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Natural Disaster and Inadequate Propulsion

The transformation of the Navy began in 1883, but it did not happen overnight. Older ships continued to form the backbone of the fleet. The advantage of new technology became apparent when natural disaster struck Samoa in March 1889 in the form of a typhoon. German and American warships were anchored off the island, as a result of a political dispute that was embroiled with local interests. The storm proved to be far more powerful than predicted, and the anchored ships were soon in a precarious situation. Only one ship — a modern British corvette, with powerful engines — was able to escape the storm's wrath. The remaining ships were run aground and wrecked by the storm, as seen in this photo. More than 50 Americans, and 90 Germans, were killed. The tragedy was in many ways the end of the old Navy.

Increasing Firepower, Increasing Danger

One of the ongoing areas of improvement in the New Steel Navy was naval firepower. Gun calibers increased, and new forms of gunpowder were developed, all leading to increased range and destructive power. New techniques and technology for aiming and correcting naval gunfire were developed, particularly under the guidance of Admiral William Sims. But these rapid advances sometimes led to tragedy. One of the worst accidents of the period was the fire on board the battleship USS Missouri in 1904. Escaping gas from a gun led to a fire in a propellant bag, which spread below deck. 36 men were killed. This colorized photograph shows the bodies of the victims being brought ashore.

The Quest for Speed

Another key area of technological innovation was speed. The first steel ships featured both sails and steam power, but this hybrid approach was quickly abandoned. Boiler and engine technology were continuously studied and upgraded throughout the period. But much like with gunfire technology, experimental propulsion systems were dangerous. Heat produced by these new engines and boilers caused temperatures on board ship to soared well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and in isolated instances in fire rooms, even above 200 degrees. One of the worst naval disasters related to this engine technology was the explosion on board the gunboat USS Bennington on July 21, 1905. The complex machinery controlling the ship's boilers was not configured properly, leading to a buildup and eventual explosion of steam while the ship was at anchor. The wrecked hulk of the ship is show here.

Last Respects

Sixty Sailors were killed in the Bennington disaster. This photo shows the funeral and mass grave for the victims, in San Diego. Eleven sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery during the awful aftermath of the explosion.

Danger Under the Seas

One of the more experimental technologies of the period was the submarine. Underwater craft had been used sparingly in the past, including the Revolutionary War and Civil War. But it was not until the invention of steel hulls and internal combustion engines that this technology became truly practical. Yet it remained highly dangerous. In the early 1900's, numerous accidents on board submarines — usually the result of inadequate ventilation or on board explosions — led to the deaths of many sailors. This photo shows the submarine USS Plunger underway in 1909, off the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Despite the danger faced by submariners, they were not given the equal consideration to other sailors, until President Roosevelt himself intervened. He was angered with “the absurd and worse than absurd ruling that the officers and men engaged in the very hazardous, delicate, difficult and responsible work of experimenting with these submarines are not to be considered as on sea duty.” Thanks to the President's advocacy, submariners received hazard pay and opportunities for advancement.

The Ultimate Accident?

There is no more mysterious or controversial incident during the era of the New Steel Navy than the explosion and sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. Yellow journalists immediately blamed Spanish treachery, and American public sentiment was quickly enraged. The rallying cry "Remember the Maine!" was on the lips of every American soldier and sailor in the Spanish-American War. Yet, subsequent investigations have found no indications of Spanish involvement, and in fact tend to conclude that this terrible tragedy, which killed over 250 sailors, was an accident. A commission sponsored by Admiral Hyman Rickover in the 1970's used modern technology to examine photographs, surveys, and court testimony on the sinking. One of these reports (click here to view) concludes that “the Maine magazine explosion most likely was caused by heat from a fire in the coal bunker adjacent to the 6-inch reserve magazine.” While no definitive answer to the sinking of the Maine has ever been found, it is likely that the incident that spawned the Spanish-American War was in fact an accident caused by new technology.

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