(WHTM) — On Oct. 13, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a resolution calling for “a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months….”
This was the small beginning of the U.S. Navy, now the largest and most powerful in the world. It has almost 350,000 active duty personnel (As of 2021), and the estimated tonnage of just its active battle fleet exceeds that of the next 13 navies combined.
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Naval ships, of course, don’t last forever. Even the ones that survive in a war have a finite service life. Technological advances can make ship designs go obsolete (wooden sailing ships are nice to look at, but…), and the cost of maintaining an old vessel can reach a point where it’s cheaper to build something new. Some ships get put in mothballs, stored to be available for some future crisis (or for spare parts), scuttled (they make nice artificial reefs), or scrapped.
Or they can become museum ships. While for some very practical reasons we don’t have any naval vessels tied up alongside Riverfront Park, there are a number of retired navy ships you can visit within a few hours’ drive:
The Independence Seaport Museum along the Philadelphia waterfront has two former navy ships-including one of the most famous in American history.
The cruiser U.S.S. Olympia, the oldest remaining steel warship afloat, was commissioned in 1895. She served as the flagship of Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, during the Spanish-American War. She also served in World War I and then, for her final mission, brought the Unknown Soldier home in 1921.
The Submarine Becuna is a Balao-class submarine commissioned on May 27, 1944. She was sent to the Pacific Ocean, where she completed five wartime patrols, sank two ships and a half ships (sharing credit for one sinking with another sub), and earned four combat stars.
In 1951 she was modernized in the Navy’s Greater Underwater Propulsion & Power (GUPPY) Program. (The most obvious change to the casual observer is the streamlined sail which replaced the WWII conning tower.)
For more about Independence Seaport Museum, click here.
Right across from the Olympia and Becuna, on the east shore of the Delaware River, is the U.S.S. New Jersey, one of four Iowa class battleships built by the Navy during WWII. They were the largest, and last, battleships built by the United States.
The New Jersey (BB-62) is America’s most decorated battleship, with 19 Battle and Campaign stars. She was launched on the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor and served until 1991.
For more about the New Jersey, click here.
Baltimore has four ships on display in Inner Harbor, two Navy, and two coast guard. (Since the Coast Guard becomes part of the Navy in times of war, I’ll include them all.) The four ships are maintained by the Living Classrooms Foundation and Historic Ships of Baltimore.
For more about Historic Ships of Baltimore, click here.
The USS Constellation is a sloop-of-war, the last sail-only warship built by the United States Navy. She was constructed in 1854 and served in the Civil War. Somewhere along the way, she became confused with the original Constellation, a frigate built in 1797, and scrapped before the new ship was built. This controversy wasn’t resolved until the 1990s.
For more about Constellation, click here.
Submarine Torsk was commissioned on December 16, 1944, and was the only one out of ten Tench Class submarines to serve in World War II. On August 14, 1945, she torpedoed the last enemy ship sunk by the U.S. Navy in World War II. Torsk was brought to Baltimore as a museum and memorial in 1972.
For more about Torsk, click here.
Lightship Chesapeake (LV116) Launched in 1930, she served with the U.S. Lighthouse Service until it merged with the Coast Guard in 1939. Its job was to patrol the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. This meant long periods of anchoring in one place and shining its light to guide ships to safe harbors. With the coming of automatic navigation markers, lightships were phased out, and the Chesapeake moved to Baltimore in 1982.
For more about Chesapeake, click here.
U.S Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) 37 is the last surviving ship from the attack on Pearl Harbor. Commissioned in 1936, she was one of the Secretary of the Treasury Class cutters and served with distinction for more than 50 years until decommissioned in 1986.
Unfortunately, Cutter 37 was named after Secretary of the Treasury Roger B. Taney, who later, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, issued the Dred Scott decision. In 2020, following the death of George Floyd and weeks of protests nationwide, the Living Classrooms Foundation and Historic Ships of Baltimore announced plans to rename the ship after Justice Thurgood Marshall and cut Taney’s name from the stern of the ship. This did not go down well with some people, particularly veterans who served on the ship. So for right now, she is referred to by her hull identification number, WHEC (High Endurance Cutter)-37.
For more about Cutter 37, click here.
S.S. John W. Brown, which is berthed away from Inner Harbor and run by its own organization, is not a navy ship but is too important a part of history to pass up. She is one of two surviving Liberty Ships, the mass-produced freighters that carried men and material across the oceans during World War II. She is open for tours, and occasionally makes cruises-one of the few museum ships that does so.
For more about the Liberty Ship John W. Brown, click here.
U.S.S. Wisconsin (BB-64) is the third of the Iowa class battleships. Commissioned in 1944, she served in WWII, the Korean War, and Operation Desert Storm in 1991-the last time a U.S. Battleship participated in a foreign war.
For more about the Wisconsin, click here.
The gunboat Philadelphia, on exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, is the oldest American fighting vessel still in existence. On October 11, 1776, Philadelphia fought at the Battle of Valcour Island, where a small fleet under the command of Benedict Arnold took on a British force on Lake Champlain. They fought the British to a standstill but were forced to retreat. Philadelphia was sunk by British cannon fire. (While technically the Americans lost, they delayed the British advance south until the next year, when they were defeated at the Battle of Saratoga.)
Philadelphia sat on the bottom of Lake Champlain until raised in 1935, largely intact. She arrived at the museum in 1964.
For more about Philadelphia, click here.
U.S.S. Requin, a Tench class sub, was commissioned in August of 1945. In 1946, with World War II over, she became the navy’s first Radar Picket submarine. She mostly patrolled the East Coast, Northern Atlantic, and the Mediterranean Sea during the Cold War.
For more about the Requin, click here.
In 1990 she was brought to the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.