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Obstacle Course

Games and contests were a popular way for sailors of the New Steel Navy to have fun, and release tension. Competition was spirited, whether it was between divisions on board ship, or ships of a squadron or fleet. Here, sailors on board the cruiser USS Charleston run through an obstacle course, on Thanksgiving Day, 1893. Note that the competition includes both white and African-American sailors.

Boxing Match: A “Smoker”

Boxing was perhaps the king of all sports during this era. It was also a sanctioned method to settle heated disputes between sailors. Boxing matches, known as “smokers,” were a hotly anticipated affair. A typical smoker can be seen in this photo on board the battleship USS Oregon. A temporary ring has been constructed, and sailors crowd around in every available space for a view of the fight. The shirtless boxers are shaking hands prior to starting the match.

Holiday Games

This schedule of events for Thanksgiving 1898 on board the cruiser USS New York gives a good sense of the wide variety of games held on holidays. There are team events such as boat racing and a wheelbarrow race, and individual events like a pie-eating contest. The day ends with a series of smokers in different weight classes.

Wheelbarrow Race

Another popular event was the wheelbarrow race. Two officers here are shown on board the battleship USS Connecticut preparing for a try at this unwieldy sport, on July 4th, 1908, during the cruise of the Great White Fleet.

Wheelbarrow Race

A second photo of the wheelbarrow race on board the USS Connecticut gives a sense of the overall scene. The crew has lined the decks to watch, clearing a path for contestants. Two of the three teams of sailors in this photo have taken a fall on the hard deck.

Baseball Champions

Modern day sports were also popular with sailors of the New Steel Navy. Baseball teams from warships competed against each other, competing for trophies, and bragging rights. Sailors here from the team of the cruiser USS Tennessee pose with two championship pennants. Note that they have custom designed uniforms.


Football was also a popular sport, and provided a much more aggressive outlet for frustrations than baseball. In this photo, another group of sailors from the USS Tennessee lines up for a snap while ashore at Rio de Janeiro, in 1910.

Pie-Eating Contest

One of the more comical competitions between sailors was the pie-eating contest. The contest in this photo, taken in 1922 on board the battleship USS Maryland, occurred somewhat later than what is considered the Steel Navy period, but it gives a sense of what a pie-eating contest would have been like on board ship.

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