On March 26, 1898, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt changed Maine’s nautical history with the stroke of a pen.
Sir.–It is the intention of the Department to assign the monitor Montauk, Lieutenant W. M. Irwin, U.S. Navy, commanding, for duty in the harbor of Portland, Maine. This monitor is now at the navy yard, League Island, Pennsylvania, and the Department requests that volunteers of the Naval Reserve of New Jersey be detailed for duty in connection with bringing this monitor from League Island to Portland.
Reading between the lines, Roosevelt is simply drumming up Navy reservists–with a tour aboard a famous ironclad in Vacationland as his reward. Not to mention that the future president, a repeat summer visitor to many of the attractions of our state, had a soft spot for the coast of Maine himself.
Built by John Ericsson in 1862 in Brooklyn, New York, the Montauk was legendary for destroying the Confederate blockade runner Rattlesnake, trapping her upstream in the Ogeechee River during the Civil War. The single-turreted Passaic-class ironclad also figured in the withering bombardments of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina.
Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth’s body was spirited aboard the Montauk, which maneuvered into the center of the Potomac River to keep his body parts from being made into grisly souvenirs. See our story in July/August 2005 by Matthew Jude Barker.
Roosevelt ordered the Montauk here to Portland Harbor as part of a coastal defense reconfiguration. It didn’t hurt that Montauk made a great recruiting tool, just as this summer’s “Navy Tour” will be when it takes over Portland Harbor this summer.
This Brooklyn girl’s Maine vacation spanned from May, 1898, to March, 1899. Maine Historical Society’s photo of the Montauk is not far from where DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant is today.
Old ironclads never die. They just wind up in the Old Port, cruising for a parking spot.