Famous for its role in the Spanish American War, the ship was built in 1877 as a cargo and passenger transport vessel travelling for 40 years between New York and Havana Cuba, Progreso and Campeche, Mexico before she ran aground off Florida's coast.
The City of Washington was launched on August 30, 1877 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Several dignitaries who were in Pennsylvania for an International Exhibition attended the event: Governors Anthony, of Kansas; Young, of Ohio; Garber, of Nebraska; Porter, of Tennessee; Hartranft, of Pennsylvania; Wade Hampton, of South Carolina; Prescott, of New Hampshire; Stone, of Mississippi; Bedle, of New Jersey; Cochrane, of Delaware; Axtell, of New Mexico; Drew, of Florida; Banzant, of Rhode Island; and many other prominent people. A political presence of such size brought in people from miles around, including the entire 1,900-man staff of John Roach and Sons, the builders of this new iron steamship.
The City of Washington was launched at high tide, carrying the Governor of Pennsylvania accompanied by Mrs. John S. Morton. On sea it was observed by the vessel, City of Macon, carrying John Roach, his three sons, the visiting Governors and their party. The City of Macon was completed by Roach's Shipyard on June 23, 1877.
Roach's Shipyard was founded in 1859 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Operated by John Roach and Sons, the shipyard specialized in the repairing and building of various ships including: Passenger Ferry boats, Man o'wars, Monitors, Patrol boats, Steamships, and Colliers. From 1872 to 1881 they manufactured 67 vessels, and employed a staff of 1,900 persons.
Roach's Shipyard was commissioned to build two vessels for Alexandre & Sons, The City of Washington in 1877 and The City of Alexandria in 1879. Other noted private commissions include the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., Erie Railroad Co., Reading Railroad Co., and the Old Dominion Steamship Co. Additionally, for the United States Government, Roach's Shipyard repaired seven and built two Monitor class vessels and built two Man O' Wars, as well as a Patrol boat completed for the Spanish Government ( Roach's Shipyard Register of Contracts). New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Company
For the Cuban trade business in the late 1870s, two major companies competed -- Alexandre & Sons and the Ward Line. Roach's Shipyard was the main shipbuilder for the Ward Line. Over the years, Roach's Shipyard became interested in Cuban trade. Using relations with the Ward Line, in 1881 they merged to form the New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Company. This new company was formed and operated by James E. Ward, Henry P. Booth, William T. Hughes and John Roach.
The new company gained enough business over the next few years to buy all holdings of Alexandre & Sons in 1888. This business maneuver significantly reduced their competition as the takeover included the transfer of ownership of Alexandre & Son's ships including the City of Alexandria, City of Washington, City of Columbia, Manhattan and the Puebla.
Commissioned by Alexandre & Sons, The City of Washington was specialized in passenger transport and cargo trade. She was assigned to the routes of Havana, Cuba; Campeche, Mexico; and Progreso, Panama. According to the Chester Daily Times in 1877, "she can accommodate 100 first-class passengers, with 75 state rooms, besides accommodations for officers, crew and 250 steerage passengers."
In 1877, the City of Washington represented a hybrid of shipbuilding technology as she retained a double mast sailing design while also powered by two high performance compound surface condensing engines. These engines and the various pumps for air, circular, feed and bilge were powered by twin cylindrical boilers, each 23 feet long and 9 feet in radius yielding a working pressure of 90 pounds.
She was refitted between July 20 and October 12 in 1889 with a triple expansion steam engine with a horse power of 2,750. According to Tom Scott, with her newly constructed power source the City of Washington was able to reduce her sailing time dramatically (Scott 1994). In August of 1890, she reportedly docked in New York City after only a 73-hour voyage from Havana, Cuba; a remarkable achievement for that day and age.
Discussion of Ownership
Alexandre & Son's and the Ward Line were the two most prominent and competitive companies specializing in Cuban naval trade. Alexandre & Sons commissioned the City of Washington and the City of Alexandria from Roach's Shipyard. Roach's Shipyard and Ward Line had a long standing business relationship which led to a merger between the two companies in 1881 forming the New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Co. The formation of this company led to their takeover of Alexandre & Sons in 1888. This transaction included the transfer of ownership of the City of Washington to the New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Co. This ownership lasted for 23 years.
In 1911, after being retired for three years in Brooklyn, New York, the City of Washington was purchased by E.F. Luckenbach of New York. Luckenbach removed her superstructure and machinery, converting her into a coal transporting barge. These duties lasted for six years, until she wrecked in 1917.
Involvement in the Spanish-American War
The historical significance of the City of Washington surpasses its technological advancements due to her involvement in the Spanish-American War. In addition to being a part of the war, she witnessed and also was an aid to the key event that sparked the beginning of the war: the explosion of the USSMaine.
Although the explosion of the Maine was the final event leading to the Spanish-American War, there are other circumstances which developed before the explosion of the Maine that should be noted. The United States had foreign interests in Cuba in the form of sugar and tobacco. Spain enforced high taxes on sugar and tobacco, and oppressed Cubans in the form of concentration camps. These acts hurt the Cubans, and United States investments in Cuba.
When the insurrection of Cuba occurred in 1895, the United States took actions to help the Cubans with the ulterior motive of establishing a beneficial economic foothold within Cuba. In 1896, the U.S. Congress offered aid to Spain by forming an independent Cuba, which Spain rejected. In 1897, McKinley was elected President of the United States, knowing war with Spain was inevitable. In 1898, two occurrences within a week of each other provoked the nation to support a war with Spain. On February 9, 1898, the De Lome Letter was published in various papers. In this letter, Enrique de Lome, Spanish Minister of the U.S., wrote to a friend in Cuba labeling President McKinley "weak and a bidder of the admiration of the crowd." This offended the President and the nation.
Less than a week later, on February 15, the Maine exploded while harbored in Havana to protect American interests. In an article of the Herald by Walter Scott Meriwether, the explosion was said to have been caused by a submarine mine. However, no documented proof exists of the submarine mine. Shouting the slogan "Remember the Maine," Congress assigned $50,000,000 to national defense in preparation for war. On April 24, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain.
The night the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor (February 15, 1898), the City of Washington was also moored in Havana Harbor. Moored in close proximity to the Maine, the City of Washington suffered injury to her awnings, raise and deck houses by flying debris. Immediately after the explosion, finding the Maine a disaster, the crew of the City of Washington went to aid the Maine. The first round of emergency boats lowered were destroyed by flying shrapnel. After the second round of boats reached the water, the City of Washington, and the Spanish cruiser, Alfonso XII assisted in the rescue of the crew of the Maine. The City of Washington formed a makeshift hospital from their dining salon. Even with the heroic efforts of the City of Washington and Alfonso XII, 260 officers and men were lost in this disaster.
After the explosion many investigations were carried out on the cause of the explosion of the Maine, including a court investigation in 1911. It was documented from Captain Sigsbee, captain of the Maine, that all was right, including coal, magazines, electric lights, temperatures, etc. on the night the Maine exploded. It is also documented that there was high security when visitors were allowed aboard. These reports and investigations all indicate there was no internal cause for the explosion. However, it is still debated today as to what caused the Maine to explode.
The City of Washington's involvement in war efforts against Spain did not end with this event. During the course of the Spanish-American War, the City of Washington was used as a transport ship, carrying troops to wage war against the Spaniards.
After the war, the City of Washington
resumed regular duties under New York and Cuba Mail and Steamship Co., this time specializing in ferrying passengers from New York to Cuba until her retirement in 1908.
On route from Norfolk, Virginia to Havana, Cuba, traveling with the barge Seneca, and led by the tugboat Luckenbach #4, the City of Washington ran aground on The Elbow Reef of the Florida Keys on July 10, 1917.
According to Atlantic Mutual Insurance Company's records, Luckenbach #4 and Seneca were refloated on July 15, although they recorded, "The City of Washington broke up...and was a total loss in (a) few minutes." The City of Washington was being towed as a barge at the time of its sinking, and quickly broke up on the shallow reef. The date of its loss was July 10, 1917.