Called by some naval historians the "founder of the modern navy," Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler ordered construction of the "ABCD" steel cruisers in 1883, maneuvering around the Navy Department's bureaucracy to set up control of the project in a technical advisory board. The first of these ships to be built, the USS Dolphin, suffered from corruption in its contracting, as well as from construction and performance problems, all of which brought Chandler considerable criticism. Nevertheless, this marked the first step in modernizing American shipbuilding capabilities.
In a report on "Additional Cruisers" dated 25 October 1883, the Navy Advisory Board noted "The Dolphin has no counterpart iu the constitution of the old fleet in consequence of which ranch misunderstanding exists with regard to her value. Her type is considered a very necessary auxiliary to the naval fighting force for duties requiring lightness and speed, which could not be performed economically by vessels composing the main body of the fleet. Of even greater importance, however, is the fact that this vessel serves as a basis from which to develop the pure type of lightly-armed, high-speed, economically-maintained commerce destroyers. As this ship will stand when completed she will be very effective in this respect, although her normal fleet-service is of a different nature. The especial features developed in this vessel, aud the requirements of the fleet brought about by the length and position of our coast lines lead the Board to recommend that a second vessel of this type aud size be commenced at once ..." No second unit was undertaken.
Although designed in part to demonstrate U.S. technological capabilities, Dolphin was built with a very dominant bark rig. Over the years, this was changed to a three-masted, and ultimately a two-masted schooner. The first "New Navy" ship commissioned, Dolphin was sent out to the Pacific Station for two years before returning via ports in Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Europe in 1888. She then joined the ABC ships in the "Squadron of Evolution" to develop tactics and maneuvers. These ships, although not quite as advanced as their European counterparts, provided the foundation of the new steel navy that would enter service in the coming decades.
USS Dolphin (later PG-24), a 1486-ton steel dispatch vessel, was built at John Roach at Chester, Pennsylvania, as one of the first ships of the "New Navy". Efforts to construct the first steel warships indicated the extent of the deterioration of the Navy during the post-war years, including the shore facilities. The Navy recognized that it could not build these ships and had to rely on contractors. However, the bureaus lacked the technical expertise in preparing drawings and specifications. Consequently, preparation of plans was not completed until after the contracts had been awarded. The contract went to a prominent Republican, John Roach. The Dolphin was presented for preliminary trial on 20 November 1884, and while on trial on that date the thrust length of the steel shafting broke. A new thrust shaft was made of forged steel, as recommended by the Board, and approved by the Department in letters dated 28 November 1884. This shaft, after being manufactured under the inspection of the Board, and tested in accordance with instructions approved by the Department on 5th December, 1884, was rejected for the reasons stated in the Board's letter to the Department of January 9, 1885. Then, in order to avoid delay, the Board recommended that this shaft be made of wrought iron, it being then the intention to retain the other steel shafts, the tests for their examination having so far developed no flaws: subsequently, however, in the examination of the broken shaft, such extensive additional flaws were discovered in the center of its length, and as flaws were also found in drilling the end of the intermediate shaft, the Board decided that the intermediate and steel propeller shafts should be removed and replaced by iron ones, under the conditions approved by the Department for the steel shafting of the cruisers in its letter to the Board of 10 January, 1885. This decision was approved by the Department.
The Dolphin, in charge of the contractor, Mr. John Roach, left the dock at the foot of Eighth street, on the East River, New York City, at 8.50 a. m., Tuesday, 10 March 1885, to make the preliminary trial in Long Island Sound. The machinery in all its parts worked smoothly, continuously, and satisfactorily throughout the trial, and the Board is of the opinion that the deficiency of 182 horses power from mean of 2,300 required by the contract for six cousecutive hours was not due to detective workmanship nor materials, but that with better coal aud a well trained engineer's force these results will be exceeded. According to the records of the Board, the total weight of the machinery, engines, boilers, and appurtenances and spare parts, completed as required, including water iu surface condensers and boilers, did not exceed the limit of 430 tons set by the contract.
The Board found that the hull and fittings are strong and well built, and in strict conformity with the contract, drawings, and specifications, and that the vessel will be completed in all respects as required by the contract on the 18th instant, except the following minor items, namely: adjusting the Hotchkiss gun centers and fitting the sideboards for dishes, which can only be completed after the vessel is at the navy-yard. The Board therefore recommended that the Dolphin be accepted,
John Roach was a stanch supporter of President Grant's administration and on friendly terms with every Republican statesman who agreed with him upon the protection of American ship-building. Grover Cleveland was the First Democrat elected President after the Civil War. Entering office in 1885, President Cleveland's cabinet included William C. Whitney, of New York as Secretary of the Navy and Augustus H. Garland, of Arkansas, as Attorney-general, among others. Cleveland vigorously pursued a policy barring special favors to any economic group. The army of place-hunters in Washington were disappointed; they surged through the corridors of the various department buildings, camped in the hotels and parks, invaded the private offices of the chiefs of bureaus and made difficult the orderly transaction of current business. But, for the first time in the history of the Republic, a change in the political complexion of the National Administration did not involve an immediate and sweeping change in the minor offices in the gift of the Government.
One of the earliest acts of the new Administration that aroused the antagonism of its opponents was the rejection of one of the new cruisers built for the navy under a contract made by the previous Administration. The ship Dolphin, technically known as a despatch boat, after examination by a board of experts appointed by Secretary Whitney, was reported as unfit for duty on account of her "structural weakness."
On 17 June 1885 the Secretary of the Navy requested the opinion of the Attorney General as to the rights and duties of the United States touching the dispatch boat Dolphin, constructed by Mr. John Roach under a written contract entered into between him and the previous Secretary of the Navy, the Hon. William E. Chandler. This vessel, had been found to be defective in three particulars, two of which are fundamental, that is to say : (1) she does not develop the power and speed which the contract calls for ; (2) she is not stannch and stiff enough for the service expected of her ; and (3) the general character of her workmanship does not come up to the requirements of the contract.
Attorney-general Garland, having examined the question of the disposition of the vessel, decided that the contracts under which the Dolphin was built were not valid. "I can not conceive how it could be seriously urged that the United States is bound under the law in question to accept from the contractor any other sort of vessel than the one ordered by Congress to be built" The despatch-boat Dolphin was rejected and thrown back upon his hands by government examiners at a bad stage of the general money market.
This so greatly embarrassed the contractor, John Roach, of Philadelphia, then also engaged in building three large cruisers, the Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston, that he was forced into bankruptcy. The utterly unexpected blow, however, was disastrous in its first effects. The timid money market closed its hand, credits ceased, and the house of John Roach & Son was forced to suspend. Yards and shops ceased their operations. So did distant iron mills and forges that supplied materials. The workmen went home and so did John Roach.
On 04 November 1885 the Dolphin dispute was resolved. Cleveland's Secretary of the Navy, William Whitney, discovered, however, that no Navy yard was large enough to construct these ships, so the Navy Department completed construction of the ships in the contractor's yards, under the supervision of Navy engineers. The four vessels were subsequently finished under the direction of the Government, the Roach works and workmen being employed, with the consent of Roach's assignees. That the decision on the Dolphin was not justified was at a later day proved by the final acceptance of the vessel.
Commissioned in December 1885, she steamed around the World during her first three years' service from 1885-8, being first steel vessel of U.S. Navy to circumnavigate the globe. She then served off the U.S. east coast and in the West Indies area for the next three decades.
During the same period seapowerlost its transoceanic monopoly over the communication of information. The Atlantic cable was completed in 1865. More significantly, wireless telegraph and radio transmissions were perfected in the decade after 1891, culminating in the first transmission by Marconi from England to Newfoundland in 1901.
Into the 20th Century, Dolphin was employed in support of high-ranking Government officials, as well as on more conventional gunboat-type duties. The latter employment was recognized when she was redesignated PG-24 in about 1920. Decommissioned in October 1921, Dolphin was sold in February 1922.
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