Wednesday, January 16, 2008

THE MCKINLEY CRUISER

I have been collecting postcards that depict battleships, cruisers, and destroyers built prior to 1920 in all navies. It took a while, but I finally obtained cards with photographs of each of the battleships that were commissioned in the U.S. Navy. After that, I started to search for postcards that depict Navy cruisers.

On one of these searches, I located a card depicting the Warship “McKinley” at anchor in Whalom Park, near Fitchburg, Massachusetts. A close look at the card reveals that the “warship” is really just a big model. Although it resembles a cruiser of the ‘great white fleet,’ it has no guns.


The pseudo-warship puzzled me, so I decided to see what I could find out at the Fitchburg, Massachusetts web page and other sources. The Fitchburg Historical Society has a photograph of the cruiser proceeding from the upper common. I also found an archived article in the New York Times of October 29, 1896, that provided some more details about the cruiser.

The “McKinley Cruiser” was built in Fitchburg in 1896, for use in the Republican presidential campaign of that year. It was made from a flat construction car of the Fitchburg and Leominster Street Railway Company, and transported on streetcar trucks. The cruiser was forty feet long and carried four guns in sponsons, two turrets on the deck, boats, an anchor, and other fittings. It carried a 125-man crew composed primarily of members of the Fitchburg Athletic Club and prominent young Republicans from Fitchburg and vicinity. There were two companies of sailors in full uniform carrying oars with torches, a company of engineers carrying the sailing light colors, a company of marines with torch guns, and a drum corps of twenty men. The crew was led by a captain, a lieutenant commander acting as executive officer, a full staff of lieutenants and ensigns, a chief engineer, and marine officers.




The cruiser took part in torchlight processions in Fitchburg, Leominster, Lancaster, Clinton and other towns. The McKinley supporters even attempted to take the cruiser to Boston and then to Salem for a parade. The plan was thwarted when the West End Street Railway Company refused to handle the cruiser, claiming that the company had no legal right to transport the car, and expressing concerns about liability in case of an accident.

After the campaign, the McKinley cruiser was placed in Whalom Lake. Since it was not seaworthy, it could not be floated, and was not at the shoreline. It was installed on top of pilings, similar to an offshore oil rig, but with its hull partially submerged so as to appear to be floating. It was placed far enough out in the lake that the various steam launches (Naiad, Margaret, and others) used by the park to carry passengers on scenic lake tours would pass between it and the shoreline. Strings of electric lights were strung upon it, and it was illuminated at night.



On July 4 of 1908, the cruiser was set afire by pranksters. It burned down to the water line, leaving a platform almost flush with the water’s surface. Almost immediately after the fire, plans were made and executed to replace it. A floating replica was made and put into the lake, apparently during 1908. There are some subtle differences between the original and the replica in appearance. The first picture in this posting shows the replica; the others, I believe are all of the original cruiser.



Unfortunately, the replica fell into disrepair. It sank in either 1915 or 1922, and was never replaced. Visitors to Whalom Lake today, I am told, can see the cruiser lying on the bottom of the lake. If we could re-float it, the McKinley Cruiser would probably be the largest McKinley campaign item of all.

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