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.