While his crew was busy wire-brushing and painting the Oregon, Clark sent a cable to the Navy Department: “Much delayed by Marietta and Nictheroy. Left them near Cape Frio with orders to come here [Bahia], or beach if necessary to avoid capture. The Oregon can steam fourteen knots for hours, and in a running fight could beat off and even cripple Spanish fleet. With present amount of coal on board we will be in good fighting trim and can reach the West Indies. Whereabouts of Spanish fleet requested.”
Secretary Long replied: “Proceed at once to West Indies. No authentic news of Spanish squadron—avoid if possible.”
Hunted Oregon Sneaks Out Of Port
It was very probable that the Spaniards were close by. Intelligence reports revealed that the enemy ships had been at Curaçao four days previously—only 500 miles from Bahia.
At 11 on the night of May 9, the Oregon sneaked out of the Brazilian port and headed at full speed for Barbados, arriving at Bridgetown at 2 in the morning, May 18.
Clark was told that, due to neutrality regulations, he had to leave within 24 hours. The American consul sent a cablegram to the United States announcing the Oregon’s arrival, while the Spanish consul sent the same news to the governor of Puerto Rico.
Numerous unconfirmed rumors had been circulating in Bridgetown, including a story that the Spaniards were waiting outside the harbor for the Oregon to emerge. Moreover, by this time, the enemy fleet had swelled to 18 vessels.
Oregon Sets Its Sights On Florida
Oregon rapidly loaded 250 tons of coal and left port at dark the next night. Owing to the danger of running into a trap, Clark decided to make a detour instead of taking the direct route through the West Indies. He wrote: “With lights showing, we ran for a few miles toward the passage between Martinique and Santa Lucia. Lights were then extinguished, and we headed back toward Barbados. Our course swung clear of the Virgin Islands, then off the Bahamas, and finally for the Florida coast.”
During the two days the Oregon was anchored at Bridgetown, Clark was told that units of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet were concentrated near the Dry Tortugas and at Hampton Roads. After conferring with his officers, the captain decided to set his course for Jupiter Inlet, Florida, where he could telegraph the Navy Department for further instructions.
The Jupiter lighthouse was sighted on the early evening of May 24. A whaleboat was sent ashore, and the news that the nation had breathlessly been waiting to hear was flashed to Washington: “Oregonarrived at Jupiter Inlet. Have enough coal to reach Dry Tortugas in 33 hours—Hampton Roads in 52 hours.”
The Grueling Odyssey Of Oregon Comes To An End
Secretary Long cabled an immediate reply: “If ship is in good condition go to Key West—otherwise Hampton Roads. The Navy Department congratulates you on your safe arrival, which has been reported to the President.”
There was no hesitation on the part of Captain Clark. The Oregon and its crew had jelled into a powerful and efficient fighting machine. The men were hell-bent to get at the Spanish, and the sooner the better. The battleship dashed for Key West at top speed.
About 4 am on May 26, Oregon was only a few miles from landfall. Suddenly a small dark object was spotted on a collision course. General quarters sounded, and as the weary crew scrambled to their battle stations, many wondered whether this trip—which seemed to last forever—would ever end.
The “dark object” turned out to be the revenue cutter Hudson. She had been detailed to escort the battleship into port.
After 68 grueling days, the odyssey of the Oregon had finally ended.
Long Journey Makes Strong Case For Canal
The fact that the battleship could make such a hazardous journey, and arrive at her destination safe and sound, testified to both the excellence of the vessel and the efficiency of her crew.
ButOregon’s famous voyage had significance far beyond the part she played in the Spanish-American War. The trip itself advertised to the public as well as to the military, as nothing else could have, the strategic necessity for building a canal across the Central American isthmus. A canal would have allowed the Oregon to steam 4,000 miles rather than 12,000. Accordingly, the United States entered into a treaty in 1901 to build a canal, one wide enough to accommodate battleships.
The cruise of the Oregon was described as “unprecedented in battleship history, and one which will long preserve its unique distinction.” Every American was stirred by the excitement of the adventure, and a few expressed their emotions in verse. John James Meehan, in his poem “The Race of the Oregon,” wrote:
“When your boys shall ask what the guns are for, Then tell them the tale of the Spanish War, And the breathless millions that looked upon The matchless race of the Oregon.”
This first appeared in Warfare History Network here.