Ask McGehee

How many ships have been named Mobile?

The most mysterious of ships named for our city was a freighter similar to this one, which sailed out of Mobile in December of 1900 and was never heard from again.

Austal recently launched the USS Mobile, the fifth U.S. Navy ship to honor Alabama’s port city, but there have also been at least three commercial freighters so named since the 1850s.

The first two Navy vessels were launched under other names. The first, originally known as the USS Tennessee, was renamed the Mobile in 1864 and sold a year later and returned to civilian service as the Republic. And in a weather pattern quite familiar these days, she was lost in a hurricane on October 25, 1865.

A German ocean liner called the Cleveland was seized by the U.S. government during World War I and renamed the USS Mobile. She successfully transported troops home to New York at the war’s end.

In 1942, another USS Mobile was launched. After earning 11 battle stars and serving on numerous combat missions, she was unceremoniously scrapped in 1959. A decade later, an amphibious cargo ship was the next to bear the name, and she saw service in the Vietnam and Gulf wars before being decommissioned in 1994.

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The ships honoring Mobile in the private sector had some more colorful stories attached to them. One called the Mobile City was built in Mobile during the early 1850s but reportedly sank on her maiden voyage.

A Ship of Scandal

Next was a British-built vessel, the City of Mobile, which had a route between the UK and New York, and was received with much fanfare during a visit to Mobile in 1857. The Mobile Register termed her “one of the finest ships the port has ever sheltered and named in honor of our home.”

That same year, the City of Mobile’s reputation was severely tarnished when it transported a group of 108 young female Irish immigrants to New York. A charitable group had arranged their passage with plans to put them to work in upstate factories.

Unfortunately, that organization only provided one matron to oversee the girls who quickly caught the attention of the sailors on board. Although there was later much criticism about the ship allowing contact between their crew and passengers, the facts are that when the ship anchored in New York harbor, a number of the sailors secretly escorted an untold number of the young ladies off the vessel.

Some were taken to brothels and others became prostitutes on the street. One, who was identified as Susan Smith, was found “on Broadway in dire circumstances. She was bruised from beatings and near starvation — forced into crime and prostitution.” The case was reported in newspapers around the nation as well as the venerable London Times. 

A Ship of Hope

In 1879, the Mobile Register optimistically reported: “The Mobile, the new steamship to ply between Liverpool and Mobile, arrived in port and was welcomed by the firing of cannon, the ringing of bells and the cheers of the people who turned out to see her. She brought over a full cargo. Mobile is not dead nor dying but preparing for a new and lasting prosperity.” In reality, the city had been suffering a post-war decline and was financially bankrupt at the time.

A Ship of Mystery

By 1895, another vessel was given the name Mobile. This steam-powered freighter was built in England and arrived in Mobile in January of 1896. The ship’s captain was presented with “a magnificent silver service and a handsome gold locket encrusted with diamonds in the form of an anchor.”

On Monday, February 9, 1896, the 103.6-foot steamship departed Mobile carrying “the largest and most valuable cargo that has ever left the port: 8,846 bales of cotton; 10,000 sacks of flour; 2,849 oak staves and 500 loads of timber.” Mobile had finally emerged from its financial malaise.

The Mobile plied the Atlantic along with countless other freighters for the next few years, and in December of 1900, was in Mobile over the Christmas holidays. On December 28, loaded with a full cargo of grain and cotton, she steamed out into the Gulf and into oblivion.

She had been bound for Bremen, Germany, but by February 19, 1901, a news account stated, “There is still no news of the SS Mobile, which is now 26 days overdue, and all hopes of her safety are practically abandoned.”

The weather from all accounts had been calm, and no sign of the ship or her 26-man crew were ever found. Wireless radio transmission would not be standard aboard ocean going vessels for more than a decade, so the ship vanished without any chance of summoning help. A monument to those British crewmen was ultimately installed in Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery.

Nearly 120 years later, the USS Mobile was launched with much fanfare, although without the firing of cannons and church bells of an earlier era. The ship has recently completed acceptance trials and will proudly bear the name of Alabama’s port city for years to come.

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