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 their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018: The Saint and the Terror
Here we see the U.S. Mail Steamer Saint Paul of the American Line in her guise as the auxiliary cruiser USS Saint Paul, photographed at the end of the Spanish-American War. The 11,612-ton ocean liner was the fastest thing on the Atlantic merchant trade when put in service, was the first to carry a wireless (and she needed it!) and served in two real-live shooting wars, with mixed results.
Saint Paul, a twin-screw steel passenger liner of the newest sort, along with her sister Saint Louis were ordered by the Philadelphia-based International Navigation Company (led by robber baron Clement Acton Griscom) for use by that firm and their subsidiary American Line and Red Star Line flags. As such, they were something of a keynote in U.S. merchant history. They had 17 watertight compartments (two decades before Titanic), could carry up to 1,540 passengers in a variety of styles (350 1st class, 290 2nd, 900 3rd), and were ultra-modern.
As explained by Kenneth J. Blume, they were the first large liners built in the U.S since 1857 (other large passenger liners were all European in origin) and were ordered to take advantage of subsidies set aside in the Merchant Marine Act of 1891. Further, he says “they were the last such large passenger liners built in the United States until the 1930s.”
Built at William Cramp & Sons Building & Engine Company, Philadelphia (yard # 277 and 278), these ships used quadruple expansion engines fed by double-ended boilers capable of speeding them forward at 20-knots (making International Navigation the first to offer such service across the Atlantic). Further, they had a more “modern” appearance than preceding liners, with two stacks and plumb bows. Built to last, they were completed by the same yard that was at the time working on the cruisers USS Minneapolis (C 13) and Brooklyn (ACR 3) as well as the battleship Iowa (BB 6)
Famously, our new ocean liner ran aground off the New Jersey coast in January 1896 and required an extensive $400,000 effort to free her. Meanwhile, the rescue of her passengers and crew was national news for several months.
However, she was back in business and in April 1896 she crossed the Atlantic from New York to Southampton in just six days. Over the next two years, she would repeat her crossing 36 times along the same route, which is impressive by any standard.
Her peacetime passenger service came to a halt due to events in Cuba.
At 21:40 on 15 February 1898, the armored cruiser USS Maine suffered a terrible explosion in Havana Harbor while exercising tense gunboat diplomacy with Spain over Cuba, leading to the death of 266 Navy and Marine personnel.
Though the cause of the explosion would not be known anytime soon, the press whipped the event up to the point of conflict.
When war came, the Navy took up dozens of craft from trade including four large passenger liners for conversion to auxiliary cruisers from the American Line/International Navigation Co: the SS New York (which became USS Harvard), SS City of Paris (who became the matching USS Yale) as well as Saint Louis and Saint Paul, the latter pair of which served under their given names.
On 12 March 1898, Saint Paul was taken up for service by the Navy and, sailing to Newport for crew and conversion to an auxiliary cruiser, Capt. Charles Dwight Sigsbee (formerly commander of the stricken Maine) raised the national ensign and took down the American Line house colors. She commissioned on 20 April. The fast liner was given a coat of gray paint, armed with six 5″/40 Mark 4 guns, another six Hotchkiss 6-pounders, and six 3-pounders in a fit-out that lasted just 14 days. Could you imagine a similar thing today?
Ready for service by the first part of May, the new USS Saint Paul would see the elephant, and soon.
But first, let’s talk about a little Spanish Terror.
In the lead up to the conflict, in 1896 the Spanish Navy ordered a half-dozen Furor-class torpedo destroyers from the shipyards of J & G Thompson of Clydebank in Scotland. These nimble 229-foot 380-ton ships could make 28-knots (when their machinery worked) and carried two 350mm torpedo tubes as well as four Nordenfelt popguns.
On 28 April 1898, the Spanish Navy’s 1st Squadron, of four cruisers (Infanta Maria Teresa, Vizcaya, Almirante Oquendo, and Cristóbal Colón) and three sister-ship destroyers (Pluton, Terror, and Furor) set out from the Cape Verde Islands for the Caribbean, bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, then a Spanish colony. RADM Pascual Cervera y Topete’s mission was to rendezvous with other Spanish ships, engage the American squadron blockading Cuba, and ultimately to attack the United States.
The loose Spanish ships sowed panic on the Eastern seaboard as every coastal town just knew they would wake up to Spanish bombardment at any time. However, Cervera’s fleet was in bad shape, with fouled bottoms, dangerously defective (or in some cases even uninstalled) guns, untrained crews, and poor engineering plants. Terror, carrying the flag of Capt. Fernando Villaamil Fernandez-Cueto (destroyer flotilla commander), and commanded by Lt. Francisco de la Bocha y Pérez, was nursing boiler problems.
Saint Paul sortied out from Philadelphia to look for Cervera on 5 May.
The Flying Squadron, under the command of Commodore Winfield S. Schley, joined the search for the Spanish fleet while the fleet four detailed ships, Saint Paul, her American Line companion auxiliary cruiser USS Yale, the similar USS Harvard, and USS Minneapolis, patrolled the waters off Santiago just in case Cervera made it to the Cuban hub.
In the meantime, the Spanish squadron popped up at the French colony of Martinique on 10 May 1898 and, with Terror‘s engines fully immobilized, the little destroyer that couldn’t was left behind while Cervera beat feet to Santiago, Cuba. Alone, the intrepid Lt. Bocha managed to cobble together Terror‘s condemned piping and nurse her solo to San Juan a week later.
Meanwhile, our hero liner-cruiser Saint Paul found the British steam collier Restormel, which was chartered to bring 2,400-tons of badly needed fresh Cardiff coal to Cervera and captured the same just outside of Santiago on 25 May after firing two blanks and one war shot from her 5-inch battery. She later arranged for the steamer to go to Key West as a prize. The British captain reportedly told his American captors he was glad the U.S. wound up with his valuable cargo since the Spaniards did not lift a finger to prevent his capture even though he was under the heavy guns of Castle Morro and a promised battleship escort into Santiago never materialized.
“I am glad you Yankees have the coal since those duffers inside didn’t have the nerve to come out and back me up with their guns when we were right within range,” he reportedly said as the prize crew of bluejackets and leathernecks from Saint Paul came aboard.
Saint Paul next appeared off Fort Caimanera near Guantánamo, where her 5-inch gunners helped plaster the Spanish shore batteries there from just 1,000 yards off the beach. By early June she was off San Juan along with USS Yosemite and the new cruiser USS New Orleans.
The trio effectively blockaded that Spanish Puerto Rican port, which held the aforementioned Terror as well as the ineffective 1,200-ton Velasco-class unprotected cruiser Isabel II (4×4.7-inch guns), and the two 500-ton 3rd class gunboats General Concha (3×4.7inch) and Ponce de Leon. On the morning of 22 June, while a German tramp steamer made for open ocean, the three Spanish warships made a move to test the harbor blockade and Saint Paul was there. A short and ineffective artillery duel resulted in the two larger Spaniards turning back while Terror made a David vs. Goliath torpedo run on our liner.
The run ended badly for the unsupported Terror, who never got closer than 5,400 yards to the big American before two 5-inch shells perforated her, one in the engine room. Listing, immobile and taking on water, the stricken torpedo destroyer had to be beached by towing as Saint Paul watched. For Terror, her war was over.
Isabel II, General Concha, and Ponce de Leon again tried to force the American cordon on 28 June to make a hole for an incoming blockade runner, but after an ineffective artillery duel at long range from Saint Paul, the effort was called off. It was the last naval action at San Juan and the Spanish ships finished the war at anchor, eventually sailing home when peace was concluded.
For Saint Paul, she was recalled to New York in July and, reverting to her original design, brought first the 4th and later the 8th Ohio Volunteer regiments to the theater, carrying over 1,300 troops each trip.
It was some of the first major joint Army-Navy operations since the Civil War, and improvisation was key, with troops moving ashore via sugar lighters and cargo nets.
Her last trip from Puerto Rico, in August, was to bring soldiers home to New York. From there, she steamed to Cramp’s to be disarmed and refitted for merchant service, decommissioned and released by the War Department on 2 September. Her very active wartime life lasted less than five months.
Saint Paul was also notable as the first merchant ship fitted with a Marconi wireless, in 1899. On November 15 of that year Guglielmo Marconi issued The Transatlantic Times, the first newspaper ever published at sea, using information received by radio transmission from his wireless telegraph station on the Isle of Wight.
By November 1898, she was back on the Southampton run, which was her regular route, carrying passengers, mail, and coin. For example, on one 1902 run, she brought “670 passengers eastbound, 1.173 mailbags and $200.000 in gold” to England from New York. It was her bread and butter and in her career she completed more than 200 such crossings across two decades.
Then it was back to peacetime liner operations for an uneventful (for us) 19 years other than a 1908 collision with the British Arrogant-class cruiser HMS Gladiator, killing 27 RN personnel and sending the smaller 5,700-ton manowar to the bottom off the Isle of Wright. A British high court held Gladiator responsible.
Then, war came once again.
Saint Paul was taken over by the War Department for use as the troop transport Knoxville on 27 October 1917, making 12 rushed crossings over the Atlantic carrying the boys “over there” to fight the Huns over the next five months. For such duty, the fast transport was given a Navy gun crew to man four newly-installed 6″ guns and painted in Thayer’s quarter-shading camo process. She was credited with carrying more than 30,000 GIs to France.
The Navy, in turn, arranged for the former auxiliary cruiser’s transfer in April 1918 to the sea service and, designated USS Saint Paul (SP 1643), was taken back into Navy service. While being further converted, on 28 April, she flooded and capsized in the North River in New York.
Salvage operations continued into 1919 and she was eventually returned to the American Lines in floating condition. Returning to service in the low-rent steerage trade, she was still too uneconomical to run at a profit and by 1923 was retired. She was towed across the Atlantic by Jacob van Heemskerk and broken up at the former naval dockyard at Wilhelmshaven in Weimar Germany, where labor at the time was dirt cheap.
As for her sister, Saint Louis, she also served in the Great War as the armed transport USS Louisville (there was another USS St. Louis in the fleet at the time), but was gutted in a fire in 1920 and scrapped in 1924. As it turned out, the proud “20-knot” liner never made it back to carry civilian passengers after their second war.
Their company likewise faltered. The American Line itself was defunct by 1932 as was the Red Star Line by 1935. The International Navigation Co. endured in a way, merging in 1931 with the Roosevelt Steamship Company under the United States Lines banner.
Curiously, Saint Paul‘s nemesis, the Spanish Terror, outlived her. Returning to Spain following the loss of Puerto Rico in 1899, she was repaired and served in the Spanish Navy in North Africa and European waters until she was retired in 1924.
Our liner is, of course, remembered in various period maritime art.
Displacement: 11,612 in commercial service, 14,910 long tons (15,150 t) as aux cruiser
Dimensions 535’6” (bp) x 63′ x 27’5”
Machinery 2 screws, VQE, 6 D/E & 4 S/E boilers, IHP 20000,
Speed: 19.25 knots practical but made 22 knots after funnel caps removed in 1900
Coal: 2677 tons
Complement 281 crew + 1540 passengers as liner,
1898: 357 Navy, 50 Marines
6 5”/40 Mark 4 rapid-fire guns (four fwd, two aft) in open mounts with 600 rounds
6 6 pdr. Hotchkiss with 1800 rounds
6 3 pdr. Nordenfeldt guns (two on promenade deck, four on wings) with 1800 rounds
Extensive small arms locker for Marine detachment
6 6″/50 Mark 6 guns repurposed from old battleships and cruisers.
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