Ask McGehee: Wasn’t an earlier U.S. battleship named Alabama?

Postcard of the original USS Alabama

Above A postcard picturing the original USS Alabama.

Yes. The USS Alabama, which has been a popular tourist draw since 1965, was not the first military vessel to bear that name but was the second battleship so named. In the late 1890s, as America geared up to be a military power, members of Birmingham’s Commercial Club prepared a resolution to the secretary of the Navy requesting that a new battleship be named to honor their state.

Built in a Philadelphia shipyard and launched in 1898, the ship was commissioned in October of 1900 as the USS Alabama. Newspapers across the state termed her the “new queen of the American Navy.”

A Suitable Gift

Even before she was commissioned, a Mobilian was challenging his fellow Alabamians to raise money for a special gift for the new ship. Max Hamburger Jr., president of the Mobile Press Club, began contacting newspapers throughout the state asking for the names of the state’s “most prominent and patriotic citizens.” 

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The goal was to present the new ship with a silver service as a gift from Alabamians. Mobile jeweler E. O. Zadek commissioned the service from New York’s Whiting Manufacturing Company on Broadway. The service, of sterling silver, would consist of a large punch bowl, a tray, 24 punch cups, a jardiniere for flowers and a pair of five-branch electric candelabras. The set took “several men ten months” to create and the cost was $3,000 — or the equivalent of over $100,000 today.

The punchbowl and tray were decorated with shields of the State of Alabama and etched with “the image of the battleship swinging her anchor in the harbor of Mobile Bay.” Between the shields was engraved a poem written by Miss Eoline Russell whose father ran the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. A news account described the service as “following the lines of the new art.”

When completed, the service was placed in Whiting’s show windows facing a bustling Broadway, then that city’s main retailing center. Meanwhile, plans were being made for its presentation ceremonies in Mobile.

A Mardi Gras Presentation

In December of 1902, it was announced that the USS Alabama would visit Mobile in time for the 1903 Mardi Gras celebration. The location for the presentation ceremony would be the Mobile Theater, which stood on Conti Street between Royal and Water streets. The chairman of the event was General Julian Wythe Whiting, and it was announced that the principal speaker at the event would be local attorney Ned Robinson whom the papers termed “the eloquent young statesman of Mobile who has served in the legislature and is one of Alabama’s most brilliant sons.”

The new battleship was too large to swing her anchor in Mobile Bay and instead had to drop her anchor off Fort Morgan. Her officers were transported up to Mobile and gathered in the combination Cotton Exchange and Chamber of Commerce, which stood on Commerce Street near the riverfront. From there, the group paraded up St. Francis Street, turned south on Water Street until reaching Conti where they entered a side door to the theatre.

Inside, all of Mobile had turned out, and patriotic bunting covered the boxes. The gleaming silver service sat at the center of the stage as a full orchestra played. Speeches followed by the governor, the mayor and Ned Robinson. After the Naval officers accepted the silver service and enjoyed Mobile’s Mardi Gras festivities, they sailed off. It is unknown if the vessel ever returned.

A Well-Traveled Ship and a Sad Ending

The USS Alabama never had the stellar wartime career of her World War II successor. At first, she primarily operated along the Atlantic Coast and later joined the Atlantic Fleet sailing around the world. After undergoing extensive modernizations in 1912, she was used for training purposes until the end of World War I when the U.S. Naval Academy briefly used her.

In May of 1920, she was placed out of commission and transferred to the War Department for use as an aerial bombing target. In the fall of 1921, the bombs of Army aviators sent her to the bottom of Chesapeake Bay and the former “queen” was unceremoniously salvaged for scrap.

Two of the participants from that grand Mardi Gras presentation ceremony would not live to learn her sad fate. Orator Ned Robinson got up from his dinner table in 1908 and shot himself. Max Hamburger, “whom no one could know intimately and not be his friend,” and who had worked so hard to raise the money for that silver, was found dead in a room in Mobile’s Cawthon Hotel in 1910. The cause was given as “apoplexy brought on by exposure.” Both men were 35.

The whereabouts of the silver service is unknown.

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