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Is Renaming a Ship Bad Luck?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Feb 21, 2018

Stories of Long Beach Island shipwrecks usually focus on the event and the rescue, but sometimes if you dig deeper, you uncover an interesting prelude and epilogue. So it is with the little-discussed 1916 stranding of the U.S. Army transport Sumner at Barnegat Light.

The story ends in New Jersey but started in Hamburg, Germany, in 1882, where the passenger ship S.S. Rhaetia was launched. She was 366 feet in length with a steel hull. The Rhaetia was steam powered but had three masts for sails, which were later removed. Once in service, she carried 96 first-class and 1,100 third-class passengers from Europe to the United States.

In March 1898, the U.S. Navy was preparing for war with Spain after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. Its modern fleet was powered by coal, and the support ships that carried it were called colliers. The Baltimore Sun of May 11, 1898, carried a notice.

“The German steamship Rhaetin, now at Hamburg, has been bought by the government for use as a collier and will come here to be fitted out.”

Things move quickly, and the Washington Times of June 7 carried “The collier Rhaetin, a German steamship recently bought and refitted at Norfolk Navy Yard, was placed in commission today. A large force is at work upon her preparing her for sea.”

The ship was given a new name and became part of the fleet preparing to invade Cuba. On June 13, according to the Washington paper, “Brisk work went on at the navy yard today. Plumbers, coppersmiths and machinists were employed upon the Newark and Yankton. These two vessels, it is stated, are to be ready to sail on Wednesday if possible. The collier, Rhaetin, renamed Cassius, is expected to accompany them.”

The naval part of the Spanish-American war lasted only months, but the U.S. capture of the Philippine Islands led to a guerrilla war as the people there demanded their independence. As the Navy’s need for colliers declined, the Army needed thousands of troops to fight in far-off Asia. The Washington Times of Sept. 16, 1899, explained, “In its search for transports to carry troops to the Philippines the War Department has been looking over some of the auxiliary vessels purchased by the Navy Department for use in the war with Spain. The collier Cassius was found to be suitable in every respect and the War Department yesterday requested the Navy Department to transfer her to the Quartermaster General of the Army. A great deal of work will be necessary to make the Cassius available for use as a trooper, and the War Department wants to have this work done at the Norfolk  yard. Of course the War Department will pay all the expenses of the collier’s conversion.”

The USS Cassius would be overhauled and get another name. The Baltimore Sun of Feb. 12, 1900, reported on the progress.

“So eager is the War Department to have the transport Sumner, now being fitted out at the Norfolk Navy Yard, ready to go in commission March 1 that orders were yesterday issued to the heads of the construction and equipment departments to work on the vessel today. Several days ago orders were issued to work ‘overtime’ – that is, till 10 P.M. – and this has been done. The usual quiet which pervades the navy yard on Sabbath days did not prevail there today. There is no doubt here that the Sumner will be ready for the War Department by March 1. Five hundred men worked on the transport today.”

Government work is rarely finished on time; one month later the Sun reported, “The transport Sumner, now nearing completion at the Norfolk Navy Yard, went out to the capes on a trial run for the purpose of testing her engines. The test is said to have been highly satisfactory, the big ship making 14 knots without being forced. The ship returned to the navy yard to receive her finishing touches. She will, it is thought, be ready for transference to the War Department next Thursday. … Capt. Charles T. Baker, United States Army, … will command the transport.”

Finally on March 17, the Virginia Pilot was able to proclaim, “After several months, in which a large force has been employed, the transport Sumner has been completed, and yesterday the American flag was run up her stern, placing her in commission of service. … She will drop down to Hampton Roads today, and from there she will go to New York, where she will take on soldiers for Manila, going via the Suez Canal. She is said to be the handsomnest (sic) and best equipped transport in the service. There is nothing left that would add to the comfort and safety of the men who will go out on her. She will make twelve knots an hour. … The workmanship on her reflects credit on the mechanics of this section, and to them it is a great satisfaction to know that the army officers under whose supervision she has been fitted up express themselves so well pleased with the work that they have asked that another one be fitted up at this yard, and it is hoped that their request will be complied with.”

There is an old sailor’s myth that the changing of a ship’s name is bad luck. Soon papers across the nation carried, “NORFOLK, Va., March 17. – The new United States army transport  Sumner, commanded by Captain Charles T. Baker, and said to be the finest troop Ship afloat, sailed from the navy yard today at noon from Hampton Roads where her compass will be adjusted. When the transport left the yard, outward bound, a stiff breeze was blowing from the south. The big ship became unmanageable when off the Southern Railway pier. A tremendous crash followed, as the transport smashed the barge, and the latter broke down the front tier of piles on which the wharf stands. The men at work unloading the cars on the float escaped to the pier. The barge with its half loaded cars aboard was towed over on the Portsmouth flats, where it sank to the bottom. The Sumner proceeded uninjured, save that her bow was pierced above the water line by her anchor fluke. The accident is said to have been avoidable.”

For the first time as the transport Sumner, the ship sailed past Barnegat lighthouse on her way to New York for repairs before taking on troops for the trip halfway around the world. Unfortunately, her bad luck seemed to be following. The Brooklyn Eagle of March 26, 1900, wrote, “In explaining the fact that the transport Sumner was docked at the yard of a private firm instead of in one of the Navy Yard docks, War Department officials say they were required to do this in order to be certain of having the services of the vessel within a reasonable time.”

An Army major was about to spark a firestorm of inter-service rivalry when he said, “We had such disastrous experience in using the navy facilities in  repairing the Sumner that we decided not to use them again when we needed a ship in a hurry. … The Sumner was fitted up at the Norfolk Navy Yard, under the direction of the naval authorities there. Great delay was experienced in completing the work and we were deprived of the services of the transport at a time when she was badly needed.

“On account of the slow work made at Norfolk and the fact that we needed the Sumner for service at once, we decided to have the repairs done by contract. Much time would have been lost in giving it to the Navy. A formal permission for the use of the dock would have been required by Secretary Root from Secretary Long, and with the vessel once in the dock it would have passed beyond our control.

“The many employees work only eight hours a day, whereas it was stipulated in the contract with the private firm that they should work day and night. The repairs were completed at a reasonable cost, in a prompt and efficient manner.”

The New York Times on the 29th reported more bad news.

“There was considerable talk in the House to-day regarding the Sumner. The chief incident was a defense of the War Department against the charge of reckless extravagance made by Mr. Driggs yesterday. … Mr. Driggs has introduced a resolution reciting published charges of extravagance in the furnishing of the Sumner, and directing that a select committee or nine members investigate the charges in this case and all others pertaining to the army transport service.”

The Sumner’s problems seem to be growing.

“The United States Army transport Sumner, which was scheduled to leave Pier 22, yesterday afternoon, for the Philippines, will not sail until to-morrow, and she will take 225 fewer soldiers than was intended. … Capt. Charles T. Baker, who is Quarter-master of the Sumner, later explained that it had been figured out that the vessel would be in the Mediterranean during the hot weather, and it was deemed advisable to give as much room as possible to the men. … (F)our women nurses who reported on board yesterday will also be left behind, their cabins being required for officers who are wanted in the Philippines.”

The Army transport Sumner hadn’t even left port on its first voyage and its name was in newspapers from coast to coast. Would the ship’s bad luck continue?

Next Week: The long road to Barnegat Light.


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