The Mayflower, A Ship of Destiny

Contributed by Travis Souther

When the ship name Mayflower comes to mind, many will undoubtedly first think of the vessel which carried the Pilgrims across the Atlantic to land at Plymouth Rock.  Though not the ship of 1620 fame, the Mayflower that I discuss today has seen just as much history.

The 273-foot steamship USS Mayflower was built in 1896 in Scotland by J. G. Thompson of Scotland for millionaire Odgen Goelet.  After Goelet died the following August, the ship was sold to the United States and commissioned as the USS Mayflower.  During the Spanish-American War, the ship blockaded the ports of Havana and Santiago.  After serving during the conflict, she twice served as Admiral George Dewey’s flagship.  In 1904, she was decommissioned from the US Navy to serve as the official presidential yacht.

Recommissioned in 1905, the ship was the place of welcome for delegations from Russia and Japan to sign a peace treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War, an action for which President Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  President Woodrow Wilson, who lived in Wilmington for a time, used the ship as a place to court Edith Bolling, who later became First Lady of the United States.  Of all the presidential yachts, the Mayflower may have been the grandest of them all.  The dining room was said to have been paneled with white and gold.  The vessel would serve as the official presidential yacht for Presidents Theodore Roosevelt through Calvin Coolidge.

When Herbert Hoover became President, one of his first acts was to sell the ship to save annual upkeep costs of $300,000.  The yacht was decommissioned and taken out of service.  Following a disastrous fire in 1931 that resulted in her sinking and subsequent raising, the ship came to the Broadfoot Iron Works in Wilmington, NC, for repairs.  During the Great Depression, the ship had a numerous owners who used the vessel for a variety of purposes including coastal trade in South America and a floating dance salon.  At one point, the ship was slated to be sold to the Japan for scrap metal, however a shortage of money left the ship languishing in a succession of Atlantic ports including the Port City, as can be seen in this March 15, 1938, image.

photo of the Mayflower in Wilmington

Following the United States’ entry into the Second World War, the War Shipping Administration purchased the ship from Broadfoot Iron Works for use in the United States Coast Guard.  Renamed the USS Butte, the ship patrolled the Atlantic to guard against German U-boat attacks.  At Norfolk and Boston, the USS Butte served as a radar training ship.

After World War II, the vessel was used to hunt seals in the Arctic and had a series of owners from around the world, including Panamanian and Italian interests.  A secret 1948 mission used the ship to bring Jewish refugees to Israel.  Purchased by Israel in 1950, the ship served in the Israeli navy until being decommissioned and broken up in 1955.

The Mayflower was one of the very few ships to have served during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.  It truly was a ship of destiny.

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