Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Commander Bowman H. McCalla to Rear Admiral Montgomery Sicard, Commander, North Atlantic Station

U. S. S. MARBLEHEAD, 3rd, Rate,

New Orleans, La.,

February 16th., 1898.

S i r :

1.   In transmitting the three Anthracite “Coal Efficiency Reports”1 of the performance of the ship during the cruise to and from Port-au-Prince,2 and from Tortugas to New Orleans, I have the honor to submit the following views for the information of the the Commander-in-Chief.

2.   Before sailing for Port-au-Prince, the attention of the Petty Officers and enlisted men of the Engineer’s force, (but one of whom had had previous experience with Anthracite coal), was called to the great advantages in war which would accrue to the ship or the fleet provided with smokeless coal, even though the speed might be less than it would be with the bituminous varieties. They were told that the Anthracite would require more exertion on their part, and that the rocking grate bars of this ship,3 in sections of varying length, three bars to the section, were not so well adapted for Anthracite coal as the old long straight bars, because in the latter kind the air spaces between the bars could be increased by the removal of one or more of the bars.

This explanation was made to interest the force, and had the desired effect, I am pleased to add.

3.   The variety of anthracite steamboat coal reported upon is not known, the Key West Station records not showing from what locality it was mined.4 It yielded from 5 to 6 per cent of slack;5 the total consumption of 319 ¾ tons yielding 26.75 tons loss of slack, separated and thrown away. The efficiency reports show that the coal is not good coal stock. The desirability of a smokeless coal is well discussed by a special correspondent who witnessed the last German Naval Manoeuvres,6 as follows:

“This (German) coal is very unsuitable from the large amount of smoke which it emits, and from the English point of view is for warships altogether impossible. The experience of those manoeuvres gave ample opportunity to emphasise the convictions of the great disadvantages which would attach to the fleet using this inferior material: - 1. Betrayal of the position of the fleet. 2. Sheltering the enemy by disabling the arm of the artillery.7 Frequent disablement of members of the crew for considerable intervals by grit and cinders in the eyes; this may occur to single individuals at the most important instant of the action. Experiments have been made with lignite tar, coal tar, and compressed coal bricks, etc., but without any satisfactory result, and whoever invents a smokeless combustible for our warships will perform a national service and reap no small advantages to himself.”8

5.   To illustrate one of the disadvantages of bituminous coal, I enclose a small photograph,9 the negative of which was taken from the deck of this ship, in Florida Bay, when the New York, Iowa, Massachusetts, Indiana and MARBLEHEAD were steaming in single column, at nine knots.10 At the instant no smoke was issuing from the funnels of the Indiana.                        If the fleet were maneuvering at twelve knots speed the quantity of smoke would be doubled, and it does seem necessary to point out the advantages which a similar force burning Anthracite coal would have over the first mentioned during an engagement.

Referring to the special correspondent quoted in this communication, I may add that one time on the bridge of the MARBLEHEAD, both the Officer of the Watch and Commander were busily engaged in removing cinders from their eyes due to the smoke from and adjoining ship.

6.   The fact that with Anthracite there is immunity from spontaneous combustion, always distracting and perhaps demoralizing, should be seriously considered in making any comparison between the bituminous and the hard coals.11

7.   I believe that if the best–free-burning Lackawana coal,12 of the stove, or even chestnut size, could be supplied to our ships all objection to the use of Anthracite would disappear. As for myself I should, in the event of war, always prefer the smokeless Anthracite, even if the quality were no better than that now on this ship, to a bituminous or semi-bituminous coal, accepting a loss of speed or a decrease in the steaming radius, if necessary; the other advantages of a smokeless coal far outweighing in my opinion a possible disadvantage.

Very respectfully

U. S. Navy,


Source Note: TD, RG 313, Entry 41. Addressed below close: “Commander-in-Chief,/U. S. Naval Force, North Atlantic Station./U. S. F. S. New York,/Key West, Florida.” Document reference no. at top-right corner: “#37.” Stamp at top-left corner: “RECEIVED/flag-ship n. a. station/FEB 18 1898.”

Footnote 1: Each year the Bureau of Equipment required that ship commanders submit a report about coal consumption. The total amounts were computed and placed in the coal section. See, Annual Report[s] of the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting: 1883-1896, Navy Department (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office).

Footnote 2: The Imperial German Navy threatened to bombard Port-au-Prince, Haiti in early December, 1897 over the default of a minor loan. The incident became known as the Luders Affair. The Department of the Navy ordered Cmdr. McCalla to observe the events. His report can be found in: DNA, RG 59, Roll 985.

Footnote 3: Rocking grate bars were used at the bottom of the furnace. They oscillated in order to break up the clinkers (the incombustible residue that is fused into a lump after the coal combustion) to maximize burning efficiency.

Footnote 4: Steam coal refers to coal used in boilers to generate steam to produce electricity or for other functions. In December 1897, Maine loaded up with the same anthracite coal from the Key West facility.

Footnote 5: Slack coal refers to bituminous coal one-half inch or smaller. An older usage of this term refers to a mixture of coal fragments, dust, and dirt that remains after coal is screened.

Footnote 6: The German naval maneuvers took place in July 1897. One month before RAdm. Alfred von Tirpitz was appointed the State Secretary of the Navy and thenceforth the imperial navy became a more predominant factor in German policy.

Footnote 7: These words may indicate that many functions on board ship were dependent on coal-generated power, and that due to the problems or simultaneous multiple functions associated with bituminous coal, the guns could become inoperative.

Footnote 8: Sometimes additives, such as these, were used to enhance coal performance.

Footnote 9: This photograph was not appended to the document.

Footnote 10: The massing of these American ships, known as winter maneuvers, was ordered as a “precautionary” measure by the Navy Department as part of the preparations for a possible war with the Kingdom of Spain. See, Rickover, How the Battleship Maine was Destroyed, 33.

Footnote 11: This statement is rather prescient, for this report was written the day after Maine exploded.

Footnote 12: Lackawanna is located in northeast Pennsylvania, the heart of the anthracite coal region.

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