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The Burning of the USS Essex

USS Essex (from Minnesota Historical Society)


The USS Essex III, was sloop-of-war serving the US Navy from 1876-1931. Its service varied during this period, from its operations in active duty to its time in various reserve and militia units on the Great Lakes.  Unfortunately, the USS Essex was finally laid to rest after its auction to a scrapping company, just offshore of Duluth. Wreckage of the ship can still be seen there to this day[4].


In November of 1875, the US Navy was getting ready to introduce eight new sloops-of-war into their fleet. Among these new additions was the third USS Essex, a ship designed by the revered shipbuilder Donald McKay. Nearing its time of commissioning, the USS Essex was to be sent to the North Atlantic Fleet, where it would then be sent abroad to foreign posts if needed[1]. The U.S. Navy during this time period was lacking compared to its European counterparts. This can be attributed to both the quantity of ships the Navy had, and the combat effectiveness of these ships. The case being that the US Navy did not have the same level of defensive measures (such as iron hulls) on their ships as other global powers[4].

About the ships design

Authorized by President Abraham Lincoln just before his assassination, the USS Essex III was finally launched in 1876 out of Boston, and was the last primarily sail powered ship in the US Navy [5]. While it was designed to be mainly powered by sail, it had auxiliary steam power, whose smoke stack can be seen in photos just forward of the main mast.  This combination of sail and steam made the Essex an odd intermediate step in the transition away from sails in the US Navy fleet. However odd this design may be, it should not be interpreted as a shortcoming of the ship’s

The USS Essex, running off it’s steam engines (from Minnesota Historical Society)

designer, but rather a comment on the state of the US Navy in this period. The ship’s designer and builder, Donald McKay, was revered for his ship designs. Donald McKay’s clipper ships set records at the time. The USS Essex was one of his last ship designs, before he passed away in 1880. The ship was 185 ft long, and contained eight gun ports at the time of its launch [7].


USS Essex, with barracks deck installed (from Minnesota Historical Society)

The USS Essex III did not ever see direct conflict in its tours, and after its lifetime as a combat vessel (which was mostly military presence, and message running) was used for training exercises for Militias on the Great Lakes, such as the Naval Militia of Ohio, and the Toledo Reserves. During the training portion of its life, several modifications were done to the ship. These included adding a barracks deck over the hull, upgrading the engine and boilers, removing masts, changing out the guns (like the conversion from 6 pounders to 3 pounders in 1915), and in 1928 the engines were removed[3][. While the USS Essex never did see an active combat situation, it was the ship of two medal of honor recipients. Ordinary Seaman John Millmoore and First Class Fireman Henry Simpson were awarded the medal of honor for rescuing their shipmate, John Powers, from drowning when the USS Essex was in Monrovia Liberia during its time in the South Atlantic Squadron in 1877 [8][9]. Other notable activities of the USS Essex included taking on members of the shipwrecked Ranier, and providing military presence in 1886 in Ponape (now Pohnpei), Caroline Islands in order to aid missionaries during a native uprising.

End of Career

There came a point when the USS Essex could not stay functionally relevant to the US Navy any longer. The Navy was developing too fast for the ship to stay viable for warfare. The fact that the ship had been favored early in its career for being a fine ship helped secure the ship roles for training militias, but there was a stark contrast between the USS Essex and the ships it was around to see in its final years. Training exercises in its log books during its time with the Toledo Reserves show gun drills and sub target practice on one of their training voyages. The same log book was in the format of a torpedo boat log book, sometimes used for other ships in the reserves [3]. The USS Essex which was constructed in a time where iron hulled ships where becoming prominent, was severely outclassed by 1931. The fact was it was a wooden hulled ship, originally built with sails, boilers, and a steam engine. This style of ship was no longer able to be effectively upgraded to keep up, even as a training or receiving vessel. The antiquated ship could not be expected to compete with the more modern ships, or provide training relevant to the tactics employed by the new era of ships being built through the first world war and the time leading up to world war two.

The ship left the Navy by means of auction, and was sold to the highest bidder at $400. The rules of the auction stipulated that the ship would be sold to the highest bidder, who would handle the ship with respect. A.J. Klatzky of the Klatzky Iron and Metal company was the successful bidder at the auction. After the sale, the Klatzky Iron and Metal company removed the valuables from the ship, gifting some of the items to former officers and other former crewmembers of the ship. The capstan and anchor were given to Toledo, presumably because it was the ships first home on the Great Lakes. What is interesting, is that Duluth did not receive any valuables from the ship, despite what would soon come of the ship just off shore of its harbor[5].

Once the ship was stripped of valuables, it was positioned outside Duluth harbor. On October 13, 1931, the ship was anchored off the shores of Duluth, and burnt for scrap the next day by the Klatzky Iron and Metal company. This process involved affixing heavy steel cabling to the ship to prevent it from drifting[7]. They then doused the ship with 200 gallons of kerosene, to ensure the ship would burn away the wood from the scrapable metal. The scrapping company then light the USS Essex on fire and let it burn through the night. Once the ship was burnt to the waterline, it was pulled further up to shore as it continued to burn itself out, leaving behind the metal for the scrapping company, and parts of the hull left under the waterline[5]. To this day the beaches outside Duluth Harbor hold pieces of the wreckage of the USS Essex including the keelson, side keelsons, and piping. The site is a part of the National Register of Historic Places, and the damage from the elements is monitored by Maritime Heritage Minnesota.



The USS Essex sloop of war was the last remaining commissioned ship of the famous shipbuilder Donald McKay. The ship itself served multiple roles over its time in the Navy, and towards the end of its career spent time as a training vessel on the Great Lakes with the Toledo Reserves, the Naval Militia of Ohio, and the Minnesota Naval Reserves.

The USS Essex was the oldest steam cruiser in the US Navy at the time of its burning. It was also the last of Donald McKay’s ships in use, and the remnants of the ship are the only lasting fragments of any Donald McKay ship. The last pieces from a renowned shipbuilders career sit in sand and shallow waters currently eroding away subjected to sand, water, and freezing conditions. The USS Essex III should not have been sold off for scrap, but should have been preserved. The Essex came about in a time when the US Navy was modernizing, and the ship itself was a reflection of this in more than one way. Boasting sails and steam power at its launch, the ship was an embodiment of where the Navy had come from and was moving towards. Throughout its career the Essex was repeatedly altered, modernizing it. Had the USS Essex been preserved instead of scrapped, it would have made a very insightful exhibit on the history of shipbuilding, Naval technological advances. A ship like this, one whom was home to two Medal of Honor recipients, and had this level of historical significance, should have been preserved from the beginning.

Remains of the USS Essex, outside of Duluth Harbor (from Minnesota Historical Society

It is worth noting that while the ship was destroyed, not all of the history of the USS Essex must be lost. The wreckage of the ship could be actively preserved, beyond what has been done thus far. Maritime Heritage Minnesota does have assessments of the wreckage, and a proposal for potential preservation methods of the wreckage [6].

Primary Sources

  1. OUR NAVY. (1875, Nov 01).Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922) 
  2. Log Book 3 of the USS Essex (Oct 1, 1877-Mar 31, 1878)
  3. Log Book 56 of the USS Essex (1915, Apr 01- Sep 30) Maritime Heritage Minnesota

Secondary Sources

  1. Lake Superior Shipwrecks : U.S.S. Essex. (n.d.)
  2. Anfinson, S. F. (n.d.). The Wreck of the USS ESSEX.
  3. Merriman, A., & Olson, C. (n.d.). USS Essex Shipwreck Assessment 2013.
  4. U.S.S. Essex – Steam Naval Sloop 1876-1930.
  5. “Henry, Simpson” (n.d.) Congressional Medal of Honor Society
  6. “Millmore, John” (n.d.) Congressional Medal of Honor Society

Further Reading