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AC Collier

A Collier is a vessel designed for the carrying of coal, which may or may not be fitted with special appliances for coal handling. The word collier also means coal miner. A collier was a vessel built to transport coal. The bulk nature of the collier's cargo resulted in a design that was superficially similar to an oil tanker, except that a collier had rows of cargo hatches along the deck.

English coalfields were being mined on a local scale in the 13th and 14th centuries. But coal is bulky, and it was competing at with wood and charcoal as a fuel. Land transport costs were so high for bulk materials that coal was never carried or used more than a few miles from the outcrops in pre-Elizabethan England. The only long-distance transport that made sense was by sea or river boat. Small coastal ships could sail with relative safely down the East Coast from Tyneside to London. Londoners used the term "sea-coal" to distinguish coal from charcoal, and as early as 1226 there was a Sea Coal Lane in London. By the 1370s, nearly a hundred coal-boats were sailing down from Northumberland along the east coast of England to ten different ports along the European coast. As the coal trade grew, ships were built specially to carry coal ("colliers"), designed to handle bulk cargoes. The average size of a cargo of coal delivered at London increased from 50 tons to 250 tons during the 1600s, by which time perhaps 300 colliers were engaged in the trade.

Early Colliers

The US Navy of the late 19th Century relied on coal piles at its bases to keep its ships going. Deployed units, like Dewey's Asiatic Squadron, got their coal from local vendors. With the coming of war in 1898, these fuel sources would either be too far from likely areas of operations or denied to combatant forces by neutrality laws. Assistant Navy Secretary Roosevelt telegraphed Commodore George Dewey on 25 February 1898 "Order the squadron, except the Monocacy, to Hongkong. Keep full of coal." The next day Navy Secretary John D. Long telegraphed Commodore Dewey ordered Dewey "Keep full of coal---the best that can be had." An aggressive commander, Dewey ignored China's neutrality and took on coal for his fleet at Mirs Bay. He was forced to leave Hong Kong on 25 April 1898. Dewey sailed into Manila Bay on the night of 30 April 1898 and the next morning located the Spanish warships at Cavite. In a few hours and without loss of a single American life, he sank or disabled the entire Spanish Fleet.

In March and April 1898, the Navy urgently looked for available colliers, as coal transport ships were called, and was able to purchase twenty. These ships were mainly of British construction, reflecting the contemporary character of both shipbuilding and the coal trade. Most were used to replenish the bunkers of Sampson's and Schley's ships in the Caribbean area, where one, USS Merrimac, was expended in a heroic effort to bottle up the Spanish fleet at Santiago, Cuba. The colliers refueled the fleet on blockade rather than forcing vessels to return to coaling stations. Dewey had one newly-obtained collier, USS Nanshan, to support his ships in Manila Bay. Two others, Brutus and Nero, escorted the monitors Monterey and Monadnock from California to the Far East.

USS Leonidas, a 4264-ton collier, was built at Sunderland, England, in 1897-1898 as the commercial freighter Elizabeth Holland. Acquired by the Navy in April 1898 and placed in commission a month later, she carried coal and other supplies to the Caribbean area during the Spanish-American War. Leonidas was out of commission at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from late 1898 until November 1900 and thereafter served as a collier in the Atlantic and West Indies areas. USS Brutus, a 2000-ton collier, was built in 1894 in England as the merchant ship Peter Jebsen. Purchased by the US Navy in April 1898, she towed the monitor USS Monterey to Manila during the Spanish-American War. Thereafter she served as a station ship, collier and supply ship until decommissioned in August 1921. USS Hannibal, a 4000-ton collier, was completed in 1898 at Sunderland, England, as the commercial steamship Joseph Holland. The crisis leading to the Spanish-American War resulted in her purchase by the US Navy in mid-April of that year and the ship was placed in commission that June. In mid-1911 Hannibal was converted to a surveying ship.

Some of the Spanish-American War colliers generally had long Navy careers, reflecting post-war requirements for a flexibly-located and abundant coal supply, as well as the general purpose designs of these vessels. The these "colliers" were little more than break-bulk steames that happened to be carrying coal, and had little in the way of special coal handingly equipment. The survivors passed out of service during the 1920s.

Colliers Between the Wars

In 1900 the Navy required one collier for every four fighting ships. The heating surface for the boilers on the cruiser Minneapolis covered approximately one and one-eighth acres. A ship was a regular coal mine. The USS Alabaman's capacity's was 1200 tons ordinarily, and 1500 tons at a pinch. She would usually take on 600 tons, keeping 400 in the bunkers as a reserve.

By 1905, the annual consumption of coal had increased to more than 400,000 tons. To accommodate this demand, the Navy established a series of coal depots. With the preponderance of Navy installations on the East Coast, most coaling stations for the Atlantic and Gulf regions could be located at or near existing Navy facilities, with the exception of one station at Frenchman Bay in Maine. Smaller coal supplies in Cuba and Puerto Rico completed the Navy's requirements for the Atlantic. The Pacific region presented greater problems. The Navy had fewer installations on the West Coast, and larger ships could not use the Mare Island Yard because of its shallow channel. Consequently, the Navy created facilities in Alaska and in the deeper areas of San Francisco Bay. The Navy's insatiable appetite for coal required the creation of naval bases in the Pacific, and these bases required the protection of the Marine Corps. To extend its reach across the Pacific, the Navy had created coal depots in Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and the Philippines.

The "Great White Fleet" sent around the world by President Theodore Roosevelt from 16 December 1907 to 22 February 1909 consisted of sixteen new battleships of the Atlantic Fleet. The trip proved to be a logistical nightmare. Navy officials scrambled to charter the 49 foreign colliers needed to deliver the 430,000 tons of coal that kept the ships moving from one port to another. Congress reacted by e appropriating funds in 1908 needed to build two fleet colliers [AC-1 Vestal and AC-2 Ontario] and purchase three merchant colliers [AC-5 Vulcan, AC-6 Mars and AC-7 Hector]. These were the first classes of American Naval colliers designed from the outset as such, and featured an increased number of booms to hasten the coaling process. Whereas the Spanish-American War colliers had two booms, one fore and one aft, these inter-War colliers had four [Vestal-class] or five [Vulcan-class].

USS Vestal (Collier # 1, later Repair Ship # 4, AR-4), first of a class of two 12,585-ton colliers, was built at the New York Navy Yard. Placed in service with a civilian crew in October 1909, she spent the next three years in the Atlantic providing coal to the ships of the fleet, including one voyage to Europe for that purpose. Taken out of service in October 1912, Vestal was converted by the Boston Navy Yard into a repair ship (later receiving the hull number AR-4) and placed in commission in that role in September 1913. USS Hector (Collier # 7), a 11,230-ton Vulcan-class collier, was built at Sparrows Point, Maryland. Commissioned in October 1909, she was primarily employed in transporting coal for the Atlantic Fleet throughout her brief career. In addition, during early 1915 she carried the small submarines A-3, A-5 and B-1 from the United States to the Philippines. USS Hector was wrecked off the U.S. Atlantic Coast on 14 July 1916.

Fleet Colliers

The Liquid Fuel Board in the United States recommended using oil as a standalone fuel in 1904, and the first oil-burning American destroyer, USS Paulding, was commissioned in 1910. Even though the Navy was moving away from coal as a fuel, the trainsition would take a long time to complete. Soon after the Vestal and Vulcan class colliers were ordered, plans were made for a new type of collier.

A typical battleship of 1914 carried about 2,600 tons of coal, and the time required to load this coal was constrained by the number of coaling booms. There does not seem to be any standardized nomenclature for the the coal hoisting gear, coaling gear and other upperworks of a Navy collier. The formal terms seems to be Coaling Tower, but while this term finds widespread use in the railroad community, the various coaling booms, derricks, towers, masts, spars, cranes, and derricks used to transfer the coal from the collier to a warship seem not have found standard terminology.

The Spanish American War colliers featured a pair of general purpose cranes, and the inter-War colliers had four [Vestal-class] or five [Vulcan-class] general purpose cranes. The Fleet Colliers sprouted a veritable forrest of coaling towers, specially designed for the task at hand. The Cyclops-class mounted seven coaling towers, as die the Orion-class [though of rather different design], while the Jupiter-class featured a total of eight, patterned after those of the Orion class. They also sported a high bridge forward to facilitate supervision of the coaling, and an unusual side-by-side pair of tall funnels aft. These ships cannot be mistaken for any other, though a tranined eye is required to differentiate between them. The Cyclops and her two sister colliers were among the largest Navy ships of their time. The bridge sat on steel stilts above the deck and a forrest of huge cranes stretched along the main deck. The Nereus and the Proteus were ultimately sold by the Navy, and both were presumed sunk by German U-boats when they disappeared with all hands in the Atlantic during World War II.

USS Cyclops was the Navy's second ship of that name. A 19,360-ton collier, specially designed to keep a mobile battlefleet supplied with fuel, she was built in 1910 by William Cramp and Sons at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1914 AC-4 Cyclops and BB-23 South Carolina engaged in an experimental coaling while under way at sea. Rigging between the two ships was used to transfer two 800-pound bags of coal one at a time. The bags were landed on a platform in front of the battleship's forward 12-inch gun turret, and then carried to the bunkers. It showed that this was possible but a very slow method of refueling. Nothing was heard of the test afterwards. In 1913 the collier Cyclops successfully conducted a stern-to-forecastle coaling-at-sea demonstration with the battleship USS South Carolina.

In early March 1918, while returning from a voyage to Brazil, USS Cyclops disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle with all hands. Her wreck has never been found, and the cause of her loss remains unknown. During the raging winds and high seas, the ship's cargo of 10,000 tons of manganese probably shifted and she rolled over and sank without warning or time to send an SOS. Her loss without a trace is one of the sea's unsolved mysteries.

Collier # 11 (later AC-11), USS Orion, a 19,132-ton (displacement) fleet collier, was built at Sparrows Point, Maryland, as one of several large ships intended to refuel the Navy's coal-burning warships under operational conditions. She was commissioned in late July 1912 and operated with the Atlantic Fleet for most of the next four and a half years. Orion also deployed to the Philippines but had returned to the Western Hemisphere by the time the United States entered World War I in April 1917. During that conflict she steamed to the Azores and to South America, as well as transporting coal along the US East Coast.

USS Jason (Collier # 12, later AC-12 and AV-2), a 19,250-ton collier built at Sparrows Point, Maryland, entered service in late June 1913. During 1913 and 1914 she carried fuel to U.S. ships operating in the Caribbean region and in the Mediterranean Sea. Late in 1914 she carried Christmas gifts to war-torn Europe.

The 11,000 ton Jupiter (AC-3) was laid down 18 October 1911 by Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, Calif.; launched 14 August 1912; ; and commissioned 7 April 1913. After successfully passing her trials, Jupiter, the first electrically-propelled ship of the U.S. Navy, embarked a Marine detachment at San Francisco and reported to the Pacific Fleet at Mazatlan, Mexico, 27 April 1914, bolstering U.S. naval strength on the Mexican Pacific coast during the tense days of the Vera Cruz crisis. She remained on the Pacific coast until she departed for Philadelphia, 10 October. En route the collier steamed through the Panama canal on Columbus Day - the first vessel to transit it from west to east. Prior to America's entry into World War I, she cruised the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico attached to the Atlantic Fleet Auxiliary Division. The ship arrived Norfolk 6 April 1917, and, assigned to Naval Overseas Transportation Service (NOTS), interrupted her coaling operations by two cargo voyages to France in June 1917 and November 1918. After the war Jupiter was converted into America's first aircraft carrier and renamed the Langley. Steel framework, utilising much of the old coal-boom supports, added over main deck, supporting the wooden flight deck above and two travelling 3-ton cranes below (used to move aircraft about the open main deck.

As warships gradually converted to oil fuel in the World War I era, many colliers found other employment as general cargo ships, surveying ships and target tenders.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:33:36 ZULU