In 1883 some members of Congress looked around and realized with a start that the United States had no navy to speak of. There as merely a hodge-podge collection of wooden steam sloops, of which the newer ones were rotten because of the green wood used in their construction, and an antique assortment of rusting relics called the monitors, which had been collecting rats and rust since 1865. The navies of 21 other countries were demonstrably superior to the USN. There were no pretensions of competing with the Royal Navy, the pinnacle of naval power but there had at least be some regional protection for the USA. As the House Naval Affairs Committee stated, "Ö we are not only at the mercy of foreign nations, but that our neighbor, Brazil, might exact tribute of any city along our Gulf or Atlantic coast while Chili could enforce similar demands on the shores of the Pacific."
The birth of the modern American Steel Navy can be said to be August 6, 1887 when the that yearís naval bill was signed into law. That law did not contemplate the first class naval power that the USN would become, but merely some protection from any Latin American navy. The law provided funds for the construction of five new warships, two seagoing armored vessels, one swift cruiser, one 1st Class Torpedo Boat and one Dynamite Gun Cruiser. The largest item in this new budget was for the two seagoing armored vessels, which became the USS Maine and USS Texas. The Maine was to be an armored cruiser, although it was later reclassified as a 2nd Class Battleship. It was to be given a fit of sails to extend its cruising radius, as the USN had no foreign coaling stations. The Texas, on the other hand, was designated from the start as a battleship. It was designed to stay at home in American territorial waters, rather than to cruise to distant stations as was the Maine. Cruising radius was sacrificed for gunpower, armor and speed.
It was thought unnecessary to match the first class battleship designs of the European, when what the USN needed was a regional deterrent. Besides, limitations on the design forced by the limited naval infrastructure, mandated a design no longer than slightly over 300 feet and drawing no more than 23 feet. Another limitation was the fact that there were no American warship designers with any experience in designing modern battleships, or much anything else for that matter. Warship design went out of fashion after 1865. As a result there was a contest that would award $15,000 to the designer whose design was chosen. William John of the British firm of Barrow-in Furness, was the winner. So the first American battleship was a British design. The design packed 12-Inch guns, 12-Inch armor on turrets, barbette and belt, and a 17.8 knot speed, fastest of the battleships until the Virginia Class, all on a displacement of only 6,327 tons. Given the restrictions in length, draught and displacement, the design was a remarkable achievement in packing so much into such a light vessel.
The Texas was laid down 8 months after Maine, launched 18 months after Maine, but was commissioned one month before Maine, making Texas the first American battleship. She was the most powerful American warship afloat for all of three months, when Indiana was commissioned. Although laid down two years after Texas, the USN had learned construction techniques with Texas and Maine and had become faster and more efficient in large ship construction. When the Indiana Class came on line, both Texas and Maine were reclassified as 2nd Class battleships, as they were obviously inferior to the significantly larger and more powerful Indiana Class. As originally designed, the Texas could only fire her main guns once every 7 minutes. Fortunately this abysmal rate of fire was improved to a round every 2 minutes by introducing telescopic rammers in the turrets, rather than use the external fixed rammers as designed. Indiana was BB-1 and neither Texas nor Maine were ever assigned a BB number.
Texashas the distinction of having sunk twice, neither of which time was the result of enemy action. The first such unfortunate occurrence was November 9, 1896 when moored at the New York Navy yard. A pipe burst and flooded the ship. The flooding progressed from section to section through leaks in the watertight doors, voice tubes and holes drilled in the bulkheads for electrical cable. At least she settled onto the bottom in shallow water. It was from this incident that Texas earned her nickname of "Old Hoodoo", a term denoting a jinxed or bad luck ship. It only took two days to pump out the water, as not all compartments had been flooded, only enough to make her settle on the bottom. The jinx struck again on February 16, 1897 when Texas arrived at Galveston, Texas. She was directed to an anchorage that "was the best in the harbor for a vessel as long as the Texas." However, when the tide shifted, the Texas was forced aground onto a mud bank. It wasnít until late the next day that she was removed from her undignified position.
Texasshed her nickname as a result of her performance in the Spanish-American War. As a part of the blockading American Squadron of the Spanish squadron, Texas was a major participant at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba on July 3, 1898. Texas came close to keeping her nickname because as she pursued the Spanish, she was almost rammed by the Brooklyn, which was in the process of making a 270-degree turn. In a dispute after the battle, the navigator of the Brooklyn said that Commodore Schley, commanding the squadron from Brooklyn, stated during the turn, "Damn the Texas, let her look out for herself." (Click for Review of the ISW USS Brooklyn) With remarkable speed for such a tubby design, Texas could keep up with the Spanish cruisers and proved to be one of the fastest major warships in the US fleet. During the battle she was struck by one 6-Inch shell from the Spanish and suffered much greater damage from blast damage from her own 12-Inch guns.
Texasstayed active until November 3, 1900, when she went in for a two-year refit that had her recommissioned exactly two years later, on November 3, 1902. She became the flagship of Rear Admiral James Sands, commanding the Coast Squadron. In spite of the refit, Texas was now much slower than she was earlier in her career. By 1904 she had acquired a reputation of having unreliable machinery. This was part because of the age of the machinery and part because of poor initial design choices by the USN who had not previously built a modern steel battleship. However, with a trained crew, she still could perform. By 1906 it was clear that Texas could be at best a coast defense ship but that she was obsolete, after 11 years from initial commissioning. Very little money was put into her, as it was clear her life span was drawing to a close.
On February 11, 1911 Texas was decommissioned and five days later on the 16th her name was changed to San Marcos, thereby freeing the name to be given to the battleship USS Texas BB-35, which can be seen today in La Porte, Texas. (Click for USS Texas BB-35 walk around.) The San Marcos was designated to be expended in gunnery tests. Prior to that time, she was stripped of usable fittings and parts. On March 21 and 22, 1911 the battleship USS New Hampshire BB-25 pumped shells into the San Marcos until she sank in shallow water with her upper works above the water. She was left there, south and west of Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, as a target for further gunnery practice. In April 1911 she was the target of torpedo practice by the destroyer, USS Flusser. In the summer of 1912 a cage mast of the type used by the battleships of the USN was erected upon the wreck in order to test the effect of gunfire upon the design. The 90 foot high mast was identical to those being used in the modern battleships. The monitor USS Tallahasee (ex-Florida) used her 12-Inch/40 guns for the test at a range of 1,000 yards. Twelve shots hit the mast before it collapsed, which reflected well upon the battle worthiness of the design. By 1917 she was no longer used for gunnery practice and was only considered a navigational hazard, which over the years cost the government $100,000 in damage claims. She was again used for gunnery practice in World War Two. Explosives were used to push the hulk further into the mud and by 1959 her upper plating was at mud line, 20 feet below low water. The hulk of Old Hoodoo remains there today marked on the charts as the "San Marcos Wreck". ( History from American Battleships 1886-1923 by John Reilly, Jr. and Robert Scheina, "Old Hoodoo" The Story of the U.S.S. Texas by Francis Allen in Warship International No. 3 1993, and Spainís Farewell to Greatness: The Battle of Santiago, 3 July 1898 by Peter Brock in Warship 2001-2002 (Click for review of the Conway Press Warship 2001-2002)
Iron Shipwright has just produced a 1:350 scale model of Old Hoodoo as she appeared in the late 1890ís. Seen in the photographs in this article are the resin parts and the two brass photo-etch frets that come in the kit. The photos of the smaller parts, excluding turrets, show double sets. However, the model will also have white metal parts, which will include main guns, searchlights, some smaller guns, one mast and other smaller items. Neither the white metal parts nor the instructions were available at the time this is being written (25 April 2003). However, they should be available shortly. With this kit the modeler can build the first battleship of the United States Navy and a key contributor of the victory of the USN at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.