Warship Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019: Nimitz’s first Ranger, or, the wandering ghost of the Nantucket coast
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019: Nimitz’s first Ranger, or, the wandering ghost of the Nantucket coast
Here we see “Sunset on the Pacific,” a colored postcard circulated around 1910 showing the Alert-class gunboat USS Ranger (PG-23) at anchor looking West. The bark-rigged iron-hulled steamer would have an exceptionally long life that would see her serve multiple generations of bluejackets of all stripes.
One of the narrow few new naval ships built after the Civil War, the three-ship class was constructed with funding authorized by the 42nd Congress and listed at the time as being a Sloop of War. Powered by both sail and steam, they were 175 feet long, displaced 541 tons and were designed to carry up to a half-dozen era 9-inch guns split between broadsides. The trio were the last iron warships to be built for the U.S. Navy, with follow-on designs moving to steel.
While under construction, the armament scheme was converted to a single 11-inch smoothbore Dahlgren rifle, two 9-inch 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 sailors away as needed to make friends and influence people.
Alert, Huron, and Ranger were all completed at the same time, with the middle ship lost tragically on her first overseas deployment off the coast of North Carolina 24 November 1877 near Nag’s Head.
Ranger was constructed at Harlan & Hollingsworth, and, commissioned 27 November 1876, was the 4th such vessel to carry the name.
The preceding two Rangers saw service in the War of 1812 while the original was the 18-gun ship sloop built in 1777 and commanded by no less a figure than John Paul Jones for the Continental Navy. Famously, on 14 February 1778, that inaugural Ranger received a salute to the new American flag given by the French fleet at Quiberon Bay.
Once our new, 4th, Ranger was commissioned, she was assigned to the Atlantic Station briefly before setting sail for the Far East where she would join the Asiatic Station, leaving New York for the three-month voyage to Hong Kong on 21 May 1877 via the Suez.
Returning to the states in 1880, she was converted for survey work at Mare Island and spent the two decades slow-poking from Central America to the Northern Pacific and back while engaged in hydrographic duties. A ready ship in an area where no other U.S. flags were on the horizon during that period, she often waved the Stars and Stripes as needed in backwater Latin American ports while alternating between getting muscular with trespassers in the Bearing Strait and Alaskan waters.
While laid up between 1895 and 1899, the 20-year-old gunboat was modernized and landed her Civil War-era black powder shell guns and Gatling for a much more up-to-date battery of six 4-inch breechloaders and an M1895 Colt “potato-digger” machine gun.
By 1905, with the Russians and Japanese getting all rowdy in the Yellow Sea and adjacent areas– with resulting battered Russian ships increasingly hiding out in the U.S.-controlled Philippines– Ranger received a refit at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and set sail for Cavite for her second stint on the Asiatic Station. However, a cranky propulsion plant kept her largely in ordinary until she was sent back to the U.S. in 1908, arriving in Boston on 12 December via the Suez Canal. She was decommissioned the same day and laid up in Charlestown.
With a perfectly good 30-year-old three-master in the harbor and little regular work she could accomplish, the Navy turned Ranger over to the state of Massachusetts for use as the pier side training ship for the Massachusetts Nautical Training School in Boston on 26 April 1909, a role she would maintain until the Great War.
When the U.S. entered the international beef with the Kaiser in April 1917, Uncle eventually remembered he had the ole Ranger on the Navy List and called her back to active service as a gunboat along the New England coast, renaming her USS Rockport in October. This changed again just four months later to USS Nantucket.
In July 1921, she was reclassified from a gunboat to an auxiliary with the hull number IX-18 and loaned back to the Massachusetts Nautical School. Over the next 19 years, she became a regular fixture around Boston and the waters up and down the Eastern seaboard.
Leslie Jones the renowned photographer with the Boston Herald-Traveler, must have been taken with the Ranger/Rockport/Nantucket during his tenure with the paper and he captured her on dozens of occasions in the 1920s and 30s.
When the clouds of war came again in 1940, Nantucket was taken back over by the Maritime Commission on 11 November 1940 for as a school ship at the new Merchant Marine Academy established at Kings Point, NY, after which her name was removed from the Navy Register for good.
Renamed T/V Emery Rice in 1942, the high-mileage bark gave all she could until she was damaged by the unnamed hurricane of September 1944, and after that was relegated to use as a floating museum ship.
At age 82, Ranger/Rockport/Nantucket/Rice was stripped and sold for scrap in 1958 to the Boston Metals Co. of Baltimore.
During her time in the Navy, she had nearly a dozen commanders (four of which would go on to wear stars) in addition to training legions of sailors and young officers for maritime service for two different schools. One of the most significant to do his time on the old girl was none other than later Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, who served on the ship as a newly-minted ensign from 12 August to 12 December 1908, on her trip home from the PI to Boston, before young Chester began instruction in the budding First Submarine Flotilla.
Besides her records maintained in the National Archives Ranger‘s original engine — the only example of its type known to be still in existence—was saved from destruction and is on display at the American Merchant Marine Museum in Kings Point as a national landmark.
As noted by the As noted by the AMSE
The horizontal compound engine of the Emery Rice is a unique survivor typical of the period 1840 to 1880. The 61-ton back-acting engine has an unconventional configuration in that its two cranks lie close to their cylinders and two off-center piston rods straddle the crank-shaft in a cramped, but efficient, arrangement.
The cylinder bores are 28.5 and 42.5 inches. The stroke is 42 inches. With saturated steam at 80 pounds per square inch gauge and a condenser having 26-inch mercury vacuum, 560 indicated horsepower were produced at 64 revolutions per minute. The engine was designed by the bureau of steam engineering of the U.S. Navy and built by John Roach & Sons of Chester, Pennsylvania, for the U.S.S. Ranger, as the iron-hulled ship was first known.
Dr. Joshua M. Smith, Ph.D., director of the museum, kindly provided the below for use with this post.
Interestingly, two subsequent USS Rangers, coastal escorts SP-237 and SP-369, would be in service at the same time during the Great War–while our Ranger was serving as Rockport/Nantucket! The next Ranger was one of the ill-fated Lexington-class battlecruisers and never made it to commission. Finally, her name was recycled for not one but two famous aircraft carriers, CV-4 (1934-47) and CV-61 (1957-2004), the latter of which was only scrapped in 2017. Hopefully, there will be another soon.
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 continued to serve in the Navy 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. Our subject outlived her by more than three decades.
As for King’s Point, the institution is still in cranking out USMM officers today and Ranger‘s original school, the Massachusetts Nautical School, is now the Massachusetts Maritime Massachusetts Maritime Academy located in Buzzards Bay on Cape Cod– Ranger‘s old stomping ground.
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).
1x 11 in (280 mm) Dahlgren gun
2 x 9 in (230 mm) Dahlgren guns
1x 60 pdr (27 kg) Parrott rifle
1x 12 pdr (5.4 kg) boat howitzer
1x Gatling gun for landing party
spar torpedoes for her steam launch (provision deleted after 1889)
6x 4-inch breech-loading rifles
4x 6-pounder 57mm guns
1x Colt M1895 potato-digger type machine guns for landing party
4x 4″/50 mounts
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