The Boat That Sank / The Robert E Lee and World War Two

Sometimes a name became so famous it finds itself attached to more than just one boat. Such was the case with the name of the famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee. One famous Mississippi steam boat was named the Robert E. Lee and much has been written about it’s famous race against the steamboat Natchez in 1870. There was another vessel of the same name whose story almost faded from history and then suddenly reappeared about sixty-years later in 2001. This story is about the World War Two sinking of the passenger ship Robert E. Lee. This is also the story of the U-Boat U-166. Both vessels ended up being the boat that sank and all of this occurred in the Gulf of Mexico during 1942.

The Steamship Robert E. Lee

ss robert e lee

SS Robert E. Lee, courtesy Mariner's Museum, Newport News, VA

There’s an interesting story about a ship named the Robert E. Lee that took place during World War Two, long after the Mississippi River steamboat race. The Robert E. Lee was a combination freight/passenger steamship owned by the Eastern Steamship Line. One of the things that make this particular story so unique is that it occurred not far off the shore of the southern U.S. and it involved combat…combat against German U-Boats… something we typically associated with events that happened far away from America’s shores. This historic incident took place within fifty miles of U.S. soil. U-Boats in World War 2 operated just a few miles off America’s southern shores.

The Gulf of Mexico War Theater of War

The Gulf of Mexico was a fairly active area during the war. While battles were taking place in Europe and Africa and in the Pacific Theater, German U-Boats were infiltrating the Gulf of Mexico via the Straits of Florida between Key West and Cuba. The goal of the Germans in this area was to disrupt shipping. Ports along the southern United States in Louisiana and Texas were critical to America’s war effort. Oil tankers regularly left ports bound for the European continent. Allied ships were sunk. Shipping was being disrupted. German U-Boats were having a measure of success and as a result the United States put into effect many countermeasures.

world war 2 depth charge

Standard World War Two anti-submarine depth charge, from author's collection

Protecting Gulf Shipping

The U.S. maintained several army airfields in both Texas and Louisiana. Aircraft were deployed routinely over the Gulf to search for U-Boats. Naval and Coast Guard vessels were on regular patrol searching for the U-Boats and when and if found would drop depth charges. Coastal blackouts were the rule of the day. The city of Galveston Texas had forced blackouts at night to reduce the chance of U-Boat attack. The city itself was not the prime target of course but the ships passing by were. A ship passing a city along the shore at night would cast a silhouette which could be detected by a prying U-Boat periscope. Ships as standard procedure would travel without running lights however background lighting had to be kept to an absolute minimum. Ships passing by Gulf coast cities were a prime target for the U Boat submarine.


PC Class World War Two Naval Patrol Boat

To give you an idea of the scope of activity in the Gulf of Mexico during the war years, the following statistics are revealing. Over seventy ships, both naval and merchant, were U-Boat victims in the Gulf of Mexico. Fifty-six vessels were sunk outright. It has been said that at least twenty U-Boats were active in the Gulf at any one time. The peak U-Boat Gulf activity was during the years 1942  and 1943. German World War 2 submarines were a constant threat to Allied shipping.

The Robert E. Lee and the Sunken U-Boat

According to U.S. Government reports, there was only one German U-Boat officially sunk in the Gulf of Mexico. This was U-166 which had sailed to the Gulf from the German U-Boat Base at Lorient France. To this very day the U-Boat remains in a watery grave just off the mouth of the Mississippi River. The area of U-166’s final resting place is also just a few hundred yards from the sunken wreckage of the SS Robert E. Lee. As it turned out, the SS Robert E. Lee was the last victim of U-166. This particular U-Boat was reported to have sunk a total of four Allied ships.

u-boat base at lorient france

Old German U-Boat Base at Lorient France

The SS Robert E. Lee, built in 1924 in Newport News Virginia, was attacked on July 30th 1942 about forty-five miles southeast of the entrance to the Mississippi River. The steamship had been on a planned route from Trinidad to Tampa and then on to New Orleans. During it’s voyage, the ship was actually diverted from Tampa and simply continued to New Orleans from Trinidad accompanied by a U.S. Naval escort ship, PC-566. One of the ironic things regarding the passenger list of the steamship involved was just who made up most of the passenger list. It just so happened that by a quirk of fate the Robert E. Lee’s passengers were mostly survivors of previously torpedoed ships on their way to the United States.

Two additional articles on our Western Trips site you’ll find interesting are Galveston’s World War Two Defenses and the Defenses of San Francisco Bay.

The Attack

On the night of July 30th 1942 the SS Robert E. Lee was hit with a torpedo just aft of it’s engine room. The torpedo was spotted by lookouts at about 200 hundred yards from the ship but there was no time to avoid being struck. The engines and steering were wrecked and the Robert E. Lee sunk in about fifteen minutes. Twenty-five people lost their lives in the sinking of the Robert E. Lee.

Naval patrol craft, PCC-566, which had been escorting the steamer spotted the U-Boat periscope and gave chase. PC-566 dropped ten depth charges. An oil slick was spotted shortly afterwards but without any other evidence there was the possibility that the German U-Boat escaped the scene.

grumman patrol aircraft in world war two

Type of Grumman JF4 patrol aircraft operating out of Louisiana airfields during World War Two

The Amazing Discovery of the Robert E Lee and U-166

Although, the Robert E. Lee was certainly sunk, U-166 became a kind of “Flying Dutchman” of the Gulf. After the oil slick was spotted after the 1942 attack, the boat was never heard from or seen again. Efforts to find the wreck, if there was one, were never successful.  It took many decades but in the year 2001 the German U-Boat, U-166, was discovered at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, and then by accident. Scientists working for a firm searching the Gulf of Mexico seabed for a suitable pipeline location found the wreck of the Robert E. Lee.  Less than two miles away was discovered another wreck. Images of the second wreck discovered by the underwater cameras didn’t fit any already identified wrecks cataloged for that area. By the same token it did resemble the missing U-Boat.

As it turned out, the wreckage was later confirmed to be U-166. Intensive camera exploration of the exterior of the sunken vessel was undertaken in 2003. Indentations were spotted that would be consistent with depth charge explosions. There was also evidence of possible secondary explosions after the pressure hull was punctured. Camera images show that the U-Boat had broken in two during the counterattack by PC-566. The wreckage of the Robert E. Lee lies mostly intact in over 4,500 feet of water. This makes it beyond the range of recreational divers. In the case of the World War II submarine U-166, the site where this vessel lies has been designated a “war grave” due to the fifty-two of her crew entombed there. This prohibits any attempts in the future to salvage the wreckage.

(Photos from the public domain unless otherwise stated)

Fetterman Massacre

The Frontier Cavalry

One of the most significant battles of the U.S. frontier army in the 1860’s was the Fetterman Fight which is often referred to as the Fetterman Massacre. This battle among the U.S. Cavalry and Sioux Indians occurred in Wyoming a decade before the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There’s been a tremendous amount written  about Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn. Much less has been written about a conflict which happened in Wyoming, about 25 miles south of the present day city of Sheridan.

Diagram of Fort Phil Kearny, 1866

The Bozeman Trail

Back in the mid to latter part of the 1800’s many areas of the western U.S. where immigrant traffic was significant. One place in particular was the area of northern Wyoming. During the 1860’s, army forts were built along an emigrant path called the Bozeman Trail. This trail was a cutoff from the heavily traveled east/west Platte Road and Oregon Trail which was the main overland trail used by people moving to the west from the area of western Missouri. The Bozeman Trail ran northwest from the Platte Road beginning near Fort Laramie, WY. This trail ran to Montana where gold mining at that time was booming. Fort Laramie as well as Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C.S. Smith to the north were built along the Bozeman Trail to help protect wagon trains from Indian attack. Much of the trails traffic at that time were from miners heading to the gold fields. There are many side stories that go along with the history of this area but one, the Fetterman Fight, in particular, is of historical interest.

The Settlers and Miners Flood the Area

Fort Phil Kearny which was directly on the Bozeman Trail north of Fort Laramie was under constant assault from several Indian tribes, most notably the Lakota Sioux. The issue from the Native American perspective was simply that they had occupied this land for centuries and were understandably not happy to give it up. The massive flow of settlers were a steady reminder to them that things were changing fast. The gold boom in Montana worsened the situation from the perspective of the Indians. In addition, the emigration from the east disturbed the buffalo hunting grounds which were the main source of sustenance for the plains tribes. In a situation like this conflict is inevitable.

Colonel Henry B. Carrington, Commander of Fort Phil Kearney

The Fetterman Massacre

There were many skirmishes between the U.S.cavalry and Indian during this period and  many books have been published on the topic.Many moves as well have been produced on the subject of the Indian Wars. Regarding the area of Wyoming and Montana there was one conflict in the 1860’s which stood out among all others.This was called the Fetterman Massacre. In essence, an entire command of cavalry and infantry soldiers (81 in all) commanded by a Captain William J. Fetterman stationed at Fort Phil Kearny were annihilated by a surprise grouping of some 1500-2000 or more Indians on Dec 21st, 1866. The battle itself lasted only about thirty minutes. There are many reasons why this occurred and who may or may not have been to blame. Most accounts appear to place the blame on an overly eager cavalry officer who reportedly disobeyed direct orders from the fort commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington.

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On the same day of this massacre, the Indians had attacked another site just outside Fort Phil Kearny and Captain Fetterman was sent out with his troops to give chase. A small group of Indians made themselves known to the soldiers not far from the fort and near a rise in the terrain. Captain Fetterman, in pursuit, led his troops over this small rise. This was only about one mile from the fort itself.

Modern day Bozeman Trail Historical Marker

Unknown to Fetterman was the fact that the Indians had hid in gulleys and behind rocks just over the crest ready to spring the trap. After ascending the rise, the troopers were greatly overwhelmed by the attacking Indians. The rise was in eyesight of the fort but not the battle site just over the rise.

The Aftermath and Conclusions

The Fetterman Fight in 1866 stood as the U.S. Cavalry’s worst defeat up to that date. George Armstrong Custer’s  battle was still 10 years into the future. That historic battle would take the place of the Fetterman Massacre as the worst cavalry defeat during the Indian Wars.


Site of the Fetterman Massacre

The obvious fact that the troops in this instance were vastly outnumbered certainly contributed to the defeat.  In addition, the soldiers were using outdated weaponry such as the single shot muzzle loading Springfield Civil War era rifle. This was before the use of repeating rifles which changed the odds greatly.  A contributing factor was that the soldiers in this battle were not considered experienced Indian fighters and did not display the horsemanship of the average Indian warrior. Although taking place very near the fort, the battle field could not be seen from Fort Phil Kearney and this delayed the sending of reinforcements in any timely manner.

Also, you’ll enjoy our photo article regarding the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon Texas during the Red River War.

Much was made of the fact that Captain Fetterman went against the orders of his commander, Colonel Carrington. The question of why Fetterman led his troops over the rise will never be answered for certain.

As a side note, there are many stories connected with this particular battle, the fort itself, the commanding officer of Fort Phil Kearny, a Congressional inquiry and the army’s response. A decade later the Battle of the Little Bighorn was actually a continuance of the unrest in the Wyoming/Montana region. There are some very interesting books available on the subject and you’ll probably find information at your local library that cover these topics from both the governments perspective and that of the Indian. Only the Battle of the Little Bighorn stands as a larger defeat for the frontier U.S. Cavalry.

Fetterman Battlefield Site Plaque

What the visitor to this site in Wyoming will see is a monument dedicated in 1908 at the very sight of the battle (the top of Lodgepole Ridge). Fort Phil Kearny itself was burned down by the Indians shortly after the army vacated the fort some two years later supposedly because the expanding railroad was making the trail obsolete and as part of an agreement to end Red Cloud’s War of which the Fetterman Massacre was a part. Red Cloud’s War, led by Chief Red Cloud, is often referred to as the one Indian War lost by the U.S.

Visiting the Site

There is a monument (shown above) at the site of the battle which is accessible to visitors. As mentioned above, the monument was erected during a ceremony on July 3, 1908. The site is in Johnson County Wyoming, about 25 miles south of Sheridan Wyoming and just west of Interstate-90. For the history minded traveler, this site would be a great addition to a western U.S. trip planner.

(Photos and images from the public domain)

Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty Ship

World War Two Liberty Ships

When you step on to the deck of the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien you are stepping into history. The Jeremiah O’Brien will take you back to the era of World War Two. These were the times of Rosie The Riveter, bell-bottomed trousers, rationing and military mobilization in the scale the world had never seen before. It was a time when military ships were built along the west coast in a matter of a month.

ss Jeremiah O brien

SS Jeremiah O'Brien

The 441 foot long S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien is one of only two surviving Liberty Ships of the 2,700 which were built during World War Two. This historic ship now is permanently berthed at San Francisco’s Fishermans Wharf and is open to the public. Visitors can tour the entire interior of the vessel including the engine room area. If you have the opportunity to visit San Francisco I would highly recommend you add it to your San Francisco vacation itinerary. It’s a fun side trip for the entire family. This ship now constitutes a national treasure and we’re fortunate it’s been saved. It serves as a living memorial to all who built, supplied and served on these Liberty Ships. Many were constructed at the old Kaiser Shipyard just across the bay in Richmond California.

The successor to the Liberty Ships were the Victory Ships. Many of those were also produced at the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards. Another good stop on your San Francisco Bay vacation is the Rosie the Riveter Memorial Park in Richmond where the SS Red Oak Victory Ship is open for self guided tours. The Red Oak ship actually stayed in service through the Vietnam War and is now a permanent exhibit at the Rosie the Riveter Park. Richmond is located on San Francisco Bay northeast of San Francisco and north of Berkeley.

You will also want to see our articles and photos on our Western Trips website regarding the Rosie the Riveter Park and the Victory Ship SS Red Oak.

ss red oak victory ship

SS Red Oak Victory Ship

There are some truly amazing facts about the O’Brien. The ship itself was built in only 56 days in South Portland Maine. She was launched on June 19, 1943 and made seven voyages during World War Two. From July 1943 to October 1944 the O’Brien made four sailings between the U.S. and England. In addition to that, the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien was a veteran of both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war.The O’Brien also took part in our D-Day operations which we all know was critical to winning the war.

liberty ship

O'Brien Liberty Ship, San Francisco

The Liberty Ships were essential to our war effort. German U-Boats were sinking merchant vessels in the Atlantic. England was under siege and the Japanese were making large advances in the Pacific theater. There was a huge need to transport both troops and supplies to the war zones including Great Britain which was chronically short of supplies because of the German U-Boat stranglehold. The Liberty Ships seemed to be the answer for transporting crucial supplies both of a military nature and a humanitarian nature.

The crew of a Liberty Ship such as the Jeremiah O’Brien was about 43 civilians. During the war years there was also a military guard contingent assigned to the ships. If military supplies were carried, the military assigned a cargo officer to accompany the crew.

When the war ended,the Jeremiah O’Brien joined the mothball fleet of spare vessels grouped on the Sacramento River just east of San Francisco Bay. Some of these spare ships were sold off to foreign nations. Others were refitted into commercial use and still others just stayed moored in the river.

rosie the riveter poster

Rosie the Riveter World War Two poster

During the 1960’s various groups decided to try and save one Liberty Ship for posterity and historical purposes so that future generations would be able to learn about these ships. In 1978 the National Liberty Ship Memorial non-profit association was started . Their purpose was to raise funds to restore and maintain an unaltered Liberty Ship. The group decided to choose the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien for their project. The O’Brien was in generally excellent condition and after much volunteer work and a good deal of money the O’Brien returned to service in 1979.

The O’Brien is now a living museum moored at Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco California and is open for self-guided tours. I have been on the ship several times and I would highly recommend it for any family looking for a low cost way to enjoy fun and education at the same time. The Jeremiah O’Brien also schedules several San Francisco Bay area day cruises during the year which is always a fun excursion and the proceeds help the association cover the costs of maintenance. The O’Brien is truly a gift for those wishing to explore the World War Two era.

You can visit the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien at Pier 45 at San Francisco’s Fishermans Wharf. Hours are daily 9A-4P. Closed January 1st and Thanksgiving Day. For more information on the ship and for a schedule of events and sailings please see

(Photos are from author’s private collection)

The Sonora Desert / Fort Yuma Steamboats

An American River Like No Other

sonora desert

Sonoran Desert

The Colorado is a river that exists in a part of the American Southwest where one would think there would be no river. The Colorado River didn’t flow past mighty settlements like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Memphis and New Orleans. After all, this was the Sonora Desert. The Colorado River passed through hot sands and barren wilderness where next to nothing grew. Vegetation was spares to say the least and even the Native Americans who lived near it had a difficult time to even survive. This was a water stream that penetrated a land where there wasn’t water and for someone to think for a moment that this river, the Colorado and Fort Yuma, would someday be an aorta of commerce was totally laughable at best. the river would carry 500,000 tons of silt and sediment per day, in an average day, through the Grand Canyon.

The Colorado River flow was unlike the large rivers of the midwest. The lower Colorado bisects two large deserts in the southwest, the Sonora Desert on the Arizona side and the Mojave Desert on the California side. To the south of the Mojave Desert was the Salton Basin which was a large depression 235 feet below sea level. This large depression would eventually fill up years later, in 1905, when a levee broke on the lower Colorado, after some tinkering by people trying to divert water to the Los Angeles area. What resulted is today’s Salton Sea which many people now see while flying to Los Angeles or San Diego. Yes, the Salton Sea happened by accident. The Salton Basin is about 70 feet deep, 50 miles long, and 15 miles wide, with a total water area of some 300 square miles.

The Colorado River Was Quite Different

The nature of the water that flowed down the Colorado River was different from any other river in North America.

steamboats at yuma arizona

Steamboats at Yuma, 1875

The water was extremely silty, especially on the lower Colorado near Fort Yuma. To give you an idea of the nature of the water, prior to the modern day Glen Canyon Dam constructed at Page Arizona, the Colorado River would carry about 500,000 tons of silt and sediment per day, in an average day, through the Grand Canyon. This is what the people of the 1850’s saw when they reached the Colorado. It wasn’t like the Mississippi, the Missouri, the mighty Columbia or the Ohio Rivers. Yet, regardless of the river’s character and the fact that nobody ever thought the lower Colorado would be a busy transportation highway, it became just that.

You’ll also be interested in our articles on the Steamboat Natchez and High Piracy on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

It Was the Right River at the Right Time

The importance of the Colorado River in the 1850’s could not be overstated for those who traversed this arid region of America. Remember, the 1850’s were the early years of American settlement in the Southwest. The end of the Mexican American War gave title to the lands of the southwest to the United States Government. The trails to the southwest out of Missouri and Texas would bring more people than ever through this passageway across the Sonora Desert to California which was also ceded to the U.S. in 1848. Add to that the U.S. Army’s general incursion into the southwest after 1848 and the Colorado River and the future Fort Yuma suddenly became a significant, yet silty, body of water and a bustling port city. The most well known army post built on the river was indeed Fort Yuma on the west side of the Colorado. The fort was first established in 1849 as Camp Calhoun, after a U.S. Senator, and then as Camp Yuma in 1851, and then Fort Yuma in 1852. One of the main reasons the fort was established was to aid in the Yuman War. This was a Native American conflict that ran from about 1850 to 1853. A peace treaty in summer of 1853 was signed and hostilities ended between the Yuman and the United States government.

yuma crossing

Yuma Crossing and the Railroad Bridge in the 1880's

Even though hostilities had ended, supplying Fort Yuma was at best a daunting task. Years later this fort would also be important during the American Civil War when Union troops would be dispatched east to fight the Confederate troops in Arizona who were trying to push west into southern California. Yuma was also the site of the Yuma Territorial Prison.

The Busy Port of Yuma

A lot was happening in Yuma. Supplies would have to be sent by sea from San Diego, around the Baja Peninsula and to the mouth of the Colorado and then sent up on the Colorado with it’s strong currents. Supplies eventually were sent overland from San Diego but it was a difficult journey. Fort Yuma was also a stopping off point for the short lived, but important, Butterfield Overland Stage Line started in 1858 which was carrying passengers and more importantly, mail, along the southern route from Missouri, through Texas, through the Sonora Desert of southern Arizona and then into California. In addition to this, gold was being discovered near the Colorado River and this only added to the importance of transporting people and supplies. People generally follow the transportation routes. In the case of the lower Colorado River, it was really a case of transportation following the flow of people.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

yuma quartermaster state park

Warehouse at Yuma Quartermaster's Depot State Historic Park

To send supplies to settlements springing up on and near the Colorado River, a reliable way had to be found. The plan was to send supplies on ocean going vessels south from San Francisco, around the Baja California peninsula and up the lower Colorado by steamboat. As daunting of a task as this was, there were comers who thought they knew a way. The U.S. government took some surveys, particularly north of Yuma, and found that the river could be navigable. Several names emerged.

Captain James Turnbull launched the “Uncle Sam” in November 1852. Turnbull had a contract with the Army to supply river forts, including Fort Mohave to the north of Yuma, and had shipped the parts of his small steamboat from San Francisco in the hold of the larger vessel, named Capacity. The small steamer Turnbull purchased was then assembled at Yuma. Witnessed by Cocopah Indians, smoke belched from the Uncle Sam’s stack, sparks popped from her firebox and the engine shuddered. The Indians were at awe when they saw this strange and unusual craft. Unfortunately, the Uncle Sam had only a 20 HP motor and could haul only 35 tons of supplies at a time. It also took about two weeks to steam from Yuma down to the Gulf of California. At the time, a California newspaper, The Alta California, humorously wrote a story that a passenger found himself eight miles from Yuma by land, but as the boat followed the rivers windings for another 60 miles he found out that he was now 25 miles from Yuma. While Captain Turbull left the area to look for a larger engine for the small 65 foot boat, the Uncle Sam was lost when a drifting timber tore a hole in it.

Next up to bat was George Alonzo Johnson who was operating steamboats on the Sacramento River. Johnson took on the Colorado in 1854. Johnson brought the steamboat General Jessup down to the mouth of the Colorado River by steamer. It had been disassembled before the trip and had to be assembled again before starting upriver. After it was assembled, the General Jessup started carrying both freight and passengers up the river to Yuma. He continued to explore the river further north right up into Nevada. Johnson had good success and founded the George A. Johnson Company which eventually became the largest steamboat company on the Colorado.

steamboat mohave

Steamboat Mohave No. 2 at Yuma, 1876

The steamboats employed to run up and down the lower Colorado had to have very shallow drafts. The river’s depth varied greatly with plenty of sandbars. The river was also subject to drastic tidal changes which could make depths unpredictable. This river was nothing like the Sacramento. An old saying at the time was that the great steamboat pilots of the lower Colorado River could navigate up the river on merely “dew”.

The following to events proved once and for all that navigating far to the north of Yuma was very possible. In 1858, Captain George Johnson reached the mouth of a canyon he named Eldorado and also to the mouth of the Las Vegas Wash. A few months after that, a Lieutenant Ives, in his iron hulled Explorer, reached the Black Canyon, even further up river than Johnson. These two voyages proved beyond a doubt that, at high water and with a shallow draft vessel ( possibly only a two foot draft) , shipping was very possible nearly 500 miles upriver from Fort Yuma. Five hundred miles upstream covered a lot of settlements.

The Inevitable Railroad Comes to Yuma

As any history buff knows, the last part of the 1800’s was a time of great change for America’s transportation system. The famed Golden Spike was driven into the ground in Utah in 1869 marking the beginning of the transcontinental railroad. In regards to Fort Yuma, the big change occurred at the hands of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Southern Pacific didn’t only effect Yuma in a big way, but it’s also credited with the rapid growth of Los Angeles during the last quarter of the 1800’s. The Los Angeles population multiplied starting in the late 1870’s.

yuma arizona amtrak station

Present day Yuma Amtrak Station

The tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad reached the west bank of the Colorado at Yuma in 1877. Port Isabel, which was the settlement at the end of the river on the Gulf of California delta (also known as the Sea of Cortez), was dismantled and abandoned in 1878. The Southern Pacific made it unnecessary to ship goods around Baja California to the mouth of the Colorado River. As they were often called at the time, “The Steamboats from Hell“, continued their hazardous voyages upriver from Yuma for several years after. Although the names of the companies changed as well as the names of the steamboats, the snags, sandbars and heavy silt of the mighty Colorado still remained. Mining was still going full tilt in these upper areas and the steamboat was the way people received supplies up from Yuma.

The Sanguinetti Museum and Garden

When you find yourself on a western road trip passing Yuma Arizona, you might just want to stop and visit the Sanguinetti House Museum and Garden. It’s located at 240 and 248 Madison Avenue in downtown Yuma. The house was built in the 1870’s by E.F. Sanguinetti, a Yuma merchant. The structure has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The museum and garden are sponsored by the Arizona Historical Society and offers visitors an excellent glimpse back to Yuma’s boom times, steamboats, settlers, desert fauna and it’s Native American roots.

For those visiting in the Pacific Northwest interested in steamboating, the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria Oregon is one of the finest maritime venues found anywhere.

Two excellent books about Yuma Arizona history are Early Yuma by author Robert Nelson and The Hidden Treasures of Arizona Special Edition by author Jesse Horn.

(Photos are in public domain)

Military Cannon

During the 1800’s several forts built on the U.S. West Coast are now great sites to see the various types of military cannon exhibits once employed for protection. Two of these forts are popular tourist destinations and each is at the mouth of a major water inlet. One is Fort Point which has the distinction of now being located directly under the Golden Gate Bridge at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Fort Point was put into service in 1861 and was built to hold 126 powerful cannons. Interestingly enough, Fort Point never had to fire a cannon during the Civil War. The other is Fort Stevens, located west of Astoria Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River. In the case of Fort Stevens, it has the distinction of being fired upon by a Japanese submarine during World Wat Two. That certainly is unique history.

napolean 12 pound cannon

Napolean 12 Pound Cannon 1857 Model

The military cannon shown at left is a Napolean 12 Pounder 1857 Model on display at Fort Point in San Francisco. This piece was also a part of Civil War artillery. In fact, this was the most used smoothbore cannon during the American Civil War. The cannon was also referred to as the “light 12 pounder gun“.This cannon was obviously quite portable and was usually pulled by horse or mule. The gun was known for it’s power and reliability.

san martin cannon

San Martin Cannon

This next military cannon shown at right is the “San Martin” which was cast in Peru in 1684 and used by the Spanish military in California. This cannon was discovered by Captain John B. Montgomery in 1846 as it had been buried at the Presidio in San Francisco. Montgomery had taken over the fort which was then named “Castillo de San Joaquin” without a fight. The fort had been abandoned and was in disrepair as were it’s cannon. The Captain was able to put the cannon back in working order and along with two others brought down from Sonoma placed them in the new battery. This military cannon also on display at Fort Point has a Spanish crest engraved on the top on the rear third of the barrel.

m1897 artillery gun

M1897 Artillery Gun

The military cannon shown left is on display at Fort Stevens State Park, west of Astoria Oregon on the Pacific coast. The cannon can be seen at the Pratt Battery pointing out toward the Columbia River. The gun is a 75 MM M1897 artillery piece. Interestingly enough, this model gun had a life expectancy of about 10,000 rounds. This gun or more appropriately, cannon, weighs 16,216 pounds, fired a 104 pound projectile with a range of nine miles. Muzzle velocity was 2,600 feet per second using a 30 pound nitrocellulose powder charge. An interesting fact about the Japanese submarine shelling Fort Stevens during the war was that the shore batteries didn’t return fire. The story is that the post commander of Fort Stevens decided that returning fire during the midnight attack would only serve to give the submarine a better target. As it turned out, the Japanese shells were flying everywhere and the only official damage reported was to a baseball field backstop. While the attack was not significant in any way, it did liven things up at old Fort Stevens.

10 inch rodman cannon

10 Inch Rodman Smooth Bore Cannon

The cannon on the right is a replica 10 Inch Rodman Smooth Bore Model. It’s on display at Fort Stevens. This model cannon was reported to cost $1,795 in the year 1865. The cannons were made in 8 inch, 10 inch, 15 inch and 20 inch diameters. It took 20 pounds of gunpowder to fire a 125 pound projectile with a range of about three miles. Several of these can be found around coastal batteries in the San Francisco Bay Area as well. The gun weighs 15,400 lbs and was the most popular coastal cannon between the mid 1860’s to the 1890’s. The guns were so popular that many of the 10 inch models were later sleeved to 8 inches to help prolong their lifespan. The Rodman Guns were developed by Thomas J. Rodman who used a patented hollow core and water cooled method in their construction.

pre civil wat mortar

US Pre-Civil War Mortar

The small cannon shown at left is at Fort Point and is a Mortar Cannon. The Mortar Cannon essentially is made to fire low velocity projectiles over relatively short distances. This type of small muzzle loading cannon has been around for centuries, dating back to the 1400’s. Their small size can make them hard to aim especially if they are fired on unstable soil or snow. This particular mortar is a reproduction of a  pre-Civil War mortar which was mounted on the tiers of seacoast forts. It is identical to weapons used in posts all around the San Francisco Bay area.

Links to two additional articles we’ve published that you’ll enjoy are the Mountain Howitzer and on our Western Trips site, 1800’s Frontier Firearms.

(Photos are from author’s private collection)