When one needs ships, it is usually too late to build them. In mid-February 1898, as tensions heated the diplomatic climate between the United States and Spain in the wake of the destruction of the battleship Maine at Havana, Cuba, the U.S. Navy cast a broad net to acquire suitable vessels to be converted for wartime purposes. A particular yacht of stout Scottish construction—her steel hull being divided into eight watertight compartments—caught the Navy’s eye.
Ironically, that attractive ship had been built not for war, but for a pastime of the very wealthy—yachting. Ogden Goelet, the American millionaire and a member of the prestigious New York Yacht Club, had ordered the vessel from the shipbuilding firm of J. and G. Thompson of Clydebank, Scotland. Designed by naval architect George L. Watson, the ship was launched on 6 November 1896 and christened Mayflower. She completed her builders’ trials in May 1897, clocking 16.75 knots—quite a feat for a ship of that tonnage. That summer, her owner proudly took her to Cowes, England, where he hosted the prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, King Carlos of Portugal, Grand Duke Boris of Russia, American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, and Thomas J. Lipton, tea entrepreneur and ardent yachtsman. Goelet later fell ill and died on board the Mayflower on 27 August, and she bore his embalmed body back to Newport, Rhode Island, for the funeral.
The Mayflower retained her name when the Navy acquired her from Goelet’s estate, and she was commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on 24 March 1898. To command her, the Navy chose Lieutenant Commander Morris R. S. MacKenzie, considered “hardboiled, stern, able, just [and] efficient, with little tolerance for laziness and inefficiency”—just the type of captain to work up a new ship with war imminent. Painted lead gray and given a respectable battery of two 5-inch guns, twelve 6-pounders and two Colt 6-mm machine guns, the Mayflower served on the Cuban blockade. After hostilities with Spain ended, the Navy, which had thought so highly of her as to sometimes call her a “cruiser,” deemed the Mayflower “well adapted for special service.”
President Theodore Roosevelt began using the ship, then resplendent in white and spar color, as the presidential yacht in 1902. She hosted the first meeting of Russian and Japanese diplomats at Oyster Bay, New York, in 1905, on the eve of negotiations that ultimately brought an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Four years later Roosevelt greeted the return of America’s Great White Fleet to Hampton Roads, Virginia, from the deck of the Mayflower, one of the last times he would use the ship while in office.
She then served Presidents William H. Taft (who, as one former commanding officer remembered, could not comprehend why a ship could not observe the same punctuality as a train), Woodrow Wilson (who pursued his courtship of Edith Bolling Galt on board), Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge—the latter among those chief executives enjoying the experience of cruising in the Mayflower the most of all. During that time, in the standardization of ship nomenclature, the Mayflower was designated as a yacht, PY-1, on 17 July 1920, and was converted from coal to oil in 1923.
In March 1929, however, President Herbert Hoover, citing the high cost of the ship’s upkeep, ordered the Mayflower inactivated, and she was decommissioned on 5 June 1929. The Navy rejected four bids from those who sought to acquire her, then decided to retain her, first slating her to replace the yacht Niagara (PY-9) as a surveying vessel, then to oufit her to relieve the aging armored cruiser Rochester (CA-2) as the flagship of the Special Service Squadron.
The renovation work, ordered on 2 December 1930, had not yet been completed when a fire broke out on board as she lay in the Philadelphia Navy Yard on the frigid night of 24 January 1931. The Marines of the Navy Yard Fire Department, two 15-man crews, headed dockside with two Packard hose-and-ladder trucks, a La France pumper, a GMC chemical truck, and a Sauer foamite truck. Despite their efforts, the aggressive blaze resisted containment. The former presidential yacht sank ignominiously in 24 feet of water.
A board of inspection and survey evaluated the Mayflower on 17 February 1931 and, in view of an estimated $210,000 in needed repairs and alterations, recommended she be broken up. She was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 23 March 1931; accepting the board’s suggestion, Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams advised that she be sold for scrap. Bids opened on 28 September 1931, and on 16 October Adams approved Leo P. Coe’s offer of $16,105 for the Mayflower’s hulk.
The new owner turned out to be an agent for one Frank F. Parish of Chicago, Illinois, who had the ship towed to Wilmington, North Carolina, to be reconditioned under the auspices of naval architect Henry C. Gielow Jr. But before that came to pass, Parish lost his fortune and became a fugitive from the law. The ship whose decks presidents and royalty once had trod again became a forlorn rust-streaked relic.
Just as a war had led to her acquisition in the first place, global conflict—World War II—led to her reactivation. The War Shipping Administration (WSA) acquired her from the Broadfoot Iron Works of Wilmington, North Carolina, on 31 July 1942 and renamed her Butte. The U.S. Coast Guard then acquired the ship from the WSA on 6 September 1943—restoring her original name. After conversion at the Norfolk Navy Yard, the Mayflower was recommissioned there on 19 October 1943, with Lieutenant Commander Fred E. Morton, USCG, in command.
Classed as gunboat WPG-183, the Mayflower was in service between Boston and Norfolk for the remainder of World War II, equipped with a battery of one 5-inch gun, two 3-inch dual purpose guns, six 20-mm guns, two depth-charge tracks, and five depth-charge projectors. Primarily, however, she plied in the waters of Chesapeake Bay as a radar-training ship, an instruction platform for men who were learning the intricacies of a technology unknown when her naval service had begun.
Decommissioned on 1 July 1946 and returned to the WSA, the Mayflower was acquired on 8 January 1947 by Frank M. Shaw of Montreal, Canada, who envisioned employing her as an Arctic sealer. After reconditioning at Baltimore, one of her boilers burst off Point Lookout, Maryland, in March 1947. Again gutted by fire, she ended up at the end of a towline at Brooklyn, New York, and the Walter Krauss shipyard. Sold to a Panamanian-flag firm, she received new boilers at the Krauss yard and sailed—now as the Mala—for Genoa, Italy, to become a tramp steamer. In 1948, she carried Jewish refugees from Europe into Haifa Harbor. Ultimately, the storied vessel died under scrapper’s torches in 1955.
In her long career, the Mayflower had served as a visible reminder of the growing presence of the United States on the world scene and taken part in three wars. All said, she had, in Shakespeare’s words, “done the state some service.”