Historic Photo: USS Massachusetts, pre-WWI battleship, 1898.

uss massachusetts

This antique ship is the battleship USS Massachusetts, photographed somewhere in the world in 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War. This is yet another chromolithograph from the old Detroit Photographic Company, among whose other works I’ve featured here, here and here. Instead of scenery or an old building, I decided to feature a ship instead just to mix things up a bit, and because the Massachusetts had (and continues to have) a fascinating history.

The ship, only the second modern battleship ever built by the U.S. Navy, was commissioned in June 1896 in Philadelphia. The construction of the ship was somewhat troubled–Congress and the Navy kept changing their mind about what kind of ships they wanted and what their mission would be, and also a lengthy (6-year) construction process and huge cost overruns made Massachusetts something of a white elephant from the get-go. As you can see she was pretty small by battleship standards, even in the 1890s. She was designed primarily for coastal defense. That mission was soon forgotten, however, when the United States went to war against Spain in the early spring of 1898. Massachusetts blockaded some Spanish ports in Cuba and fired her guns once in a while, but unluckily missed every major battle. Spain quickly gave up, signed a peace treaty in 1899 and Massachusetts was again wandering the waters looking for something to do.

World War I wasn’t much kinder to the ship. She had been decommissioned in 1914 just before the outbreak of war in Europe, and was recommissioned when the U.S. joined the conflict in April 1917–but unfortunately Massachusetts was destined to absorb bullets instead of fire them. She was used as a target ship for training exercises during the war. By the time the war was over in 1919 she was a pretty useless hunk of obsolete junk. Sadly she was sunk on purpose off Pensacola in January 1921.

Curiously, though, that’s not the end of Massachusetts’s story. Lining the bottom of the ocean off Florida, coincidentally in a biosphere rich with marine life, she became popular with divers. In 1993 the wreck was declared a Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserve. In 2001 the sunken battleship was added to the National Register of Historic Places. If you happen to have some swim fins and an air tank, you can go visit her any time you like. How’s that for getting the last word, historically speaking?

Fascinating, some of the long stories behind these otherwise simple-looking photos, but that’s why I love presenting them.

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