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Coaling Stations

Most Navy ships of the antebellum era were powered entirely by sail; the few ships with steam engines used them only as auxiliary power. Yet any use of steam required coal. In 1857, the Navy acquired a coaling station at Key West, Florida. In the 1860s a coaling station was established in Honolulu to refuel coal burning American ships. US warships followed a policy of cruising the Hawaiian Islands starting in 1866, and rented a coaling station for them.

In the nineteenth century the advent of coal-fired steam propulsion resulted in faster and more direct travel for naval ships, but also in a requirement for numerous coaling stations-a development of which Britain was able to take particular advantage because of its global empire. The United States, lacking such an empire [and initially not desiring one], largely stuck with sailing ships in the decades following the Civil War.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century the United States, hitherto largely provincial in thought and policies, began to emerge as a new world power. Beginning in the late 1880's more and more Americans displayed a willingness to support involvement of the nation in frankly imperialistic ventures, justifying this break with traditional policy on strategic, economic, religious, and emotional grounds. Much of the energy that had been channeled earlier into internal development of the country, and especially into westward expansion along the frontier (which, according to the Census Bureau, ceased to exist as of 1890), was now diverted to enterprises beyond the continental limits of the United States.

This new manifest destiny first took the form of vigorous efforts to expand long-established American trade and naval interests overseas, especially in the Pacific and Caribbean. Thus, in the Pacific the United States took steps to acquire control of coaling and maintenance stations for a growing steam-propelled fleet. In 1878 the United States had obtained the right to develop a coaling station in Samoa, and in 1889, to make this concession more secure, recognized independence of the islands in a tripartite pact with Great Britain and Germany.

The first signs of Naval modernization had come in 1883, when the department began construction of three new "protected" steel cruisers, the Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago. Each contained a thin steel hull, but heavier protection for its vital areas. The cruisers were designed to use sail power for normal cruising, but could rely on steam power during battles. These new ships were followed by larger battleships, such as the Maine, Texas, New York, and Olympia. These ships required smaller escort ships and auxiliary vessels, especially colliers.

An 1887 treaty with King Kalakaua granted the United States exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor and permission to construct a coaling station and repair facility inside the harbor. In May, 1899, a coaling station with a capacity of 1000 tons was established downtown, and plans involved increasing that capacity 20-fold. Six months later the Naval Station, Honolulu, was established. On 28 May 1903, the first battleship, USS Wisconsin, entered the harbor for coal and water. When the vessels of the Asiatic station visited Honolulu in January 1904, Rear Admiral Sials Terry complained that they were inadequately accommodated with dockage and water. US Naval Station Guantanamo Bay is the oldest US base overseas. Located in the Oriente province on the southeast corner of Cuba, the base is about 400 miles from Miami. The United States leased the 45-square-mile parcel of land in 1903 to use as a coaling station.

The Navy had maintained at least some coal supplies since the mid-nineteenth century, when it began to use a combination of steam and sail for propulsion. When steam was an auxiliary form of power, however, the demands for coal were minimal. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the world's navies, like its heavy industries, ran on coal. The huge steel warships of this period had an insatiable appetite for coal that exceeded the Navy's previous experience.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:46:04 ZULU