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Did Chicago once have a brick battleship?
April 22, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I was looking on Wikipedia, and discovered Chicago once had its very own battleship. Whodathunkit? What became of this proud vessel?

Elendil's Heir, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

You read right, my friend. Chicago once had its own battleship, built and manned by the U.S. Navy. We're not talking about some purely honorary designation, either, bestowed on a ship that spent its career on salt water. The battleship Illinois was stationed in Lake Michigan, the better to defend our shores against marauding Canadians. But you skipped the best part. The Illinois represented a bold departure in maritime design — as far as I know, never seen before or since. It wasn't made of steel, notoriously prone to rust and dents. Oh, no. This was a product of the Chicago school of naval architecture: a 348-foot ship of the line made of brick.

The Illinois was a full-size replica constructed for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. When conceived in 1891, the Navy was in the midst of converting its modest collection of coastal patrol vessels into a fleet worthy of a world power, which the U.S. in the late 19th century was rapidly becoming. The brass saw the fair as a chance to build support for its ambitious plans: the Illinois was a prototype of the real battleships Indiana and Massachusetts, which were then in the works.

Why a replica? Wikipedia, if you'll permit a brief digression, offers the following entertaining theory:

When the Columbian Exposition was being planned, it was decided to showcase this new naval technology. However, the Rush-Bagot Treaty forbade warships to operate on the Great Lakes. So it was decided that a full scale replica of a battleship would be constructed.

This is why I love Wikipedia. The Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817 between the U.S. and Great Britain does, in fact, provide for the demilitarization of the Great Lakes, making it superficially plausible that the U.S. would build a fake battleship rather than alarm the Brits about our warlike intentions. The implication is that, were it not for Rush-Bagot, the federal government would have built an actual battleship in Lake Michigan for public amusement a battleship that would then have been confined to the Great Lakes for its entire existence because, prior to opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, there was no way to get it out. Only the crack addicts who write for Wikipedia could possibly believe this — there's nothing about it in contemporary press accounts. The real reason for a replica undoubtedly was that when you wanted to put something on exhibit, models were what you built.

Still, the Navy could surely have gotten by with something less elaborate — a ship in a bottle, maybe, or at any rate safely parked on dry land. That it didn't is a tribute to the genius behind the project, Capt. Dick Meade, who proposed to construct a facsimile warship in the waters of Lake Michigan, reachable from a pier adjacent to the fairgrounds. Meade's concept, much ridiculed when first bruited, was to build a phony tub that would be a convincing counterfeit of the real thing.

By all accounts it was. Constructed and furnished for $115,000, big money at the time, the Illinois rested on a foundation of piles and timber, on top of which sat a faux hull made of brick covered with concrete to give the appearance of steel. The superstructure, including guns, turrets, and armor, consisted of wood framing and metal coated with cement.

The rest, by and large, was real, including the decking, masts and smokestacks plus, evidently, many of the smaller armaments, such as Gatling guns and breech-loading cannon. There were engines, boilers, a steam launch, boats, anchors and chains, searchlights, winches, cabins and mess rooms, a bridge and charthouse, and everything else you'd expect to find aboard a mighty warship — even a brace of cutlasses and revolvers. A trench had been dug in the lake bottom so that the Illinois could launch torpedoes at any enemy craft that strayed into its crosshairs. (What, if anything, they were actually launched at I haven't been able to discover.) The Navy detailed a crew to wear old-time uniforms and explain the the ship's intricacies and exhibits to the gawkers who crowded the decks.

It was a grand spectacle — maybe a little too grand. People began to get big ideas. After the fair closed, the Navy donated the replica and its furnishings to the state of Illinois. Soon a scheme was afoot to move the Illinois to a new berth at a pier off Van Buren Street, where it would serve as the headquarters for the newly-formed Illinois naval militia. Let's set aside the practical difficulties of moving a fake ship through eight miles of actual water and consider a more fundamental question: Why would Illinois need a naval militia? The Tribune made the case: 

There is no portion of the country so vulnerable as that along the great lakes. The only protection such cities as Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee and Duluth would have in the event of war with England is the old side-wheeler Michigan [A]s a matter of self-protection, the cities on the great lakes should have well-trained battalions of naval militia, for in them would lie the greatest strength in repelling an attack from Canada.

You're thinking: I can't imagine a more appropriate defense against the Canadian menace than a brick battleship. My thought precisely. Further insight may be derived from the fact that the Illinois naval militia had become fashionable among Chicago's smart set (Marshall Field was an associate member). A glittering party aboard the Illinois in the summer of 1894 was attended by the militia's officers and men in full dress uniform plus 250 of their friends. An orchestra played; beautiful women strolled among Chinese lanterns and colored lamps. "The interior of the vessel was decorated with flags and cutlasses and guns and pistols and various other things that belong to a great war vessel," the Trib gushed. You get the picture: the point wasn't to accomplish anything, but rather to look good while doing it. 

The scheme to move the mock ship soon went aground. (Not the Illinois, though. It already was aground.) The problem wasn't any deficiency of the vessel, but rather that ancient mariner's curse: mutiny. Dissension rose within the ranks of the Chicago contingent of the Illinois naval militia, the details of which need not concern us. (One mutineer's beef: "[T]he Commander [ordered] blue flannel uniforms at a cost of between $8 and $9 when white duck uniforms at from $2 to $3 would have done just as well.") The Navy ordered the quarrelsome unit disbanded.

That meant the end of the Illinois, too. Although piles had been driven off Van Buren Street, plans to relocate the model battleship advanced no further. By mid-1895, under the headline Now Only a Wreck Nothing Left of the World's Fair Battleship But a Name, the Tribune reported that the Illinois, guarded by a lone watchman, had been stripped of equipment and was slowly being broken apart by lake ice. The South Park Commissioners declared they wanted the derelict gone, and a few months later the New York Times reported it had been sold to junk dealers. In March 1896 the Tribune published this one-sentence update:

The worst forebodings of those persons who have suspected that the battleship Illinois at Jackson Park would go to pieces some day have been realized.

That was the last heard of Chicago's masonry warship. The name Illinois didn't disappear from the naval rolls, however. The following year the Navy laid the keel for a real battleship Illinois, which was launched in 1898 and scrapped in 1956 after a conventional salt water career. Construction of American military vessels during this period was beset with difficulties; the Tribune reported problems with defective steel. No doubt a few old salts groused: We should have built these suckers out of brick.

— Cecil Adams
Photo from the Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views of the World's Columbian Exposition, by C. D. Arnold and H. D. Higinbotham

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