The First Coast Guard Academy: The Training Ship Chase

The Chase (Coast Guard Collection)

Published Jul 2, 2019 1:58 PM by William H. Thiesen

In 1875, while serving in Alaska on board the U.S. Revenue Cutter Rush, distinguished cutter captain John Henriques received orders to Washington, D.C. He was tasked with the special duty of developing a new Revenue Cutter Service cadet program.

To establish the new school, Henriques joined Revenue Cutter Service captains George Moore, superintendent of construction, and James Merryman, chief inspector. The three officers devised a system of practical education based on the use of a sail training ship and forwarded their concept to service head, Sumner Kimball. In turn, Kimball submitted the plan to Congress, which passed legislation establishing the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction in July 1876. This legislation included funding to build a new sailing vessel for use as a school ship.

In early December, Henriques convened a board to select the school’s first cadets. The board chose nine applicants for the first class of the School of Instruction. In early 1877, Henriques received orders to the old wooden cutter James C. Dobbin, which he had sailed for his first tour of duty in 1863. Meanwhile, construction began on the school ship, designed by Merryman, which would replace the old Dobbin and become the permanent home of the School of Instruction. While construction of the school ship progressed, Henriques fitted out the 95-foot Dobbin to serve its temporary role as floating classroom and living quarters for the School of Instruction. He also signed on its crew of three officers, 23 enlisted men and a surgeon. In addition, he visited the U.S. Naval Academy, and devised a plan for the curriculum, with junior and senior years, one sea term and two academic terms per year.

Shown here in a rare faded photograph, the 25-year-old wooden cutter James Dobbin served as a temporary Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction training vessel in 1877. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

The School of Instruction commenced its inaugural class on May 25, 1877, when nine cadets boarded the Dobbin and started their course of study under Henriques’ supervision. Over Henriques’ suggestion of New London, Connecticut, the service selected New Bedford, Massachusetts, as the School’s homeport. By 1878, the School of Instruction had enjoyed a full year of operation. During that time, the venerable old Dobbin had served its role as temporary school ship.

Though the 25-year-old Dobbin had proven the importance of practical sailing instruction, the time had come to introduce the new purpose-built ship for cadet training. In the summer of 1878, the Salmon P. Chase went into service. Named after Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, the wooden three-masted barque had a length of 106 feet and the lines of a clipper ship. It could accommodate four officers, 28 enlisted men and 13 cadets. Henriques took charge of the Chase in August 1878, claiming the new barque was “one of the most gallant little sea-going vessels he has ever been in; very fast, and in heavy weather always reliable.” The Chase was the last purely sail-powered ship built for the service and the first of several sail training ships to train service cadets.

Taken well after Henriques’s tenure at the School of Instruction, this photo is the earliest known image showing cadets (Class of 1896) aboard the Chase. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Chase remained the school ship through Henriques’s superintendancy, which ended in 1883. Throughout those years, the Chase served not simply as a sail training ship, but as the entire campus for the School of Instruction. When in New Bedford, the Chase tied up just above the bridge at the north end of Fish Island. Before breakfast and a full day of instruction and training, cadets got exercise by rowing pulling boats up to five miles in all sorts of weather and sea states. 

In the late 1880s, the service briefly enjoyed a surplus of officer candidates, largely because the Naval Academy was graduating more officers than the Navy could employ. For several years, the Revenue Cutter Service filled the junior ranks of its officer corps with Annapolis graduates. For this reason, the Chase was taken out of commission and the School of Instruction closed in 1890. However, the 1890s also saw the expansion of the Navy and, in 1895, an act of Congress retired numerous Revenue Cutter Service officers believed too ill or old to serve. These trends resulted in empty officer positions in the service and no more Navy officers to fill them.

The 1895 Act resulted in a shortage of junior officers and renewed interest in the Revenue Cutter Service’s School of Instruction. The service dry-docked the Chase, cut it in half and lengthened it by 40 feet making room for 25 cadets. In its new configuration, Chase remained in service another decade, making practice cruises to Europe in the summer and visits to East Coast seaports in the fall. In 1900, the Chase moved with the Revenue Cutter Service School of Instruction from New Bedford to Curtis Bay, Maryland. Curtis Bay would remain homeport for the Chase and School of Instruction for the rest of its service career.

In 1907, Chase visited Hampton Roads, Virginia, for the Jamestown Tri-Centennial Celebration. It was school ship’s last official function. That same year, the Revenue Cutter Service retired Chase and began using the steel steam-powered cutter Itasca as its training ship. The Chase was transferred to the U.S. Marine Hospital Service where it became a quarantine vessel. At the end of its government career, Chase was refitted and reclassified as a detention barge.

The barque Chase was one of the several training ships used by the Coast Guard and the Revenue Cutter Service to educate its junior officers. The cadets who trod its decks went on to distinguished careers in the Revenue Cutter Service and Coast Guard, including six commandants, numerous flag officers and most of the officers who led the service through the 1915 transformation into the modern Coast Guard and the service’s baptism of fire in World War I. For a generation of distinguished leaders of the long blue line, Chase served for nearly 30 years as the School of Instruction, the forerunner of today’s Coast Guard Academy.

William H. Thiesen is the Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian. This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.