Re: US Navy Floating Dry Docks
Havana Dock – Spanish Service
It’s worth just pausing here to give some background as to what was going on in Cuba at this time. In 1894, the Americans introduced a tariff, putting restrictions on sugar imports into the United States. This severely hit the Cuban economy, which was predominantly base upon producing and selling sugar. Cuba was then a Spanish colony, and angry nationalist, known as the “insurectors” began a revolt against the Spanish colonial regime. Spain sent in General Valeriano "Butcher" Weyler to stabilize the situation in Cuba, and he put much of the population in concentration camps. The US, which had many businessmen with investment interests in Cuba, became concerned. American public was stirred into an anti-Spain frenzy by the yellow journalism of men like Hearst and Pulitzer. Nonetheless, President Grover Cleveland promised he would not go to war.
So in the autumn of 1897, tensions between Spain and America were heightening. A number of Spanish warships were sent to Cuban waters, said to have gone there so that they could help moor the dock when it arrived. In reality, this was part of the preparations for the war between Spain and America. In Havana, with the dock on its way, it was realised that the draught of the dock was too great for it to enter, or be used in the harbour. The Spanish General Weyler, who was charged with getting the dock into service, contacted his agent in New York, asking him to send a dredging-machine to Havana immediately. To the General's mind the whole affair was simple enough: he would get a dredging-machine, scoop out a channel, and have the dock in place in no time. He was therefore much angered to receive a reply that there were several kinds of dredging-machines, and that to send him a machine that would do the work properly it would be necessary to know the nature of the soil of the bottom of the bay. No one had ever dredged HavanaBay since the city was first founded in the sixteenth century, and there was no way of quickly determining the geology of the harbour bottom. Added to this, the New York firm informed Weyler that a special machine would have to be constructed to dredge to the depth required by the floating dock, and that it will take six months to build such a machine, and another six months to dredge the bay. This mean’t it would be a year before the dock could be of any use.
In any event, the dock arrived on November the 7th 1897, and in December, early trials began. The New York Times carries a small article dated December 23rd:
“The floating dock that Spain paid England $1,000,000 for is now beneath water at Havana. It is suspected that the Cubans sank it.”
As far as I can ascertain, it was sometime before December the 9th when the dock was deliberately sunk as part of the trails, but the pumps failed when trying to raise her again.
After a number of failed attempts, the dock was eventually refloated on December 29th after assistance from naval engineers and Swan Hunter.
Right at this time, America’s concern regarding the situation in Cuba was escalating, and prompted them, on January 24th 1898, to send a warship, the USS Maine, to Cuba under Captain Charles D. Sigsbee. The Maine's mission was purportedly friendly, its job to investigate the situation and provide an escape for American should things get out of hand. Without going into too much detail about William Hearst, the feud between American newspapers, and “yellow journalism”, let’s just say that the stories published in the press heightened tensions between Spain and America so that when the Maine sailed into Havana harbour on January the 25th and moored at the government anchorage. The surprised Spanish, who had only been given a few hours, notice that the Mainewas coming, were quite upset. Although the Maineclaimed to be on a friendly mission, it was a powerful warship. The Spanish authorities felt that the US was trying to intimidate them and was interfering with Spanish sovereignty by trying to affect Spanish policy toward the Cuban insurrectos.
Without turning this post into one about the beginning of the Spanish American War, let’s just say that events over the ensuing two weeks led to the USS Maine being blown up in Havana harbour on February the 15th, killing 266 of the 350 officers and men onboard. The War would follow on April the 22nd. The explosion of the Maine was apparently just 200 yards from the floating dock, but no damage to it was sustained.
On February the 25th, the Spanish warship Vizcaya sailed for Havana, having been in New York. It appears that by this time, the dock was operational and was to be finally tested by lifting Vizcaya with her bunkers full of coal. Vizcaya was subsequently sunk by US battleships on the 3rd of July 1898 at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.
On April the 2nd the dock was being prepared for raising the Spanish auxiliary armoured cruiser Cristobel Colon for cleaning. Another ship sunk at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.
Around the 17th of April, the dock was used for work on the gunboat Neuva Espana.
Sometime between April and July the dock was used by the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII.
It appears that prior to, and during this period of use, the Spanish Government were working round the clock to finish dredging the harbour to create a final operational berth for the dock.
Hostilities between America and Spain ceased on August the 12th 1898 with the signing of the Washington Protocol of Peace. The formal Treaty of Paris was signed in Paris on the 10th of December 1898, and ratified by the US Senate on February the 6th 1899.
The US Navy had realised that the floating dock in Havana harbour would be of great value to the US Navy, and were keen that the Spanish did not remove it, although under the peace treaty, it still belonged to Spain.
There are anumber of newspaper articles of the time that announce “The Spanish Government has sold the Havana floating dock for $600,000 to a syndicate of Vera Cruz merchants. Several New York firms have been asked for terms for conveying the dock to Vera Cruz. The purchasers wish to take it away about the beginning of the month.” In the event, this purchase fell through – maybe because costs for moving the dock were found to be prohibitive
On November the 22nd 1898, the Spanish Admiralty put the floating dock up for sale or lease, insisting that all bids to be in before December the 8th. However, on February the 17th 1899, the sale was postponed as the bids received were not acceptable, and negotiations to sell it to the US government had failed. On May the 5th, the Spanish Minister of Marine, Admiral Gomez Imaz authorised the head of the Spanish Marine, Captain Poral, to sell the dock at public auction on May the 31st. This was obviously not successful as there are several newspaper articles that refer to the US Navy Department offering $285,000 for the dock in 1899; an offer that was refused by the Spaniards. Lengthy negotiations continuedm and it wasn’t until April the 18th 1900 that the purchase was completed, for $185,000 in gold.
On December the 21st 1900, the steamship Mascotte was docked for repairs, and to have a hull inspection.
Around September 1902 the dock the US authorities were self-docking the two end pontoons of the dock – I think this may have been in preparation for the tow to Pensacola, or maybe just checking the self docking operation as it hadn’t been carried out for five years. During the self-docking, it appears that in lifting the end pontoons, the valves which were provided in the bottom to enable the water to drain off as the pontoon was lifted out of the water, had become set. Knowing this, the intention was to cut out a rivet and drain off the water after the pontoons were raised. However, the extra weight of the pontoons apparently caused the dock walls to distort. There is one report that says the dock practically broke in two, and that when it was towed to Pensacola it was as two separate pieces. This from the Los Angeles Herald on the 19th of September 1902:
DRY DOCK INJURED The One at Havana Is Reported to Have Broken in Two
WASHINGTON, Sept. 18.—United States Consul Bragg at Havana has cabled the state department confirmation of the press reports of the big floating steel dry dock there, which was recently purchased by the United States from Spain. He says that the-dock broke near the center when the end sections were being suspended. Secretary Moody received the following cablegram from Lieutenant Commander Edward J. Porn, who was recently placed in charge of the naval property at Havana: "While self dock and pontoons were floating dry dock broke in two at gangways Side walls ruptured. Request naval constructor be sent at once." Naval officials are not prepared to give an estimate of the damage to the dry dock without more detailed information concerning the injury. The assumption would be that if the dock literally broke in two, it would have sunk Rear Admiral Bowles, Chief constructor of the navy, is Inclined to think the accident to the dock is very serious. Later in the day it was decided to send Naval Constructor Taylor, one of the oldest constructors in the navy, to Havana to investigate the injuries to the dock.
The fact that the dock actually split in two came as a bit of surprise to its designers, and to other notable naval architects and dock designers of the time. In 1905, the Institute of Civil Engineers held a discussion meeting about a paper written by Edwin Clark (of Clark Standfield) titled ‘Floating Docks’. The meting was attended by a number of eminent designers, including as Edwin Clarke himself, the noted naval architect Sir William White, George Banks Rennie, designer of the first iron floating dock, and others. On discussing the Havana Dock accident, Clark said:
Even with these stresses, if the dock had been in good condition, it would seem impossible, if calculations could be relied upon, for any rupture. Havana waters being most deleterious in their action on iron, it was quite possible that the walls of the dock had been considerably weakened, so that under the extra strain of the loaded pontoons they broke practically in two.
There is conflicting information regarding when the dock finally left for Pensacola. On October the 23rd 1902, the Boston Towboat Company was awarded the contract for towing the dock from Havana to Pensacola. The steamer Orion and the seagoing tugboat Underwriter were sent to Cuba to do so.
HavanaDock_2:No definitive details about this photograph. At Havana sometime between 1898 and 1901. Photograph now in the public domain. Originally published by the Detroit Publishing Company.
HavanaDock_3: USS Maine entering Havana harbour on the 25th of January 1898. Photograph now in the public domain. Original source not determined.
HavanaDock_4: Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII in the dock at Havana sometime in 1898. Photograph from the Municipal Archives of Trondheim. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.
"Strive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it." - Sir Henry Royce