The U.S. Navy records only two commissioned warships named for the state of Illinois—the current Virginia-class submarine SSN-786 and Battleship No. 7 of 1901. Yet five years before the first commissioned Illinois was launched, the Navy operated for a brief period another full-size “battleship” of the same name off Chicago. This one, however, was constructed mainly of brick and mortar, had no underwater hull, and could not float, let alone sail. This Illinois was the centerpiece of the Navy’s exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
The ersatz Illinois was the brainchild of Navy Captain Richard Worsam Meade, a battle-hardened veteran of the Civil War with a “sulphuric vocabulary.” Exhibition directors “resorted to placing cotton in their ears” when dealing with him. Nevertheless, he persuaded the Navy to part with $115,000—about $3.3 million today—to construct a full-size replica of the recently launched coast-line battleship Indiana (Battleship No. 1).
The work of overseeing the replica’s design and construction, begun in the summer of 1891, could not have been in better hands. It was entrusted to Bureau of Construction and Repair naval architect Frank W. Grogan, who was in charge of the design of the Indiana class. The faux Illinois was built on a foundation of pilings driven into Lake Michigan’s bottom near Chicago’s Jackson Park. When completed, she appeared as if moored to the Navy pier that jutted into the lake from outside the exposition’s central lagoon.
The hull sides from the berth to main deck were constructed of brick laid to the contour of the Indiana and covered with a smooth coating of Portland cement, which faired the lines. Below the berth deck, the hull was formed by steel plates, which extended well into the water below. The major shapes—superstructure, turrets, and 13- and 8-inch guns—were made of wood framing brought to final shape by cement over metal lathing. The details and fittings, however, were all Navy issue.
As completed, the “ship” was 348 feet long with a beam of 69 feet, 3 inches. It was said that an experienced sailor would have had a very difficult time discerning the copy from the real thing. Most likely building on this exaggeration, the Chicago Tribune reported that Grogan “had the satisfaction of witnessing a person become seasick on his imitation man-of-war.”
While most large pieces were replicas, two authentic 6-inch guns were mounted on either beam and used for gun-handling demonstrations. Newspaper reports, however, mixed fact with fiction. One report cited the guns as “6 1/2-inch,” a caliber of breech-loaders never used by the U.S. Navy. Complicating this fiction is a note that their carriages had “perforations” made by a 6-pounder gun. “It was said that no gun carriage would be accepted by the Navy until they took a shot at it. If the perforation was clean and the carriage did not crack then it was acceptable for use.” Forget that the carriage was damaged and weakened by the hole.
Captain Meade and his executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Edward D. Taussig, commanded a crew of 200 sailors and Marines. Far fewer than a standard crew of more than 450, their responsibilities focused on public relations, with displays of boat, torpedo, and gun drills.
The mock battleship was a fair favorite. On the Fourth of July, the Tribune declared, “No spot at the Exposition proved more attractive to visitors than the battleship Illinois.” More than 6,000 an hour stepped foot on her main deck. “As late as 5 p.m. they were still marching aboard the battleship, three abreast, as eagerly as if their lives depended on it.” Taussig “treated all hands to beer early in the morning and watermelons in the evening.” With no little sarcasm, the crew was reported to be “feeling first-rate.”
After the exposition closed in October, plans were made to move the structure to serve as headquarters for the recently organized Illinois Naval Militia. The foundation was begun in June 1894, but the transfer never happened. Although the display was turned over to the state for use of the militia, that organization soon dissolved. Equipment transferred “on loan” became a political hot potato between the Secretary of the Navy and the state of Illinois.
On 25 April 1895, the Tribune ran a very brief one-sentence note: “The battleship Illinois is still moored at Jackson Park, but it looks as if the rats had abandoned it.” By December, the remains were sold to a wrecking company for $1, and in January 1896, the ersatz Illinois was reported “nearly gone.”
On 10 February 1897, construction of the authentic battleship Illinois was begun at Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. in Newport News, Virginia.