Skip to main content
Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War


* * * * * *


Delivered at


Newport, R. I.,

Session of 1899,


Captain B. H. McCalla, U.S.N.

* * * * * *



    . . . The advantage of a smokeless coal for a navy, in my opinion, is as great as that which, it is generally admitted, accompanies the use of smokeless powder.1

    Although the best quality of semi-bituminous coal reached the fleet on the south side of Cuba during the war, yet, when war was declared, the supply at Key West was of an inferior quality, totally unfitted for the use of warships, on account of its smoke.2 Even so late as the middle of June, about twelve thousand tons of inferior bituminous coal, said to be George's Creek, came into Guantanamo for the use of our fleet.3

    Eleven years ago, the British Admiralty publicly refused to purchase during peace a qualitycof [i.e., quality] coal which would not be supplied to British ships for use in war.4 This should also have been our policy before complaints during our active campaign, as I understand, brought about a change of policy, so that now the best quality of semi-bituminous coal is alone supplied for the navy. But I believe that the war, short as it was, clearly demonstrated to those on the blockade that while Pocahontas coal5 made steam more quickly and satisfactorily, its smoke was such a disadvantage that it, too, should be no longer used in our service.

    Fortunately, we possess in the United States many varieties of smokeless coal in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania and we should at once begin experimenting with varieties and sizes, so that we can adopt before the next war the anthracite coal best adapted to the boilers of our ships.6 It cannot be denied that a greater weight of anthracite coal will be required to produce the energy which can be obtained from a given amount of Pocahontas coal. This means a shorter steaming radius for our fleet if anthracite be adopted, but as no fleet in the future can do without transports, the discontinuance of a semi-bituminous fuel simply means a greater number of colliers. And this disadvantage would appear to be far outweighed by the great advantages of a smokeless coal, which will never betray the movements of our ships or squadrons nor obscure the enemy from our gun captains, and which will lessen the danger of collisions between our own ships.

    When the “Marblehead” anchored in Key West,7 in December 1897, there were between one and two thousand tons of anthracite coal at the naval station. This was only partially protected and had been exposed to the weather for at least one year. There was much sand and dirt mixed with the coal, it was not of good quality, and being steamboat coal, it was several sizes too large. I was very much pleased, however, to have this coal and used it from that time until I took the last of the anthracite on the day after the war had been declared. In all, the “Marblehead” took more than 1,000 tons and we would have cheerfully used this poor quality of anthracite coal from choice until the war closed, had we been able to get it, simply because it was smokeless.

      The boilers of the “Marblehead” were fitted with patent grate bars, so that we could not increase the spaces between bars, so necessary with anthracite coal. Still, we took part in squadron maneuvers and by assisting the draft with blowers, the ship always took up the increased speed necessary to a change of formation more quickly than the other ships. To be sure, the heavier ships were necessarily slower in increasing their speeds, but I refer to the fact to show that, in squadron maneuvers, the use of anthracite coal was satisfactory in this respect.

    In moving a fleet at, we will say twelve-knot speed. the quantity of soft coal smoke from the funnels would not only betray its presence for thirty miles in good weather, but would be exceedingly dangerous in close order, when maneuvering or during a fleet action.

    It has been stated that flames issuing from the smoke stack of the Mc Cullough which was using soft coal, first gave the enemy notice of the arrival of our Squadron in Manila Bay.8 This possibility of preventing a surprise, under ordinary conditions, should also be considered another disadvantage for the use of bituminous or semi-bituminous coal.

    It took about 20% more anthracite of the kind and quality used in the “Marblehead” to do the work which could have been done with a given quantity of Pocohantas, but after the war had begun, there was not an officer or man in that ship who did not regret the change to bituminous coal when the supply of anthracite at Key West gave out. I had taken some trouble to contrast the smokeless anthracite with the bituminous coals of passing ships at sea, and all of us, from the men in the fire-room to the officers of the watch, were, after an extended trial, convinced that the advantages of anthracite coal, for war, far outweighed its disadvantages. I have myself been of this opinion for some years, but the fact that the offices of the cruiser, after a lengthy experiment, preferred a poor anthracite to a good bituminous coal is conclusive to me that the sooner we carry out an extensive series of trials with anthracite coal, the better it will be for the navy. These trials should be on a large scale, and it would be most instructive and thorough if one complete force of armored ships, cruisers and torpedo-boats, with anthracite coal, maneuvered against an equal force of ships with a semi-bituminous variety.

Source Note: TD, RNN, Section 2, Envelope 2, No. 71.

Footnote 1: In an enemy’s search for the whereabouts of a fleet, the smoky emissions from the stacks can easily pinpoint its location.

Footnote 2: Key West, FL was a major coaling and provisioning station during the Spanish-American War. The Dry Tortugas were used for coaling heavier draft ships.

Footnote 3: Once the sheltered Guantánamo Bay was secured in June it became a convenient coaling station for operations, especially on the southern Cuban coast. George’s Creek coal came from Alleghany County, MD.

Footnote 4: The British Admiralty wielded enormous power. “In South Wales Britain had the best coal for steam purposes. South Wales also had a highly developed infrastructure for extracting and transporting the coal to the coast from where the world’s largest collier fleet could move it to any of the global network of British coaling stations [sic]. The Royal Navy were able to charter private colliers as and when required without difficulty in peacetime. . . the Royal Navy was unique in its ability to project its power across the globe without recourse to logistical support from others.”  Warwick Brown, “When Dreams Confront Reality: Replenishment at Sea in the Era of Coal,” International Journal of Naval History 9, 1-3 (Apr.-Dec. 2010), n.p. [third page].

Footnote 5: Pocahantas coal came from Virginia and West Virginia. Most ship captains preferred this bituminous type, because it was easier to ignite and could build up steam quicker. See, Royal Bradford, “Reports of Commanding Officers upon Most Desirable Coal,” in Reports of the Efficiency of Various Coals: 1896-1898… (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1906), 89.

Footnote 6: One of the attributes of anthracite, or hard coal, is that it is smokeless. It was also less susceptible to spontaneous combustion, thus making it safer to store in coal bunkers over longer periods of time. McCalla considered fresh water to be of an absolute necessity for well-functioning boilers and enhanced motive power.

Footnote 7: McCalla commanded Marblehead during the Spanish-American War.

Footnote 8: McCulloch, of the Revenue Cutter Service, served with the Asiatic Squadron in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.

Related Content