Today is December 7, 2019, 78 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I take this occasion for a bit of nautical history…
There have been two battleships named U.S.S. Pennsylvania. The first Pennsylvania was a ship of the line (the term battleship was not yet in use) built in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. As it was to become the largest ship on the planet, a special shiphouse had to be built to house it while it was under construction.
Twelve years passed from the time the keel was laid until its launch on July 18, 1837. It was a monster (at the time): 212 feet long and when fully outfitted, would carry 120 guns on three gun decks.
Her launch occurred as full force of the Panic of 1837 was washing over the American economy, so people were looking for something to celebrate. An estimated 100,000 people crowded Philadelphia’s wharves and rooftops to witness the event. [This was a scene too good for me to pass up, and becomes a pivotal moment in The Girl Who Led the Mob, Book 2 of Rian Krieger’s Saga.]
The Pennsylvania was expected to be the pride of the US Navy, but two historical currents got in her way.
No naval wars were on the horizon.
When her keel was laid in 1825, only the most prescient envisioned that steam-powered ships would soon enough replace ships of sail.
The U.S.S. Pennsylvania never saw action. She sailed to Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia and was used as a receiving ship (quite a comedown from “pride of the US Navy”) to house newly recruited sailors before they were assigned to sea duty. She was burned by Union troops at the beginning of the Civil War to prevent her from falling into Confederate hands.
The second battleship Pennsylvania was launched in March 1915 out of Newport News, Virginia. During this arms-race era, bigger/faster/more powerful battleships were being launched annually by nations who dreamed of dominating the high seas. This ship was known as a super-dreadnought. She and her sister ship, the Arizona, were constructed with “all or nothing” design, which meant that the thickest armor was placed around the most important parts of the ship, with almost no armor in other places.
Ironically, the U.S.S. Pennsylvania never saw action during World War I because her engines ran on fuel oil and only coal was available in England, where she would have had to resupply. Re-outfitted and modernized in the early 1930s, she was transferred to duty in the Pacific. The Pennsylvania was in drydock at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and thus escaped the fate of the Arizona, moored not far away. She was repaired and saw significant action from Alaska to the Philippines throughout the rest of World War II.
When researching these battleships, I was more than a little disappointed when I learned the fate of this proud ship, the second U.S.S. Pennsylvania. As the Cold War heated up, she was used as a target to test the effect of atomic bombs on fleets of ships. She was bombed twice off Bikini Atoll as part of Operation Crossroads, studied for over a year, and finally scuttled into the depths of the Pacific in 1948.
One of the coolest museums I have visited recently is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY. Cody was a Pony Express rider, a soldier in the Union army, a bison hunter, a scout during the Indian Wars, and a masterful showman. Whether you think of Buffalo Bill Cody as a hero or “not so much,” he is truly one of the larger than life icons of America’s 19th Century.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured the United States and Europe from 1883 until well into the 20th Century. When they set up camp in Ambrose Park, NY in 1894, the cast of hundreds was able to play to 20,000 audience members at a time.
I was fascinated by the model (pictured above) of the Wild West encampment for a two of reasons. First, his homage to the Old West made ample use of modern technology. According to the display graphics the show “contracted with Edison Illuminating Company of Brooklyn for the largest private electric plant then in use. Its dynamos powered three searchlights, 46 arc lights and nearly two thousand incandescent lamps.”
Second, although the acts played to stereotypes and usually portrayed whites as the good guys and Indians as the bad guys, he employed many Indian and African-American horsemen as re-enactors. Go to this link for motion pictures of Cody’s Wild West in New York in 1910.
Last Thursday, I attended a delightful concert at the Harwich Community Center. Cranfest in the Courtyard presented folk singer Zoe Mulford, an American currently living in Manchester, England. Besides her impeccable vocals and lovely guitar and banjo playing, three things were particularly relevant to me at this time in my life.
I am currently trying to tell stories in chunks of about 100,000 words, plus or minus. She crafted marvelous tales that took three minutes or so, including refrains. That was pretty humbling.
One of her songs described something I had never heard of, but should have, considering that my novels are set in 1840s America. “American wakes” were held by family members of Irish lads about to emigrate to the United States. They knew they were never going to see their kin again. Very poignant.
Check out this video of Zoe singing her song that has since been covered by Joan Baez: The President Sang Amazing Grace. Unforgettable.