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Although one of the last wooden sailing fighting ships built for the U.S. Navy, the Enterprise class U.S.S. Essex should be put into perspective relative to the navy of her time, a time which has been called the Dark Ages owing to the undistinguished nature of the era. Between 1870 and 1885, the U.S. Navy was a cruising fleet, essentially an arm of the State Department and essential transportation for the Marines to various minor hot spots around the globe. There was no battle fleet and Congress was far from authorizing one. Criticisms of navy cruising vessels centered around their construction, motive power and armament. The continued use of wooden hulls, dependence on sail as the primary propulsion and reliance on antiquated smoothbores by the United States were considered proofs of the navy's tattered, worn-out condition. The Essex exemplifies these assertions of U.S. Naval vessels of the 1870s and 1880s. These vessels were extremely deficient in one area, firepower, although in propulsion and auxiliary machinery they were on a par with cruisers of other nations. In practice, the wooden hulls of these vessels were well adapted to their role as cruising vessels, but they were deficient in construction principle, not having been built of iron.
While the navy and class of vessel which the Essex symbolizes is one of unfocused and unevolved construction methods and techniques, as well as policy and implementation. The vessel's builder, Donald McKay, stands today as the epitome of those qualities which symbolized the spirit of young America. McKay stands pre-eminent among those Americans whose marine achievements were the wonder of the world. Although best known as a clipper ship designer and builder, he was distinguished for his packet ships. In the mid-1800s, a new era in naval architecture was inaugurated and, with McKay and his clippers in the lead, America's maritime development placed it in the forefront among nations. It can be said that Donald McKay was the presiding genius of the designer-builders who brought the sailing ship to the acme of perfection at a period when sail was engaging in a battle for life with steam.
The wreck of the Essex is significant because it exemplifies the last of the wooden-hulled, sail powered ships of the United States Navy. The wreck also is considered a significant representation of the work of a master; the Essex is the last remaining known example of a Donald McKay vessel, with the exception of remains rumored to be extant in Australia. McKay was one of the most important and famous shipbuilders in this nation's history, having built numerous famous clippers including the Flying Cloud, the Great Republic and Sovereign of the Seas. Although only a small percentage of the hull still exists, the well preserved remains can yield specific data relative to construction methods and materials for this important naval vessel type, a vessel which was built by one of the masters of 19th century ship construction.
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