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Sunday Battleship Blogging: USS Oregon

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USS Oregon was the third ship of the Indiana class, the first class of true battleships constructed by the United States Navy. Oregon was laid down in 1891, immediately in the wake of the publication of the first volume of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Influence of Seapower on History. Oregon and her sisters were designed primarily for coastal defense work, but carried a heavy main armament. Oregon displaced 11000 tons, carried 4 13″ and 8 8″ guns, and could make 16 knots. Although a reasonable effort for a navy unused to constructing line of battle ships, Oregon did not compare favorably with foreign counterparts, the class of which were represented by the British Royal Sovereign class. The Royal Sovereigns were 3000 tons larger, carried 13.5″ guns, and could make a knot and half faster than Oregon. Nevertheless, Oregon represented a start, and the USN would, with the help of Mahan, follow through with the creation of one of the world’s most powerful navies.

Built in San Francisco, Oregon was commissioned in 1896 and posted to the Pacific. On February 15, 1898, in the context of increasing tensions between Spain and the United States over Spanish control of Cuba, the armored cruiser Maine blew up in Havana. Thanks in part to the journalism of William Randolph Hearst (son of mining magnate George Hearst), the Bill Kristol of the 1890s, the United States went to war with Spain in April. Expecting the conflict to escalate, USS Oregon set sail from San Francisco on March 19. The captain of Oregon opted to take the Straits of Magellan to save time, which put the battleship in grave danger during a gale. Nevertheless, Oregon survived and arrived in the Cuba theater of operations on May 24. Oregon, now nicknamed “McKinley’s Bulldog”, participated in several actions against Spanish positions in Cuba before the war ended. The experience of Oregon was critical in building support for the construction of the Panama Canal, as the existence of a canal would have cut three weeks off Oregon’s travel time. Consequently, the United States fomented a rebellion in Colombia that led to the independence of Panama, and purchased French equipment and property in what came to be known as the Canal Zone.

Oregon was redeployed to the Pacific after the war, and spent considerable time in East Asia, including duty on station during the Boxer Rebellion. An uncharted rock nearly sent Oregon to the bottom in 1900. In 1906, Oregon decommissioned. We tend to think of our era as one of accelerating technological development, but it’s interesting that Oregon went from construction and commissioning to decommissioning and obsolescence in a mere ten years. Oregon was refit and recommissioned in 1911, decommissioned again in 1914, and commissioned/decommissioned several more time before 1920. In 1923, Oregon was demilitarized and loaned to the state of Oregon as a floating museum. She was moored for what was expected to be a permanent stay in Portland, Oregon. However, World War II intervened, and the USN decided that Oregon was more useful as scrap metal than as a war monument. No less than Representative Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered the keynote upon her sale to a local scrapyard.

Oddly, the story didn’t end there. The Navy determined that it didn’t actually need the scrap, and the process was halted after Oregon’s guns and superstructure had been removed. The hulk was reclassified and used as a munitions ship in the Pacific campaign. Moored in Guam after the war, her hulk broke free during a storm and floated about the Pacific for a month in 1948. In 1956 the hulk was sold to a Japanese scrapyard, and Oregon’s story ended.

Oregon’s foremast survives today in Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland, Oregon. In 1992, the author convinced a young woman that the entire battleship was actually buried beneath the Park, with only the mast above ground.

Trivia: Which dreadnought battleship was owned by Britain, France, and Germany at different points during its career?

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