This article was originally published as “Our First Iron Man-of-War” in 1949 by Captain Frederick L. Oliver in Proceedings magazine.
WHAT is probably the oldest iron ship in the world today, and one of the first iron men-of-war built, is approaching the end of a career that exceeds the century mark by a few years.
In 1841 Congress authorized the construction of a side-wheel steam man-of-war for use on the Upper Lakes, to match the British naval strength in those waters.
The use of iron in shipbuilding at that time was a subject as contentious as the adoption of steam propulsion and the propeller proved to be in subsequent years.
In England the dwindling supply of ship timber had promoted the matter of iron shipping, but in the United States a contrary thought prevailed, and it was not until about the time of the Civil War that the Navy really turned to iron ships.
No record is available of the influence which brought about the adoption of iron for the ship built at Erie, and the construction at Pittsburgh shortly thereafter of a second ship from the same material; but log-rolling was as prevalent then as now, and Pennsylvania politicians probably supplied the incentive.
The construction at Erie of the U.S.S. Michigan involved difficulties quite comparable in some respects to those which beset Oliver Hazard Perry’s shipbuilding efforts at the same port some 30 years previously.
Practically nothing was known at that time in this country about designing an iron ship, or the technique of fabricating the unfamiliar material. Nor were other than the most primitive construction facilities available at Erie.
As a result, the lines adopted for the Michigan were those of the sailing ship of the period, and the frame was designed to afford the requisite structural strength without recourse to the strength available in the hull plating, providing a hull so strong that, despite years of abuse, it is structurally sound today.
I-beams being unknown at the time, the ribs were made from T-bars, and the longitudinals were built-up box structures about 12 inches by 24 inches in cross section. In all there were five longitudinals, the keel being the only one projecting beyond the skin of the ship. Three of the longitudinals ran the full length of the ship and two were beneath the machinery spaces. The hull plates were all shaped by hand, and the rivet holes were punched by the same means.
The hull material was wrought iron made by the charcoal process in Pittsburgh and carted to Erie. The purity of this material is attested by the fact that the metal is still in excellent condition.
It is related that many citizens of Erie considered an iron ship an anachronism, consequently throngs were in attendance on the afternoon of December 5, 1843, to witness the launching and satisfy their curiosity about the ability of the ship to float.
All they saw was a ship that stuck on the ways and could not be persuaded to move. Strange to say, during the night the ship relented of its perversity and was found afloat at daybreak the following day, having launched itself.
The Michigan cost only $165,000, displaces 685 tons, has a length of 165 feet, a beam of 27 feet, and draws 9 feet. The original two-cylinder direct-acting condensing engine, which develops 170 horsepower, still remains in the ship. It has a bedplate that is a cast iron slab 22 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2 inches thick which carries the two 36-inch by 8-feet cylinders. The engine is secured to 14-inch timbers that are inclined at an angle of 22 1/2 degrees. Transporting the heavy bedplate 130 miles from Pittsburgh over the roads of that day must have presented a problem to the teamsters.
It is variously reported that the two original boilers were made of copper, the customary material for boilers used at sea at that time, or of iron with brass tubes, which seems an unusual combination for use even in fresh water.
In any event, in 1861 the first set of boilers was replaced by a pair of iron boilers that lasted until 1892, when the present set was installed. The long lives of the several pairs of boilers can be attributed to their not having been exposed to the consequences attending use in salt water, and to their having been operated under a maximum pressure of but 18 1/2 pounds of steam.
The Michigan was fitted with pipes that carried live steam around the upper decks, to be used in repelling boarders, an innovation that was widely copied until boarders went out of style.
Originally rigged as a bark, a change was later made to a barkentine rig, doubtless because smoke and embers from the smokestack made square sails on the mainmast an impossibility. It is to be noted that the Michigan differed from practically all menof-war of its day in that it was a steamer with auxiliary sail power and not a sailing ship with an auxiliary steam installation. Nevertheless, prior to 1900 the Michigan seldom failed to spread its canvas to a favoring breeze, the personnel of that era being well accustomed to the use of sail.
The designed battery of twelve 32-pound carronades and two Paixham 8-inch pivot guns occasioned a diplomatic protest from the British Minister in Washington before the Michigan sailed on its first cruise.
In 1817, a more or less informal agreement was reached between the United States and Great Britain which limited each of their naval strengths on the Upper Lakes to two ships not exceeding 100 tons burden, and armed with not more than one 18-pounder each.
During the succeeding 20 years there was no occasion to breach the so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement”, but then came a period of unrest in Canada, at that time a British colony with a mediocre administration. Radicalism in Canada became rife and sought assistance from similar elements in the United States, resulting in several provocative raids on Canadian territory by groups organized in the United States.
The British began a patrol of ships equipped to cope with raids which the United States should have nipped in the bud, tongues wagged, the Eagle screamed, and the construction of the Michigan was authorized.
With the protest from the British Minister came a return to reason, and an agreement was made which disregarded the Michigan’s excess tonnage, but not its armament.
So the newly commissioned Side Wheel Bark Michigan our first iron man-of-war and the pride of the Navy, hoisted out its battery of shiny brass guns and sailed on its maiden voyage armed with a lone 18 pounder.
Subsequent to the Civil War, the matter of the armament of the Michigan seems to have occasioned no comment, and various types and calibers of guns came and went, eventually winding up with an installation of two 3-pounders, either of which, however, was more than a match for the original 18-pounder.
For nearly 80 years this ship with its complement of 10 officers and 87 men sailed the Upper Lakes, never firing a gun in anger, and promoting good feeling and understanding between two friendly peoples whose 3000 miles of boundary have gone unfortified for generations.
The Michigan’s paddle-wheels, churning the water at 18 1/2 turns a minute, gave the ship a speed of 8 knots. When sailing full and by, an additional two knots could be counted on. At this speed summer cruises to ports on both sides of the Lakes were enjoyable events confined largely to showing the flag, a bit of hydrographic surveying now and then, and some training and recruiting duties.
Come November, the ship repaired to Erie and secured to a pier. Topmasts were struck; and with the upper deck housed in, the officers and crew were ready for a winter in a hospitable community where the ship became accepted as an institution.
Many members of the crew served in the Michigan for years, little attention being given to rotation of duty in the case of enlisted men until around 30 years ago.
Officers, particularly the younger ones, sought duty in the Michigan for several reasons.
For many years prior to 1899, it was not unusual for an ensign to remain in that grade for 10 or more years. At sea he received $1200 a year for the first five years, and $1400 thereafter. Ashore his pay was $1000 and $1200 for like years of service, and there was no allowance for quarters. Consequently ensigns found it difficult to exist ashore unless they were assigned government quarters, which were scarce and hard to come by.
So it was no wonder that young officers pulled all sorts of wires to obtain orders to the Michigan where a berth in the wardroom was assured, and the assignment provided most of the advantages of shore duty with the retention of sea pay.
Propinquity brought results that so often follow in its wake, and many Erie maidens married into the Navy. In fact the trend at one time was so pronounced that Erie could seriously challenge Norfolk’s title of “Mother-in-Law of the Navy.”
But time in its passage changes many things and the Michigan in this respect proved to be no exception. In 1905 its name was changed to Wolverine to make the original name available for a new battleship.
By 1910 the Navy had grown tremendously and was so short of officers that a passed midshipman with a permanent assignment to watch and division duty was no novelty. And the Navy pay schedule at last had made provision for a commutation of quarters allowance on shore duty when public quarters were not available, although a 10 percent increase in pay for sea duty was in effect.
As the result of these changes, duty in the Wolverine became undesirable, and there was no regret when the ship was assigned to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia in 1910.
Under Maval Militia and, later on, Naval Reserve auspices, the Wolverine continued its placid existence—Erie in winter and cruises in summer—until the summer of 1923 when, while on a cruise, a tired connecting rod let go and the piston knocked the cylinder head out.
The ship was towed to Erie and then began a determined effort to have repairs effected by the Navy. But the Navy was adamant in its refusal. Pacifism was at its height in Congress at that time, and the Navy did not have sufficient funds to keep its fighting ships in repair, much less spare money for the needs of the Wolverine.
In 1927 the ship was loaned to the City of Erie, the City assuming the cost of upkeep. But again time brought changes. People lost interest in the ship, and eventually the Wolverine became a half sunken derelict in the harbor at Erie.
The crowning indignity came in January, 1943, when the ship was left nameless through transference of its name to an aircraft carrier.
For some years the needs of the old ship have engaged the attention of The Foundation for the Preservation of the U.S.S. Michigan, an incorporation of Pennsylvanians interested in conserving our first iron man-of-war.
Recently the Executive Committee of the Foundation reluctantly came to the conclusion that since there seems no possibility of securing Federal funds for the purpose, it is inadvisable to attempt to raise by subscription the $350,000 estimated necessary for the restoration of the ship to its original condition, and in addition, funds for its annual maintenance.
Two plans for the ultimate disposal of the ship are now under consideration by the Foundation:
(1) Sink the ship in deep water, with appropriate ceremonies.
(2) Cut off the bowsprit, stem, and a few feet of the hull, and erect the assembly on shore as a permanent memorial, the remainder of the ship to be scrapped.
Adoption of either plan will spell the end of an interesting ship that has ploughed the waters of friendship, ridden at anchor in ports of confidence and trust, and which was long a symbol of mutual good-will between neighboring countries who have found it possible to live in peace with each other.