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Background photo: A hand-tinted linen postcard view of Three Sisters from Scott Lake, circa 1920.
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One by one the Spanish ships were hit, caught fire, and were beached. Two ships, the Vizcaya and the Cristóbal Colón, managed to outdistance all the American ships … except the Oregon, which chased them down doing an astonishing 18 knots — crews panting and sweating as they shoveled coal into the furnace, boiler nearly bursting — and then, from five miles astern, started dropping those brutal 13-inch shells around their ears. The Vizcaya was hit, and beached; the Cristóbal Colón was nearly hit, and struck her colors. The battle was won, and with it the war — and basically, one ship had done all of it.
The breathless newspaper coverage of the Oregon’s 17,000-mile voyage, followed by the even more breathless newspaper coverage of the battle, made the Oregon the unquestioned star of the American fleet. And for the few years bracketing the turn of the century, she was the unquestioned ruler of the seas.
But by 1903 or so, she was already a little obsolete. And in early 1906 — the same year the British rolled out the legendary 527-foot H.M.S. Dreadnought, revolutionizing battleship design for everyone — the die was cast. The aging warrior was sent back to dry dock to be “modernized,” and when she emerged, she was put on reserve duty.
The Oregon was on backup and ceremonial duties during the First World War; the highlight of it was probably in 1919 when, just before being decommissioned, she served as reviewing ship for Woodrow Wilson in Seattle.
But brief though it had been, the aging warrior’s moment in the sun had been so bright that a movement got started in Portland to preserve the ship as a floating monument and museum. And, the Navy not having any other plans for her, this was done: the ship was restored and handed over to the state of Oregon on an indefinite loan.
And there she sat, moored in Portland Harbor, playing host to groups of schoolchildren and visiting history buffs and Spanish-American War vets, becoming a familiar and beloved feature of the Portland skyline.
Then came the events of Dec. 7, 1941, which changed her destiny and sealed her fate.
THE U.S., ONCE at war, started spinning up its manufacturing base. Appeals went out for scrap metal to be donated to the war effort. And, of course, the old U.S.S. Oregon represented a very large potential contribution to any scrap-metal drive.
It wasn’t an easy call to make. President Franklin Roosevelt himself considered the Oregon the fourth most historic Navy vessel afloat, behind the Constitution, the Constellation, and the Hartford.
But war is war. And in early 1942, the darkest hour of the war for the U.S., the very survival of the nation seemed at stake. Sacrifices would have to be made.
So the governor of Oregon gave the ship back, and she was sold for $35,000 to an outfit in Kalama to be stripped.
The ship’s hull was towed to Guam and finished World War II as a munitions barge. Finally, in 1956, what remained of the old battleship was sold to a Japanese company and cut up for scrap.
Today, all that remains of the U.S.S. Oregon is the old ship’s mast and bow shield, which are part of a memorial in Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park.