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 week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Mar. 6, 2019: The good doctor’s fine ‘Frida
Here we see the fourth-rate scout patrol vessel USS Elfrida at the New York Navy Yard, circa 1899, just after the Spanish-American War. A steel schooner with fine lines, she looks like a gentleman’s yacht that would be more at home on Lake Champlain if it was not for her mix of 3-pdr and 1-pdr deck guns.
Speaking of which…
Prior to the dustup with the decaying Spanish Empire, Elfrida was the personal pride of one Dr. William Seward Webb, founder of Shelburne Farms and President of the Wagner Palace Car Company of New York (that latter of which later became Pullman).
Webb came from the best family.
His father, a Whig, held the rank of general (as did his grandfather) and was minister to Austria, Brazil and other points of interest– importantly brokering a deal with Napoleon III to get French troops out of Mexico. Webb’s older brother was the likewise meticulously groomed and well-dressed Union Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb, who famously earned the MOH at Gettysburg at the head of the Philadelphia Brigade on Cemetery Ridge.
When your brother has a monument at Gettysburg, your dad got the French out of Mexico, and your granddad picked up a star from Washington himself, you may come from an illustrious family.
Studying medicine in Europe, the younger Webb acquired a love of Mozart and Schutzen target rifle shooting, both of which he brought back to the U.S., usinb the latter as “Inspector General of Rifle Practice” for the Vermont militia with the state rank of colonel.
Built at a cost of $100,000 by the Harlan & Hollingsworth Company Wilmington, Delaware (the same firm built yachts for customers such as Charles Morgan, William Astor, and W. K. Vanderbilt) Elfrida was launched at the yard on 13 April 1889.
She was reportedly the “first steam yacht ever built with both a detachable stern and bow” so that Webb could use her on to pass through the narrow canals to Lake Champlain. She went just 117-feet long overall, closer to 102 at the waterline.
Finished in paneled red mahogany, “Colonel” Webb’s double stateroom was aft and three others were set aside for guests– each with its own lavatory. The crew had another trio of staterooms forward but had to share a head.
Electrically lit and steam-heated, the very modern schooner carried telegraph for use when close to line and used a triple expansion engine as an “iron mainsail” complete with a steam plant consisting of a compact Hazelton vertical water tube boiler that generated 160 pounds of steam. Her speed was about 10ish knots.
Photograph of the Webb family steam yacht Elfrida, with the crew, docked at Steam Yacht Elfrida at Quaker Smith Point at Shelburne Farms on Lake Champlain. Julie Edwards (Shelburne Farm’s archivist) writes on 06-03-2008 that the image ( depicts Elfrida I, the darker hulled vessel and the image would date c. 1888-1898. UVM photo SF1026
A favorite of the Lake Champlain Yacht Club (which still exists today) Elfrida was the commodore’s ship for the regatta off Plattsburg, New York in August 1897 attended by no less a personage as President William McKinley along with Vice President Garret Hobart in tow.
Webb also apparently packed a fairly loud “yacht gun,” as one did, to celebrate during “the season.”
When the “Splendid little war” came just the very next summer, Webb did his personal duty and sold Elfrida on 18 June 1898 to the Navy for the relatively paltry sum of $50,000. Refitted at New York Navy Yard with a single 3-pounder 47mm gun and a pair of 1-pounder 37mm pieces, she was commissioned less than two weeks later, on 30 June, and immediately put to service on coastal patrols between New York and New London.
As the war was short and the Spanish never made it up to the Northeast, she was placed out of commission 14 September 1898, service in her first war complete.
DANFS says she was used by the Naval Militia in Connecticut and New Jersey to train seagoing militiamen from 1899 to 1908 in the days prior to the establishment of the Navy Reserve. Typical summer cruises would range a week or two and often proved eventful, with the New York Times reporting one such 1903 voyage encountering a “frightful” storm at sea.
In 1908, our 20-year-old armed patrol yacht was decommissioned and her powerplant swapped out for a new 200ihp engine powered by two boilers with an increased speed of 14 knots.
By 20 August 1909, along with the old torpedo boat USS Foote (TB-3), Elfrida was assigned to the North Carolina Naval Militia, a force she belonged to as a drill and school ship until the U.S. entered the Great War in April 1917. While there, her armament was upgraded to a single 6-pounder 57mm rapid-fire mount.
USS ELFRIDA at New Bern NC circa 1909-13 as North Carolina naval militia ship. Postcard via Valentine Souvenir Co. NH 94934
North Carolina Naval Militia, Elizabeth City Detachment, 1907. BM2 Leonard K. Rutter, standing on the far left, back row, has his uniform preserved at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
In 1914, the 32 ships allocated to the 19 various Naval Militias were diverse and somewhat motley. These ranged from the old cruiser USS Boston (3,000 tons, 2×8 inch, Oregon Naval Militia) and the shallow draft monitor USS Cheyenne (3,255 tons, 2×12 inch, Washington Naval Militia) to the downright puny yacht USS Huntress (82 tons, 2×3 pdrs, Missouri NM) and everything in between. Notably, several of the ships were on the Great Lakes training reservists in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. Like Elfrida, most had a SpanAm War pedigree.
When Congress declared war on the Kaiser in April 1917, the remobilized Elfrida (SP-988) returned to the active fleet and resumed her 1898 mission of coastal patrol, rated, along with the old 100-ton ex-Spanish Navy gunboat USS Sandoval as, “suitable for harbor defense only.”
On 25 August 1917, she suffered an explosion while making the passage from Norfolk to Yorktown, Virginia, killing one and injuring two others. This likely limited her wartime career and, after a stint assigned to the 5th Naval District to patrol to take charge of a fleet of motorboats tending the submarine nets at York River Upper Barrier, she was demobilized at the end of 1917. Before the war was even out, she was decommissioned 31 March 1918 and sold 11 May 1918.
Her final fate is unknown.
As for the esteemed Dr. Webb, he passed in 1926, aged 75, but his model farm at Shelburne, Vermont, where Elfrida was often docked, is today a National Landmark non-profit institute that does research into sustainable farming techniques.
Elfrida‘s plans and those of 207 other Holling & Hollingsworth built vessels, are in the collection of the Mariners’ Museum Library in Newport News.
Her 1914 Jane’s entry, under North Carolina’s Naval Militia
Displacement: 164 to 173 tons
Length (between perps) 101′ 6″
Length (on deck) 117′ 0″
Beam molded 18′ 0″
Depth at side 12′ 6″
Draft: 7′ 9″
Machinery (As built)
Engine triple expansion engine 10½”xl6″x24″/ 16″ 200hp, Hazelton boiler
Dia. of wheel 6′ 4″
Pitch 8′ 6″
Coal: 12 tons, as built (listed as 23 max in Navy service)
Speed: 10.5 knots as built, 14 knots after 1909.
Crew: Unk in civilian service, likely 20-25 in Naval service.
1 x 47mm 3-pounder
2 x 37mm 1-pounders
*Note, Jane‘s listed this as standard through her career
1 x 57mm 6-pounder
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