Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, July 6, 2022: Dispatches from the New Navy
Above we see the one-of-a-kind steel-hulled dispatch boat USS Dolphin (later PG-24) off New York City, about 1890. Note the Statue of Liberty in the right background. A controversial warship when she first appeared, she later proved to have a long and star-studded career.
Dolphin was part of the famed “ABCD” ships, the first modern steel-hulled warships of the “New Navy” ordered in the early 1880s along with the protected cruisers USS Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago. While the ABC part of this quartet was built to fight, running 3,200 tons in the case of Atlanta and Boston and 4,500 tons for Chicago, with as much as 4-inches of armor plate and a total of eight 8-inch, 20 6-inch, and two 5-inch guns between them, Dolphin was, well, a lot less of a bruiser.
Laid down on 11 October 1883 as an unarmored cruiser by John Roach and Sons, Chester, PA, Dolphin hit the scales at just 1,485 tons with a length of 256 feet (240 between perpendiculars). Her armament was also slight, with a single 6″/30 Mark 1 (serial no. 1), three 6-pounders, four 3-pounders, and two Colt Gatling guns.
However, although all the ABC cruisers would successfully carry 6″/30s along with their other wild mix of armament, it was soon seen that Dolphin was too light for the piece and she transitioned to two 4″/40 (10.2 cm) Mark 1 pieces as her main armament.
Equipped with four (two double-ended and two single-ended) boilers trunked through a centerline stack pushing a single 2,253ihp vertical compound direct-acting engine on a centerline shaft, she also had a three-mast auxiliary sail rig, a hermaphrodite pattern carried by all the ABCD ships. With everything lit and a clean hull, it was thought she could make 17 knots on a flat sea, something that was thought to equal 15 knots in rough conditions.
However, in the spring and summer of 1885, the ship was the subject of much controversy. The first of the ABCD ships nearing completion, she could not make her target speed under any condition, barely hitting 14 knots, and incapable of sustaining that for over six hours. Meanwhile, the Herreshoff-built steam yacht Stiletto was hitting 24.8 knots and the Cunard steamship Etruria was logging over 19 sustained across a 72-hour period.
That, coupled with the issue of armament, led to a special board directed by President Chester A. Arthur’s SECNAV Bill Chandler to inspect and evaluate Dolphin, which was accordingly reclassified as a dispatch boat rather than a cruiser.
A subsequent board formed by President Cleveland’s incoming SECNAV William C. Whitney, consisting of Capt. George E. Belknap, Commanders Robley D. Evans, William T. Sampson, and Caspar F. Goodrich (all of which became famed admirals); Naval Constructor Francis Bowles, and one Mr. Herman Winters, was formed to criticize the first board later that fall, and by early 1886 it was deemed Dolphin had caulking and planking issues, a few defective steel trusses, and her plant was never able to make the designed 2,300 hp on her original boilers. Further, it was thought her powerplant and battery were too exposed to any sort of fire to be effective in combat.
The papers were filled with drama, with the New York Times archives holding dozens of stories filed on the subject that year.
Completed on 23 July 1884, Dolphin was only commissioned on 8 December 1885, while the Navy would work out her issues and pass on her lessons learned to the other new steel warships being built.
Notably, her skipper during this period was Capt., George Dewey (USNA 1858), later to become the hero of Manila Bay.
The first of the vessels of the “New Navy” to be completed, Dolphin was assigned to the North Atlantic Station, cruising along the eastern seaboard until February 1886 when it was deemed, she was ready to undertake longer runs, embarking in a stately three-year, 58,000-mile deployment and circumnavigation of the globe under CDR George Francis Faxon Wilde (USNA 1865). America had to show off her new warship via foreign service.
Accordingly, as noted by DANFS, “she then sailed around South America on her way to the Pacific Station for duty. She visited ports in Japan, Korea, China, Ceylon, India, Arabia, Egypt, Italy, Spain, and England, and the islands of Madeira and Bermuda, before arriving at New York on 27 September 1889 to complete her round-the-world cruise.”
This trip, with the ship proving her worth, led to her appearing in the periodicals of the day in a much more impressive take.
By the time she arrived back home, the Navy’s other steel ships were reaching the fleet and they all became part of the new “Squadron of Evolution.”
As with most Naval vessels of the era, Dolphin would spend her career in and out of commission, being laid up in ordinary and reserve on no less than three times between 1891 and 1911, typically for about a year or so. Today the Navy still conducts the same lengthy yard periods but keeps the vessels in commission.
In April 1891, Dolphin was detached from the Squadron of Evolution and the Navy made $40,000 available for her cabins to be refitted to assume the task of Presidential yacht from the older USS Despatch, a much smaller (560 ton) vessel that was in poor condition.
She would continue this tasking off and on mixed with yearly fleet exercises and experiments for the rest of her career.
Speaking to the latter, in April 1893, she embarked pigeons from the Naval Academy lofts, the Washington Navy Yard’s loft in Richmond, and of Philadelphia Navy Yard then released them while steaming off Hampton Roads. The birds all made it back to their nests, covering 98 miles, 212, and 214 miles, respectively, delivering short messages penned by the daughter of SECNAV Hilary A. Herbert.
The same year, she took part in the bash that was the Columbian Naval Review in New York, where Edward H. Hart of the Detriot Post Card Co. captured several striking views of her with her glad rags flying.
In 1895, she carried out a survey mission to Guatemala
She carried President William McKinley and his party to New York for the ceremonies at Grant’s Tomb on 23 April 1897.
Then came war.
In ordinary when the USS Maine blew up in Havanna, Dolphin recommissioned on 24 March 1898 just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. She then rushed south to serve on blockade duty off Havana, Cuba, a mission she slogged away on during April and May.
It was during this period she captured the Spanish vessel Lola (31 tons) with a cargo of fish and salt.
She covered her white and buff scheme with a more warlike dark grey.
On 6 June she came under fire from the Morro Battery at Santiago and replied in kind. Less than two weeks later, on 14 June, Dolphin bombarded the Spanish positions in the Battle of Cuzco Well, near Guantanamo Bay, carrying casualties back to the American positions there.
Sent back to Norfolk with casualties, she arrived there on 2 July and the war ended before she could make it back to Cuba.
Good work if you can get it
Her wartime service completed; Dolphin would spend the next two decades heavily involved in shuttling around dignitaries. This would include:
- Washington Navy Yard for the Peace Jubilee of 14 May to 30 June 1899.
- New York for the Dewey celebration of 26 to 29 September 1899.
- Alexandria, Va., for the city’s sesquicentennial on 10 October 1899.
- Took the U.S. Minister to Venezuela to La Guaira, arriving in January 1903.
- From 1903 through 1905 she carried such dignitaries as the Naval Committee, Secretary of the Navy, Admiral and Mrs. Dewey, the Philippine Commissioners, the Attorney General, Prince Louis of Battenberg and his party, and President T. Roosevelt on various cruises.
- Participating in the interment of John Paul Jones at the Naval Academy, and the departure ceremonies for the Great White Fleet, in 1908.
Early in August 1905, she carried the Japanese peace plenipotentiaries from Oyster Bay, N.Y., to Portsmouth, N.H., to negotiate the settlement of the Russo-Japanese War.
Footage exists of her role in the event.
She also was used in survey work during this time, completing expeditions to Venezuela and the southeast coast of Santo Domingo, in addition to carrying inspection boards to survey coaling stations in the West Indies.
She also had a series of updates. For instance, in 1910, she had her original single/double-ended boilers replaced with cylindrical boilers. In 1911, she had her 6-pounder mounts deleted due to obsolescence, and in 1914 her 4″/40s were removed as well. She also had her masts reconfigured from three to two in the early 1900s.
Sailing from the Washington Navy Yard on 2 April 1917 to take possession of the recently purchased Danish Virgin Islands, four days later, Dolphin received word of the declaration of war between the United States and Germany. Arriving at St. Croix in the now-USVI on 9 April, she would carry the new American Governor-General James Oliver to and St. John on 15 April for a low-key flag-raising ceremony. The islands had initially been handed over in a ceremony on 31 March between the Danish warship Valkyrien and the American gunboat USS Hancock, but Oliver’s arrival on Dolphin sealed the deal.
Remaining in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean region to protect merchant shipping from German raiders and U-boats, Dolphin would pick up a camouflage scheme as she served as flagship for the very motley American Patrol Detachment at Key West, gaining a new 4″/50 gun and depth charges to augment her surviving 6-pounders.
She would remain in her quiet backwater into June 1920, when she was finally recalled to the East Coast and a short overhaul at Boston.
Now 35 years old and with the Navy in possession of many much finer and better-outfitted vessels, Dolphin would have one last cruise. As the flagship of the Special Service Squadron, she joined the gunboat USS Des Moines (PG-29) in October 1920 to represent the U.S. at the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Straits of Magellan. The next year, she would attend the anniversary of Guatemalan independence.
Dolphin arrived at Boston Navy Yard on 14 October 1921. She was decommissioned on 8 December 1921 and was sold on 25 February 1922 to the Ammunition Products Corp. of Washington, DC. for scrapping. Rumors of her further service in the Mexican navy are incorrect, confusing a former steamer originally named Dolphin for our dispatch ship.
Few relics remain of Dolphin. Like most of the American steel warships, in 1909 she had her ornate bow crest removed and installed ashore. It was photographed in Boston in 1911 and, odds are, is probably still around on display somewhere on the East Coast.
Her bell popped up on eBay in 2019 with a kinda sketchy story about how it got into civilian hands.
The National Archives has extensive plans on file for her.
As for her name, the Navy recycled it at least twice, both for submarines: SS-169 and AGSS-555, the former a V-boat that earned two battlestars in WWII and the latter a well-known research boat that served for 38 years– the longest in history for a US Navy submarine.
Speaking of WWII, importantly, between 1915 and 1917, our USS Dolphin’s 18th skipper was one LCDR William Daniel Leahy (USNA 1897) who, interacting with then ASECNAV Franklin D. Roosevelt, would become close companions. Although retired after service as CNO in 1939, Leahy would be recalled to service as the personal Chief of Staff to FDR in 1942 and served in that pivotal position throughout World War II. It is rightfully the little dispatch ship’s greatest legacy.
Displacement 1,485 t.
Length 256′ 6″
Length between perpendiculars 240′
Draft 14′ 3″
Speed 15.5 kts.
1910 – 152
1914 – 139
Armament: Two 4″ rapid fires, three 6-pounder rapid-fire guns, four 3-pounder rapid-fire guns, and two Colt machine guns
1911 – Two 4″/40 rapid-fire mounts and five 3-pounder rapid-fire guns
1914 – Six 6-pounder rapid-fire mounts
1921 – One 4″/50 mount and two 6-pounders
Propulsion two double-ended and two single-ended boilers (replaced by cylindrical boilers in 1910), one 2,253ihp vertical compound direct-acting engine, one shaft.
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