About Those Colliers

By Dr. David Winkler

In the pecking order of naval vessels, replenishment ships ranked far below battleships, cruisers, and other combatants. However, it can be argued that few pairs of American warships authorized by Congress achieved as much historical notoriety as these two hulls authorized in 1908. As part of Special Order 92, signed out on September 12, 1908, by Secretary of the Navy Victor H. Metcalf, the two ships were to become the Jupiter (Fleet Collier No. 3) and Cyclops (Fleet Collier No. 4).

Although Cyclops followed Jupiter in numerical sequence, the former was the lead ship, with the Navy issuing a request for proposals on October 9, 1908 to private shipyards to build “a steam collier of about 12,500 tons cargo and bunker capacity.”[1] Competing shipyards received more detailed specifications six days later and two months later, on December 15, 1908, the Navy opened bids submitted from four companies. William Cramp & Sons Ship and Engine Building Company of Philadelphia stunned the Navy with an offer of $775.000, which was less than half of what Congress had appropriated to build the ship. An article in The Nautical Gazette speculated that Cramp & Sons submitted the low bid so that they could keep their skilled workforce employed during a period of construction stagnation. Given the unexpected low bid, Navy Secretary Truman H. Newberry approached the House Naval Committee to change the language of the appropriation to allow the Jupiter to be built in a private East Coast yard. While he did not succeed in this, he would eventually be given the discretion to spend the unspent appropriation to build a third collier, the Neptune, to be built by the Maryland Steel Company.[2]

Work began on the Cyclops during the summer of 1909 and on May 7, 1910, the huge ship went down the building ways into the Delaware River. In November the Navy preliminary accepted the ship and placed it in service at the Norfolk Navy Yard with the Naval Auxiliary Service. To put the project in perspective, Cyclops would be the largest ship ever built at that yard up until that time. At 525 feet in length, the ship was over 72 feet longer than the U.S. Navy’s battleship South Carolina launched in 1908. At this time the British shipbuilding firm Harland and Wolff were building the hulls for the sister ocean liners Olympic and Titanic at its yard in Belfast, each of these ships were just over 882 feet in length and would have more than double the collier’s displacement.

Thus, the Cyclops and Neptune, for that matter, were completed before any work was started on Jupiter. The third ship would be laid down on October 18, 1911. President William Howard Taft attended the ceremony. She would be launched on August 24, 1912. Larger than the first Mare Island-built collier Prometheus, the Jupiter was constructed in four months less time and for $350,000 less. Despite the savings, the Navy-built ship still cost more than her two sisters built in private yards on the East Coast.[3]

Using the Cramp & Sons-provided plans, the ship that slid down Mare Island’s No. 1 ways on that August day would appear as a clone of the Sparrows Point-built Neptune.  Mare Island Navy Yard workers built a ship that had an elevated pilot house forward of her amidships cargo holds. With the engineering plant astern, the collier featured two tall, side-by-side stacks to belch out smoke from her coal-fired boilers. Between the forward protruding pilot house and aft stacks, the 65 foot-wide hull contained 13 cargo holds. With the transformation of the fleet from coal fuel to black oil, the first four holds were reserved for oil. Side by side, holds 1 and 2 held 80,900 gallons and side by side holds 3 and 4 each held 107,300 gallons. Side by side holds 5 and 6 could either hold 15,675 cubic feet of coal or 120,500 gallons of oil. Side by side holds 7 and 8 had a slightly larger capacity holding either 16, 700 cubic feet of coal or 128,650 gallons of oil. The remaining five holds stretched the width of the ship and were designed to strictly carry coal. The capacities of these holds ranged from 82,000 to 91,100 cubic feet of coal. In addition, the Jupiter would maintain a separate bunker aft for her own coal supply.[4] 

Following Jupiter’s launch work commenced on the installation of the ship’s replenishment equipment. Whereas the Cyclops featured an array of seven pairs of vertical posts and connecting horizontal supports giving the appearance of a box-like trestle structure, Jupiter’s replenishment rigs copied a design change that had been installed on Neptune that had the appearance oil derricks. On Neptune and Jupiter seven derricks ran down the ship’s centerline from the forward deckhouse aft with an eighth derrick placed back of the two stacks to control a boom for astern refueling. The seven forward derricks supported 24, 45-foot long booms (12 on each side) that would swing out 22 feet over the side to extend over the ship needing to be refueled.

Cables extending from the booms enabled Jupiter to either extend a fuel hose to pump oil from the four (or six) forward holds or transfer coal in bags or clamshell buckets to the receiving ships from the aft nine (or seven) holds. The rigs enabled the Jupiter to either transfer oil or move 4,000 pounds on a trolley that had a clamshell bucket attached or carry several coal bags, with each bag carrying 800 pounds of coal each. The astern rig allowed for refueling of a trailing ship using a transfer cable.[5]

While replenishment ships consider their transfer rigs as their “main batteries,” U.S. Navy colliers were armed. In the case of Jupiter, lessons were learned from her two earlier built sisters and her decks were strengthened to accommodate a battery of four 4-inch 50-caliber guns, comparable to the main batteries that were being installed on newly commissioned destroyers.[6]

A unique distinction of the Jupiter was the Navy’s decision to install a turbine-electric propulsion system. Her steam-turbine engines powered two huge electric motors that drove the ship’s port and starboard propeller shafts. With new classes of battleships under design, the Navy decided to select the three large fleet colliers being constructed to install three different propulsion systems for evaluation. The Cyclops received a 3-cylinder, vertical, triple-expansion steam plant that was the standard for the era. The Neptune introduced a steam turbine plant, similar to that installed in Britain’s revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought. The Jupiter would also receive a steam turbine; however, the difference in design was that the Neptune would operate using a series of mechanical reduction gears to transfer power from the steam turbine to the shaft, while the Jupiter’s steam turbine would power electric motors that then drove the shafts. The Jupiter’s system was known as the Melville-McAlpine Electric Drive.[7] 

Unlike the Cyclops and Neptune, the Navy placed Jupiter in commission as a regular Navy ship with a uniformed Navy crew. Unlike the other colliers, she would not be assigned to the Naval Auxiliary Service. Commissioned into the navy on April 7, 1913, the new crew would have to wait a month for her new commanding officer to arrive on May 5th – Cdr. Joseph Mason Reeves.

While the December 1917 loss of Cyclops remains a mystery, Neptune would serve as a collier until 1922 when she was decommissioned in Boston. Towed to Philadelphia, and placed in the reserve fleet, she had been considered for conversion to become an aircraft carrier, the fate of her sister ship Jupiter. Instead, she would be stricken from the Navy list in 1938 and broken up. In contrast, Jupiter was taken out of service in 1919 and was recommissioned as the Langley on March 20, 1922. Nearly two decades later, on February 27, 1942, having been converted to become a seaplane tender, she was sunk by Japanese naval aviation off Java.


[1] Marvin W. Barrash, U.S.S. Cyclops, (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2010), pp. 4-5.

[2] Barrash, pp. 5-6.

[3] Paolo E. Coletta, American Secretaries of the Navy (Two Volumes) (Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980), p. 502; Arnold S. Lott, A Long Line of Ships: Mare Island’s century of naval activity in California, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1954), p. 156.

[4] Barrash, pp. 18, 21.

[5] Barrash, p. 19-20.

[6] Barrash, p. 33.

[7] Dwight R. Messimer, Pawns of War: The Loss of the USS Langley and the USS Pecos, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), p. 3; Barrash, p. 22; Thomas Wildenberg, All The Factors of Victory, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003),  p. 84.

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