Today, the Iowa State Quarter Coin remembers the first launch of a war ship on the Mississippi 122 years ago.
In the Midland Monthly of August 1894, an article by B. W. Blanchard told the story of that first inland launch:
On May 12, 1894, amid the booming of cannon and in the presence of ten thousand spectators, the second torpedo gunboat ever built in America, and the first war vessel constructed on inland waters, was launched, christened and baptized in the waters of the Mississippi river, at Dubuque, Iowa.
The vessel was constructed by the Iowa Iron Works Company, – the first corporation in the west that has had the temerity to enter the lists with the Hershoffs of America or the Yarrows of England in the building of war vessels.
The successful completion and launching of this wonderful craft by a manufacturing institution hitherto comparatively obscure, located in a modest and unpretentious city in the middle-west, a thousand miles inland from the sea-coast, has been commented on by the press on both continents.
It has developed the fact that war vessels can be built on inland waters, and the process of interior fortification may thereby be greatly facilitated.
This new ocean terror has been christened the “Ericsson ”—in honor of the famous inventor.
The first torpedo gun boat built for the American navy was named the “Cushing,” and is said by experts to be far inferior in construction and important detail to the “Ericsson.”
Lieutenant Usher, who has been assigned to her command, having recently returned from a tour of inspection of the war-ships of the American navy, pronounces the Dubuque product the most complete and thoroughly equipped of all Uncle Sam’s coast defenders.
The launching of the “Ericsson” was attended by certain formal ceremonies, under the auspices of the Dubuque Board of Trade.
Owing to the inability of the builders of the vessel to fix a date in advance on which the launching would occur, the government officials did not participate in the exercises.
The “Ericsson ” was christened by Miss Carrie Kiene, the accomplished daughter of Peter Kiene, Jr., of Dubuque, who broke a bottle of American champagne on its bow, and recited a poetical incantation supposed to invest with good fortune the future of the new naval destroyer.
At a given signal the cannon on an adjacent bluff pealed out in hoarse and deafening tones that awakened the echoes for miles up and down the glistening path of the Mississippi, Father of Waters; the moorings were loosened; and, like a bird springing from its nest to greet the beauty and gladness of a summer morning, the “Ericsson’’ started from repose and gracefully glided into the blue depths of the harbor.
It was an inspiring spectacle.
Expectant thousands stood waiting the event, rejoicing in the glories of that perfect May afternoon.
The shores of the spacious harbor, the crests of the surrounding hills, the house-tops in every direction pulsed and quivered with humanity.
The baptism of the “Ericsson’’ was quite as perfect in reality as it was impressive in effect.
Over its rounded hull of steel the waters rushed, wrapping it in a gossamer veil of foam and spray, which for a moment danced and shimmered in the sunlight, and then fell like a shower of glistening jewels upon the new-born queen of the American navy.
A brief description of this novel and wonderful addition to our naval armament, while necessarily somewhat prosaic, cannot fail to be interesting.
There is such a wide dissimilarity between the dimensions of this vessel and its power as an agency of destruction, that at first sight it challenges disappointment rather than admiration.
It is an inferior looking craft when compared with any of the large war cruisers in the naval equipment of foreign nations, or even with any of those in Uncle Sam’s galaxy of ocean terrors; and yet it has the power, in the hands of an experienced crew, to shiver any of these more formidable craft into fragments as easily as a child could crush an earth-worm beneath its foot.
Its superiority consists in its fleetness, and the terrible destructiveness of its weapons of warfare.
The “Ericsson’’ is built entirely of steel, divided into twelve water-tight compartments.
In shape she resembles a cigar of the “Perfecto” pattern. Her length is one hundred and fifty feet, width fifteen and one-half feet, and depth ten feet.
When in motion she will draw about five feet of water, leaving only one half of her hull exposed.
Hardly as large as a pleasure yacht, she is nevertheless the most dangerous and invincible of all the formidable warriors upon the high seas.
In the construction of the “Ericsson,” the question of speed has been upper most.
Her lines have been perfected with great care, and her displacement has been reduced to the minimum.
She is equipped with two boilers of one thousand horse-power each and two complete vertical, inverted, four-cylinder, quadruple expansion marine engines, making sixteen interworking engines in all, and giving her propellers a speed of four hundred and twenty revolutions per minute.
The contract price of the vessel is $113,500, and she must be able to make not less than twenty-four knots an hour on her trial trip, which is to take place under the supervision of the navy department in New York harbor.
At the contract price her builders will be losers, but the government offers a bonus of $15,000 for each knot the vessel is able to accomplish over the required twenty-four knots.
It can now be seen why the question of speed entered so largely into the detail of construction.
It is expected that she will make at least twenty-eight knots an hour on her trial trip, thus assuring her builders a bonus of $60,000.
Should she succeed in doing this, she will be the fastest torpedo-boat in the world.
As fleetness is one of her chief points of superiority as a coast defender, the government can well afford to pay the bonus offered as an inducement for greater speed.
The “Ericsson’’ is not designed for warfare at short range.
It is in the line of tactics that she is expected to excel, and she is to be operated on the principle that it is better to “fight and run away and live to fight another day.”
She will never approach her enemy nearer than a half-mile, and, after firing her torpedoes, she will turn quickly about and beat a hasty retreat.
She will not be foolhardy enough to expose her slender form to the huge and destructive shells of the war-cruisers with which she may engage in conflict.
However, if she should be so unfortunate as to be punctured by a shell in any one of her water-tight compartments, she would still be sea-worthy.
Boilers and engines each occupy separate compartments, and each can be operated independently of the other; and with a pumping capacity that enables her to pump out her own weight in water (120 tons) every fifteen minutes, she may be said to be reasonably secure from Serious accident.
The armament of the “Ericsson’’ consists of three torpedo guns, one on the extreme bow and two on a revolving device near the stern.
The crew of the “Ericsson ” consists of twenty-seven men. Lieutenant Usher, of the United States navy, is her commander.
She is supplied with twenty incandescent lights and one large electric search-light, and has a distilling apparatus for freshening salt water.
Lieutenant Usher pronounces her the most perfect and wonderful vessel in the navy.
England and Russia have long employed torpedo boats, but when these nations wish to build a perfect vessel of that nature, they will be compelled to come to America and secure a plan of the “Ericsson.”
The Iowa State Quarter Coin shows with an image of the USS Ericsson, circa 1897-1901.