On April 16, Oregon reached the western entrance to the Straits of Magellan. Clark wrote: “Minutes after entering the straits, a violent storm struck us. The wind-driven rain obscured the precipitous rockbound shores, and with night coming on, it seemed inadvisable to proceed. The ship running before the gale as she was made it almost impossible to obtain correct soundings, and making a safe anchorage was therefore largely a matter of chance. I decided to anchor as the lesser risk.”
Oregon dropped two anchors, which plummeted 50 fathoms before finally grabbing the ocean floor.
“Mountain After Mountain Of Glacier”
At daybreak the next morning, the battleship was once again under way. This time she fought a blinding snowstorm through the narrowest passage of the straits—many places less than a mile in width. With sheer cliffs on either side, and unknown water depth below, it was not a place for faint hearts.
By midday, however, the weather cleared and the crew of the Oregon was treated to a breathtaking landscape. One sailor wrote: “I have never seen such beautiful wild nature in all my travels. There is mountain after mountain of glacier, and they seem to have all the colors of the rainbow. It was cold, and the ice sparkled like diamonds. We soon passed the wrecks of two steamers that had left their bones to mark the perils of the passage.”
At 6 pm, the Oregon anchored at Sandy Point, Chile. Captain Clark knew that the Spanish torpedo boat had plenty of time to reach the straits and might be waiting for the Oregon when she entered the Atlantic.
The Endless Task Of Hoisting Coal Aboard
Clark ordered the battleship cleared for action and all guns manned and loaded. The two cutters were also put back on patrol. In addition, around midnight, the Marietta arrived; her orders were to escort the Oregon up the east coast of South America.
The following morning, Captain Clark went ashore to make arrangements for fuel and supplies. The merchant from whom he purchased the coal was very suspicious of the Americans. Clark reported: “The coal had to be removed from an old hulk in which wool had been stored on top. It was by no means an easy job. The merchant added to delays in handling by insisting that the hoisting buckets be frequently weighed. Finally, Murphy, one of the boatswain’s mates, relieved the growing exasperation by calling out, as a loaded bucket reached the deck, ‘Here! Lower again for another weigh—there’s a fly on the edge of that bucket!’”
The Oregon needed 800 tons of coal to fill her bunkers and the job seemed to take forever. The crew worked day and night hauling the small containers of fuel up the sides of the battleship. Provisions, such as meat and canned goods, were tossed in the same buckets and hoisted topside. Everything was covered with coal dust.
Out Into The Turbulent Waters Of The South Atlantic
Captain Symonds of the Marietta also had trouble with the merchant. He had been allowed to take on only 40 tons of coal. Clark went on the warpath. He told Symonds to move his vessel alongside the coal ship and load up the gunboat.
Finally, at 6 in the morning on April 21, the Oregon and Marietta steamed out of Sandy Point and headed for the turbulent waters of the South Atlantic. Marietta led the way, but she was the slower vessel and the battleship was forced to reduce speed. After leaving the straits, Captain Clark sounded general quarters, “just to shake the boys up,” and the Marietta threw barrels over the side for target practice.
The Oregon had been stripped for battle during her stay at Sandy Point. But after five days at sea in the rough South Atlantic, the tension of the voyage was beginning to take its toll on the frazzled nerves of the tired crew. One grumbling sailor stated: “Boxes, benches, and all extra mess chests have been stowed away. We have no place to sit down, except on deck, and then have to let our feet hang over the side. The men can’t seem to get enough water, and the cook’s sourbread would make good shrapnel for clearing the decks.”
Crew Learns America Is At War
When the Oregon neared Rio de Janeiro, the battleship dashed ahead of the Marietta and raced for the port at top speed. Clark anchored in Rio Harbor at 3 in the afternoon of April 30.
A dispatch boat immediately pulled alongside the Oregon with Navy Department telegrams. Clark was notified that the United States had been officially at war with Spain since April 25.
Captain Clark solemnly read the war message to his crew. But the pressures of 42 days at sea were too much for the men to take the news lightly. Lieutenant E.W. Eberle recalled: “All hands were anxious for information, and the shouts that greeted the news that war had been declared were thrilling and memorable. In a few moments our ship’s band was on deck, and between continual rounds of cheers, the strains of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘Hail Columbia’ drifted over the bay.
“Remember the Maine!”
“The crew uncovered and stood at attention during the playing of the national anthem. More cheering followed, along with the inspiring battle cry ‘Remember the Maine!’ The men then turned to the coal barges and worked as they had never worked before.” Marietta arrived at about 7 o’clock and another celebration rocked the harbor.
Clark was also informed that the Temerario was probably heading for Rio. He wrote: “This was disturbing information. If the torpedo boat should arrive, and it had an enterprising commander, I felt he would not hesitate to violate the rights of a neutral port—if by doing so, he could put the Oregon out of action.”
On May 2, the American consul came aboard the Oregon with news that four Spanish cruisers and three torpedo boats had sailed from the Cape Verde Islands—destination unknown. He learned also that Secretary Long was reluctant to risk a valuable ship like the Oregon in case the Spaniards were intending to intercept the battleship near Rio. Long had purchased an auxiliary cruiser, the Nictheroy, from the Brazilian government, and both the Marietta and Nictheroy were assigned to accompany the Oregon on the final leg of her journey.
Unsure About The Direction And Intentions Of The Enemy
Captain Clark did not agree with the Navy Department. He believed the Spanish fleet was headed for the Caribbean, and if that was the case, his battleship’s presence in the West Indies was essential. He said: “If the Spaniards were heading for Rio, they would arrive in the vicinity before we could get away. But it did not seem likely to me that the enemy would make this attempt to cut us off, especially if there was the possibility of missing us altogether.”
In event that the Spanish were close to Rio and attempted to engage the Oregon, Clark intended to make it a running fight. He was confident that, by steaming at full speed, he would be able to string out his attackers and fight them separately.
On May 4, Oregon and her two escorts steamed out of Rio de Janeiro. It soon became evident that the accompanying vessels were too slow for the battleship, and Clark worried that they would be more of a hindrance than help in a battle. He ordered the Marietta and Nictheroy to Cape Frio, and the Oregon headed north alone.
Tense Crew On Lookout For Suspicious Vessels
Captain Clark called his crew aft and explained the situation. He read them the dispatches concerning the strength of the Spanish squadron and its unknown whereabouts. Clark added: “Should we meet, we will at least lower Spain’s fighting efficiency upon the seas. Her fleet will not be worth much after the encounter.” The men gave their captain a round of cheers. They were ready for the Spaniards and confident of victory.
Clark posted lookouts around the clock. They were authorized to sound the alarm if any ship was sighted—without waiting for orders.
At 5 in the morning of May 7, the general- quarters alarm sent the anxious crew to their battle stations. A lookout had spotted a strange vessel in a rain squall. This turned out to be, however, a vintage sailing ship. But as long as the men were already at their gun posts, target practice was held to relieve the anxiety and frustration of the early-morning wake-up call.
Ship Gets Supplies And A Fresh Coat Of Paint
The following day, Oregon steamed into Bahia, Brazil. Captain Clark requested permission to anchor in the harbor. He used the excuse of “engine trouble,” and notified the port authority that the battleship might be at Bahia for several days. In reality, the purpose of the stopover was to apply a fresh coat of warpaint and replenish the ship’s coal and water supply. Clark’s comment of “several days” was intended to deceive any Spanish agents lurking in the vicinity.