Nowhere in the annals of naval warfare has there been such a dramatic event as the voyage of the USS Oregon. The ship covered 14,500 miles in 67 days around the continent of South America in full fighting trim and was able to participate in the Battle of Santiago. This single event greatly influenced strategic thinking in the United States and abroad and ultimately resulted in the construction of the Panama Canal.
With the sinking of the USS Maine, relations between Spain and the United States quickly deteriorated. Cries for war and slogans such as "Remember the Maine" rang throughout the United States. The Oregon at that time was in Bremerton, Washington, but was ordered to immediately proceed to San Francisco to top off with fuel and ammunition.
With all the coal bunkers and ammunition magazine loaded, the ship finalized preparations to set sail. Captain Charles E. Clark was ordered to take command of the Oregon from Captain Alexander McCormick who had fallen and subsequently ordered to the hospital. On March 19, 1898, still in her peacetime white paint, the USS Oregon got underway.
Clark was ordered to proceed to Callao, Peru, as fast as possible. As soon as the ship departed the United States, Clark immediately held drills in damage control, gunnery, and other exercises that would prepare his crew for war. The ship churned through the waters at 250 miles a day towards its goal, a good pace, considering she was a "coastal defense" battleship. Not wanting to slow this rate of speed down, Chief Engineer Milligan informed Captain Clark that the majority of the fresh water supply would have to be dedicated to the engineering plant, to prevent scaling of the engineering equipment. Clark assembled his crew and informed them of the situation. The men readily agreed to the rationing of water. Milligan also suggested to Clark that the cache of Cardiff coal be reserved for emergencies only. The Cardiff coal, from Scotland, was of a higher grade and burned hotter, translating into more steam, resulting in much faster speeds. Clark concurred and the coal was stored in a separate bunker.
Above: A drawing that appear in Portland, Oregon newspaper article. Courtesy: Oregon Maritime Center and Museum.
Oregon arrived at Callao on April 4. Clark received word that a Spanish torpedo boat, the Temerario, was supposedly somewhere off the east coast of South America. Clark indicated he could eliminate the prowling Spaniard, but another matter demanded the attention of the Captain Clark. Rumors that the Spanish residents of Callao and Lima were plotting to sabotage the American battleship. This hasten the departure of the American Man-of-War, and after three hot and tense days, Oregon departed under the cloak of a fog bank.
Oregon continued to make good speed and, despite the deteriorating seas, the gun crews relentlessly trained everyday. On the April 16, the lone battleship arrived off the Straits of Magellan. The weather continued to deteriorate and visibility decreased as the ship battled the rising seas. Clark, concerned for the ship and crew, decided to anchor, and in the last light of the day, Oregon let go of her anchors and weathered the storm for the night. It was an uneasy night as the weather pounded the ship.
Next morning, Oregon weighed anchor and rushed through the narrow straits among the midst of towering cliffs to the port and starboard of her, while being chased by a snow storm. Towards the end of the day, April 17, Oregon reached safe haven at Punta Arenas and proceeded to coal her bunkers. April 21 Oregon departed, now in company with US gunboat Marietta. Marietta was welcome company and provided assistance to the Oregon gunners by tossing barrels into the sea for target practice.
Although welcome company, the Marietta was slowing Oregon down, so just before Rio de Janeiro, Clark ordered Marietta to steam independently, while Oregon raced ahead. Oregon arrived in Rio on April 30 to the cheers of the Brazilian fleet. Marietta arrived the next day, and both ships refueled. It was in Rio, that Clark and his crew learned that war had been declared against Spain. Oregon and Marietta were joined by the dynamite cruiser Nictheroy (renamed Buffalo) which was purchased from the Brazilian Navy.
On May 2, the Americans received more news and learned of Dewey's victory in the Philippines. The crews of all the ships celebrated as they continued to coal the ships. But as the crew celebrated Dewey's victory, Clark received news of the Spanish Squadron lurking about in search of Oregon. Clark formulated a plan with his officers to single-handedly engage the Spanish fleet. Clark then wired Washington D.C. that the Oregon was in fine shape and was fit to take on the whole Spanish fleet.
Early on the morning of May 4, the Oregon and Marietta departed Rio. The Brazilian government requested that the Buffalo, leave twelve hours later for fear of reprisal by the Spanish. The American government agreed and granted this request. The two ships waited for Buffalo some distance out, but she failed to arrived. Clark ordered Marietta back to Rio, and waited. After waiting a total of thirty-six hours, Buffalo and Marietta were spotted slowly making their way toward Oregon. Clark pondered on the two vessels as they approached. They would slow him down and he was under orders to make speedy passage to bolster Admiral Sampson's fleet. He could also better defend himself independently as opposed to him defending Oregon and his two charges. Clark signal for the two vessels to proceed to Bahia on their own. Both ships signal "Good Luck." Oregon replied in kind, then sped off over the horizon.
Clark gathered the crew to inform them of the situation. The crew displayed great enthusiasm as the ship prepared for combat. The ship was painted in dull gray war color, all flammables were discarded, including the mahogany siding surrounding the pilothouse, and if need be, the wooden lifeboats were prepared to be released.
May 8 found the Oregon in Bahia (Salvador), Brazil. Clark wired Washington, that Oregon was in full fighting trim and ready for action. He also inquired to the whereabouts of the Spanish fleet. Washington reported no news of the Spanish fleet, and gave Clark the order to proceed to the West Indies. The night of May 9, Oregon departed Bahia in her continued dash northward.
The morning of the 18th found Oregon in the British protectorate of Bridgetown, Barbados. Although Pro-American, the authorities of Bridgetown maintained a strict neutrality stance. Oregon was given enough coal to reach an American port, but would have to leave in twenty-four hours. Oregon left port later that night with all lights showing. About five miles out, she extinguished all lamps and made a wide sweep around Barbados to ensure that were no Spanish ships about and to throw off the Spanish spies that might report Oregon's location. The ship then proceeded north and on May 24, dropped anchor off Jupiter Inlet, Florida. From here, Clark cabled Washington D.C. and reported: Oregon arrived, awaiting orders. The United States celebrated and at the same time let out a sigh of relief. The Oregon was safe.
Shortly, the Oregon received orders to proceed to Key West if ready for service or to go to Hampton Roads. The crew of the Oregon quickly weighed anchor and sailed for Key West which she arrived at on May 26. From here she then proceeded to joined Admiral Sampson's fleet, which greeted Oregon most enthusiastically when she arrived on June 1, 1898 - " Three Cheers for the Oregon"!
Map of the USS Oregon's voyage
Effects of the Voyage