A tro­phy craft’s sad end

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - JOHN KELLY’S WASHINGTON

An­swer Man trav­els back in his­tory to find out what be­came of a Span­ishAmer­i­can War ship that for a time was moored on the Sev­ern River in An­napo­lis.

When I was a kid in the 1950s, I re­call a siz­able ship per­ma­nently moored on the Sev­ern River, ad­ja­cent to the Naval Academy in An­napo­lis. Vis­i­tors could tour the old craft and — I be­lieve — were told that it had been cap­tured by the Navy dur­ing the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War and brought to An­napo­lis as a float­ing class­room, or maybe it was to serve as quar­ters for en­listed per­son­nel. At some point years later, the ship was ap­par­ently taken to points un­known. I am won­der­ing if you have ever heard of the ship and, if so, whether it was, in fact, a tro­phy of the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War. — Joe O’Con­nell,

Gaithers­burg

The Reina Mercedes (named for the first wife of King Al­fonso XII) was in­deed a tro­phy from the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War. Launched in 1887 at Carta­gena, Spain, the 280-foot cruiser was a some­what ob­so­lete ves­sel by the time the “splen­did lit­tle war” un­folded in Cuba and the Philip­pines 11 years later. Slow and un­ar­mored, it nev­er­the­less served as the flag­ship of the Span­ish Navy in Cuban wa­ters.

Sub­jected to reg­u­lar ar­tillery fire from the U.S. Navy, it was struck at least eight times. Fear­ful that the U.S. fleet would sail into San­ti­ago Har­bor, the Span­ish com­man­der or­dered the Reina Mercedes towed and sunk in the chan­nel as a block­ade ship.

Its crew du­ti­fully obeyed and, al­though un­der fire from two bat­tle­ships, they suc­cess­fully set the scut­tling charges. The Reina Mercedes started to sink where in­tended, but when a moor­ing line was sev­ered by a shell, it drifted, leav­ing the har­bor open.

When the Span­ish sur­ren­dered July 17, 1898, the Reina Mercedes be­came U.S. prop­erty.

It wasn’t the most sea­wor­thy of prizes. Per­haps if the U.S. Navy had known it would get it as a tro­phy, it wouldn’t have put so many holes in it.

Nev­er­the­less, the ship was raised and towed to a re­pair yard in Nor­folk. As it eased into Nor­folk’s har­bor on May 27, 1899, ac­com­pa­nied by 36 tug­boats fes­tooned with flags, thou­sands of peo­ple lined the water­front and cheered.

The Navy de­cided to make the Reina Mercedes a non-self-pro­pelled re­ceiv­ing ship or sta­tion ship. This is ba­si­cally a build­ing. Af­ter stints in Portsmouth, N.H., and New­port, R.I., it was towed in 1912 to An­napo­lis, where for four decades it per­formed many func­tions: en­listed bar­racks, tem­po­rary head­quar­ters for the Mid­ship­men Boat Club, lodg­ing for the Naval Academy band. It served as the quar­ters for the com­man­der of the naval sta­tion and his fam­ily. The Reina Mercedes was the only U.S. ship in which de­pen­dents were per­mit­ted to live.

Some old mid­ship­men may re­mem­ber the Reina Mercedes as the place they were ban­ished to when they got in trou­ble. As a Post story re­ported in 1912: “It was found that the mid­ship­men when con­fined to quar­ters had op­por­tu­ni­ties of min­gling with their school­mates which pre­vented the pun­ish­ment from be­ing as se­ri­ous as it was wished.” Delin­quent un­der­class­men could still at­tend class and drills but had to re­turn to the Reina Mercedes to sleep.

In 1957, the Navy de­cided the old ship was be­yond re­pair, and it was sold for scrap to Bos­ton Met­als Co. of Bal­ti­more. The bell from the ship was pre­sented to the Span­ish am­bas­sador to the United States. The wheel and an­other bell were dis­played at Reina Mercedes Hall, a naval sta­tion build­ing named af­ter the ship that had served as a build­ing.

In 1968, an­other piece of the Reina Mercedes turned up: the or­nately carved fig­ure­head from the bow. Fea­tur­ing a Span­ish coat of arms and weigh­ing 1,000 pounds, it was in­stalled on a wall in the lobby of the new Te­cum­seh Apart­ments in An­napo­lis. Ap­par­ently, said Jim Cheev­ers, se­nior cu­ra­tor at the Naval Academy Mu­seum, one of the de­vel­op­ers of the apart­ments was a re­tired naval of­fi­cer. “He went to the scrap yard and bought the fig­ure­head back,” Jim said.

Dur­ing a lobby ren­o­va­tion in the 1990s, the Te­cum­seh — now con­dos — asked the Naval Academy if they wanted it.

“I went over and took a look at it and was amazed at the size of it,” Jim said. It was low­ered into a boat and mo­tored back to the naval sta­tion.

Jim thinks it must be in stor­age some place.

U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY

Among the uses of the ReinaMercedes: a brig for re­cal­ci­trant mid­ship­men and lodg­ing for the Naval Academy band. The cir­cled por­tion of the photo shows its fig­ure­head, later re­claimed from a scrap yard.

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