern on the yacht’s starboard beam. Several others passed directly overhead, a piece of bursting shell going through Vixen’s battle flag at her mainmast!

Vixen witnessed the battle as it unfolded, but, as her commanding officer observed, “. . . seeing that the Spanish vessels were out of range of our guns while we were well within range of theirs, we reserved our fire.” In fact, Vixen did not fire upon the enemy ships until 1105, when she opened fire on the badly battered Vizcaya, which had gone aground, listing heavily to port. Vixen’s fire was short-lived for Vizcaya’s flag came down at 1107, and Lt. Sharp ordered cease fire. The yacht remained underway to participate in the chase of the last remaining heavy unit of the Spanish fleet, Cristobal Colon until that Spanish warship struck early in the afternoon.

Battle of Santiago, 1898 Caption: USS VIXEN cheering on USS OREGON (BB-3) after the fight. USS VIXEN answering NEW YORK’s (CA-2) signal number, 3 July 1898. Description: From the Collection of Rear Admiral C.H. Taylor Catalog #: USN 903386

Santiago Morro, USS Vixen passing the wreck of the REINA MERCEDES. Note the rakish bow. Source: From a book of letters, etc. kept by Assistant Surgeon William S. Thomas, MRC, USN, Spanish-American War, 1898. #: NH 111953

One gunner, a man by the name of Smith, on the forward 1-pdr, was said to have gotten off 400 rounds on his piece during the battle.

Sure, you are salty, but are you “I shot up the Spanish Navy with 400 shells from a 37mm machine gun while on the bow of a yacht,” salty? U.S.S. Vixen, Maxim machine gun and gunner Smith, LC-DIG-det-4a14810

After the war, the Navy found the 13 large yachts they picked up were a worthwhile investment for a fleet with a new colonial empire. With small crews, they could conduct coastal surveys, carry mail, stores, and passengers for the fleet, perform yeoman service in various sundry duties, wave the flag at small far-off ports too shallow for larger cruisers and battleships, and serve as station ships at the disposal of U.S. counsels.

From 1899 through 1906, Vixen served off Puerto Rico and Cuba, shuttling between there and Key West as needed, painted a gleaming white.

Almost like her yacht days…USS VIXEN (1898-1923, later PY-4) Caption: At Santiago, Cuba, on 20 May 1903. USS OLYMPIA (C-6) is in the right background. Description: Collection of Commander R. Roller Richardson, USN (MC). Donated by B. Bradford Richardson, 1988. Catalog #: NH 96571

Decommissioned 30 March 1906, she was loaned to the New Jersey Naval Militia to serve alongside the monitor USS Tonopah (who in turn was swapped out in 1914 for the old screw gunboat USS Adams) as a training ship. The militia, some 400~ strong, was organized in two battalions with the first battalion on Tonopah/Adams based in Hoboken and the second battalion, based in Camden, headquartered on Vixen.

Photographed circa the early 1900s. USS TERROR (Monitor No. 4) is on the opposite side of the pier. Terror was laid up at Philadelphia from 1906, a port shared by Vixen, so this is likely around that time. Description: Courtesy of Rear Admiral Joseph M. Worthington, USN (retired) Catalog #: NH 90937

In 1910, her 1-pdrs were considered obsolete and were removed, her armament streamlined to a set of 8 6-pdr singles.

As noted by Annual Report of the Operations of the Naval Militia filed with the Navy Dept., Vixen was housed across the Delaware River in Philadelphia as dock space in Camden was inadequate and, besides occasional pier side drills, the ship regularly got underway only for about a week in July every summer. It should come as no shock that reports note, “The men were very poor in handling boats and lubberly” though gun battery drill was exercised as “a box was thrown overboard having a red flag on it and the men took turns firing at the mark with the Colt’s automatic guns,” likely Model 1895 Colt “potato diggers” in 30.06 caliber.

When the U.S. entered the Great War, Vixen was taken back into regular U.S. Navy service in April 1917, her armament again updated with the 6pdrs coming off and four QF 47mm 3-pdrs going on in replacement.

She patrolled off the eastern seaboard and, following the establishment of the Navy activity in the recently acquired Virgin Islands (purchased from Denmark), served as station ship at St. Thomas., USVI for the rest of the conflict, keeping an eye out for the Germans.

About half of her 60-man crew ashore as an armed naval party complete with leggings, cartridge belts, and M1903s. She would remain as station ship in the Virgin Islands for almost six years.

The harbor from the east, showing the USS RAINBOW and USS VIXEN -station ship, also Marine barracks and radio towers. Navy Yard Virgin Islands. Description: Catalog #: NH 122615

Vixen remained in the USVI for several years after the conflict, being called back to New York where she was decommissioned on 15 November 1922.

She was sold 22 June 1923 to the Fair Oaks Steamship Corp. of New York. Besides some federal lawsuits from the same era, little is known about Fair Oaks with the Bureau of Shipping only listing them for a few years in the 1920s, with an office at 17 Battery Place in NYC, and only owning the 413-ton steam tug H.C. Cadmus and (briefly) Vixen. Cadmus later turned up in U.S. Army service as LT332 during WWII and Vixen would quickly be resold to one Barron Gift Collier of South Florida in late 1923.

Named first Tamiami Queen, then Collier County, then Princess Montagu, she was operated on a regular coaster service by Collier’s Florida Inter-Island Steamship Company, Ltd.

She made the 80-mile run from Miami to the Bahamas several times a week carrying mail, freight and 75 (!) overnight berths for first class passengers. Typically, she left Nassau every Monday and Thursday at 8 am and sailed from the P&O dock in Miami on Tuesday and Friday at the same time. She also did weekend excursions from Miami to Cat Island in the Bahamas. As Florida was dry because of Prohibition, and the Bahamas was not, this was a very lucrative junket.

Passenger steamship, Princess Montagu, owned by Barron Collier. She was operated by his Florida Inter-Island Steamship Company, Ltd, and made regular trips between Miami and Nassau. The photograph was probably taken in Miami, c1925. Via Collier County Museums

Then came the Great Bahamas Hurricane of 1929 which left Princess Montagu (nee Josephine) high on Tony Rock outside of Nassau. Thankfully free of passengers, her crew was rescued via lifeline.

She was salvaged in place the next summer.

Besides her plans which are in the Library of Congress, few remnants of Josephine/Vixen remain, though a set of ivory poker chips from her heyday are in circulation.

Note the early white star line logo. Widener was a board member. The first photo in this post also shows this flag flying from both her masts in 1896.

Also, remember those 16 37mm 1-pdrs sold by Vickers to the Navy to arm their new ships in 1898? One of that very lot is still around. Placed on the U.S. Revenue Cutter Manning and used during the Span-Am War, it was recently sold at auction.

These style guns, though considered obsolete before the Great War, were used in that conflict as early AAA, specifically in the role of balloon busters.

German M-Flak (3.7 cm Maschinenkanone Flak). From late 1915 M-Flak batteries defended balloons and important positions and installations. German flak units were part of the Air Service, whilst the majority of the Allied anti-aircraft units were part of the artillery. Sources: https://www.flickr.com/photos/drakegoodma

The world, on the other hand, has not heard the last of Peter A.B. Widener. His immense and architecturally significant Philadelphia mansion was destroyed by fire in 1980. However, it had served as a library for almost four decades and its sale (prior to the inferno that destroyed it) allowed the Widener Branch of the Free Library to remain in service–  its current location is at 2808 West Lehigh Avenue.

Further, in 1972 Pennsylvania Military College rebranded itself after the prominent Widener family, first as Widener College then as Widener University and currently has 6,400 students in attendance. The family over the years has also been scions of thoroughbred horseracing, and Philadelphia professional sports franchises, including the Eagles, the Phillies, the Flyers, the Wings and the 76ers.

Notably, none have a black cat as a mascot.


Displacement: 806 long tons (819 t)
Length: 257 ft. (oa) 182 ft. 3 in (wl)
Beam:   28 ft. 0 in
Draft:    12 ft. 8 in (mean), 16 full load
Propulsion:  1 VTE steam engine, 1250 IHP, twin boilers, auxiliary schooner rig
Speed:  17 kts as built. 15 kts by 1918.
Complement: 5 officers and 74 enlisted (1898), 5 officers, 62 men (1917)
four 6-pounder breechloaders guns
four 1-pounders (2 pom poms, 2 manually loaded)
eight 6-pounders
four 3-pounders

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!

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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as Guns.com, University of Guns, Outdoor Hub, Tac-44, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms Talk.com, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at Amazon.com as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the U.S. federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

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