Lake Superior Shipwrecks
U.S.S. Essex
Construction and Career

The construction of the U.S.S. Essex was authorized by President Abraham Lincoln shortly before he was assassinated but it was delayed for several years. The decaying condition of the navy eventually resulted in a special Congressional act, approved February 10, 1873, authorizing the Secretary of the Navy to construct eight war vessels, the aggregate tonnage of the whole not to exceed eight thousand tons. The act specified that four of the vessels, in whole or in part, should be built by the lowest responsible bidders in public competition. Donald McKay successfully bid for the construction of two vessels under this act and contracts for the sloops of war U.S.S. Adams and Essex were awarded to him. Under the same form of dual superintendence, as in the case of the Adams, the wooden screw steamer Essex, possessing exactly the same dimensions and tonnage, was built by Donald McKay at the Kitter Navy Yard. The Essex's keel was laid in 1874 and the contract for its machinery was secured by the Atlantic Works.

The Detroit Free Press, Nov. 22, 1930, reported the Essex was commissioned in Boston on Oct. 3, 1876, and entrusted to the command of Winfield Scott Schley of Spanish War fame. It was assigned shortly afterward to the North Atlantic Station. During the following year, the Essex cruised to Liberia along the west coast of Africa and in 1878-1879 joined the South Atlantic Squadron. It sailed on the Pacific Station from Nov. 1881 to Dec. 1882 and thence on the Asiatic Station for two years during which it took on board Captain S.H. Morrison and crew members of the shipwrecked Ranier.

Via Singapore, East Africa and Cape of Good Hope, the Essex returned to the United States in 1884. It was placed out of commission at the New York Navy Yard, Jan. 15, 1885. On June 21, 1886, it was recommissioned and returned to Asiatic Station via the Suez Canal. It visited Ponapai, East Carolina Group, in Oct. 1886, to investigate a reported massacre of Spaniards and afforded protection to American missionaries. The Essex left the Asiatic Station in Jan., 1889, returning to United States via the Suez Canal and on May 11th of the same year was placed out of commission at the New York Navy Yard.

The Essex was recommissioned on April 22, 1890, and from June 30 to July 8, it took part in the Reunion Ceremonies of the Army of Potomac at Portland, Maine. Afterwards it served on the South Atlantic Station from Oct., 1890, to Jan., 1893. It was stationed at Annapolis with cadets on board for instruction in April, 1893, and again went out of commission at Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia, June 13, 1893. The Essex was again recommissioned Jan. 31, 1894, and served as an apprentice training ship until put out of commission at Navy Yard, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, April 6, 1898. It was recommissioned Sep. 29th, 1898, and continued in training service until placed out of commission at Navy Yard, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Dec. 5, 1903.

The Navy Department loaned it to the Naval Militia of Ohio from 1904 to 1916. The transfer of the Essex to the Toledo reserves in 1904 was the brain child of Lieutenant Anthony E. Nicklett of the Toledo Naval Militia. It was noted that at the time the Essex was laid up, the Toledo Naval Militia was in such poor condition that the group had formally petitioned state Governor Herrick for permission to disband. To reverse this alarming trend, Nicklett exhibited uncommon resourcefulness and energy in raising the hopes among local reservists that the unit might gain a naval training vessel for its exclusive use. With this as a lever, he convinced both the governor and the navy to transfer a naval vessel to Toledo.

Three different obsolete vessels were offered for use, but all were rejected as unsuitable. Finally, the fourth vessel, the Essex, met with approval and arrangements were made to transfer the aging warship to Toledo. A naval militial crew from Toledo took charge of the Essex at Portsmouth, Virginia. They set a course for Toledo via the St. Lawrence River on June 18, 1904. On this trip the vessel was primarily operated under sail because its engines were in such poor condition. During the journey, the Essex nearly missed having a collision with an ocean liner in a dense fog one Sunday night. The following Monday morning the Essex ran aground near the mouth of the Saguenay River about 100 miles from Quebec where the channel is 12 feet deep. The Toledo Blade of July 15, 1904 stated...

the pilot had gone aboard the tow tug when suddenly the Essex struck bottom in a spot where there are a large number of boulders, dangerous at all times. The tide commenced to lower soon after the ship struck and she gradually careened as the water commenced to fall, until her lights were under. Excitement reigned supreme but the best of order was maintained throughout. At noon that day the tide again rose until, when at its height, the vessel floated free. She did not get free, however, without assistance from the tug....

After bringing the vessel around from the Atlantic, General Critchfield ordered the Toledo reserves to cruise in the Essex on Lake Erie later in 1904 if they still desired. Joining the vessel in Montreal on July 22, 1904, Captain Edward McNelly became the captain of the Essex for its first years on the Great Lakes as a training ship, the vessel being turned over to him by Lieut. Nicklett.

Essex, ca. 1920s
U.S.S. Essex with barracks-deck built over hull, ca. 1920s; Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, Duluth, MN

The Essex served the Toledo reserves and accomplished at least one summer training cruise on the Great Lakes each year until it was reactivated as part of the Ninth Naval District during the First World War. By the time it was returned to reserve use, Toledo had outgrown the aging vessel and it was transferred to the Naval Reserve of the State of Minnesota in 1927. In 1928, the last wooden ship Donald McKay built for the U.S. Navy was housed over, the engines were removed and it was used as a receiving ship for the U.S. Naval Reserve and the Minnesota Naval Militia.

Essex, ca. 1922
U.S.S. Essex and U.S.S. Paducah at Duluth Naval Reserve Dock, ca. 1922; Lake Superior Maritime Collections, Duluth, MN

The Essex was the third of four United States naval vessels to carry the name and the only one of the ships of that name not to actively participate in combat during a major American war. The first Essex won fame in the War of 1812 raid of British shipping in the Pacific Ocean, the second as a member of the Western Flotilla of the Union Army which operated on the Mississippi during the Civil War, and the fourth as the WWII aircraft carrier which played such an important role in the war in the Pacific.

|--U.S.S. Essex-- |--Historic Description--|
|--Construction and Career-- |--Description of the Wreck Event--|
|--Post-Depositional Impacts-- |--Present Description-- |--Significance-- |--Photographs--|
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