Salvage and Final Voyage

By Jack L. McSherry, Jr., PE, PLS
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Please note: This article was substantially republished in the April, 2005 issue of Sea Classics magazine. Republication of this article by Sea Classics magazine was done without the permission or license of the article's author or this website. The article as republished in Sea Classics also contained certain information - photo captions -that were added by Sea Classics and that, in the opinion of the article's author,  contain some information that is inaccurate.


Though the Battleship MAINE was sent to a watery grave in February of 1898, that was not truly her last voyage. In the years after the war, periodic pressure was applied to Congress to have the vessel raised and moved. The reasons for these efforts were threefold. First, there was a desire to remove the vessel and the remains of the sailors who were still on board her out of the foreign port in which they were resting. Secondly, the cause of the sinking was not fully resolved in many people's minds, and the raising of the vessel would provide a second chance to understand what happened that fateful night. Lastly, the Battleship MAINE was a hazard to vessels navigating the busy harbor of Havana.

On August 5, 1910, the United States Congress finally authorized the raising of the remains of the Battleship MAINE. The Army Corps of Engineers was directed to supervise the work, which involved the building of a cofferdam around the sunken hulk, the pumping out of the water, and the removal of the wreck itself. Once the water was drained, but while the vessel was still in place, a second American court of inquiry would investigate the cause of the vessel's demise, and the remains of any sailors found would be removed to the United States and given a proper burial.

The following is an account of the dewatereding and raising of the wreckage of the Battleship MAINE.

The Battleship MAINE wreck site inside the coffer dam
The wreck of the MAINE within the cofferdam.

The Story of the Raising of the MAINE:

The Battleship MAINE was sunk in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898, and was a catalyst for the eventual war between Spain and the United States.  As a result of the explosion and sinking of the MAINE, 260 Americans on the ship were killed.  Many of these men went down with the ship, and their bodies were not recovered.  Over the ensuing years, there was occasional clamor by the American people for the recovery of the bodies.

In 1910, the pressure to recover the bodies reached a high point, and along with this, the Cuban Government wanted the Maine removed from the harbor, claiming that it was an eyesore, and a navigational hazard.

As a result of this pressure, the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, on May 9, 1910, enacted legislation that authorized and directed the Secretary of War and the Chief of Engineers to raise and remove the wreck of the United States Battleship Maine from the harbor of Havana, and to properly inter the bodies of the American casualties in Arlington National Cemetery.  This legislation further directed that the mast of the wreck be removed and erected on a proper foundation in Arlington National Cemetery near the bodies of those who died on the wreck.  Congress recognized that the permission of the Cuban Government was necessary prior to proceeding with the work which was readily given.  All work involved in the raising of the MAINE was with the full cooperation of the Cuban government.

To allow for the removal of the wreck, it was determined that a cofferdam should be built around the sunken ship, then the area inside the cofferdam dewatered to provide a means to examine the ship, remove the bodies and debris, and repair the ship as necessary for flotation.  The full responsibility for the necessary construction and dewatering procedures was assigned to a board of Engineering officers composed of Colonel W. M. Black, Lieutenant Colonel M. M. Patrick, and Major Harley B. Ferguson.

The conditions for the construction of the cofferdam were formidable.  The average depth of the water around the wreck was about 35 feet.  Below the bottom of the water was an additional depth of 30 feet of fluid mud.  Below this mud, at a depth of approximately 65 feet was stiff clay.  Below the stiff clay, at a depth of 98 feet to 118 feet was rock.  Fortunately, the change in tide in the area was only about 18-inches.  The wreck not only sunk in the 30 feet of water, but it also settled into the soft mud until the keel was no less than 42 feet below the water surface.

The engineers concluded that the cofferdam must have interior horizontal dimensions of 350 feet by 170 feet, and it must be capable of resisting the pressures developed by the differential levels of water and mud when the cofferdam was dewatered to a depth of fifty feet.  With the great interior dimensions, interior bracing would be difficult and costly, so it was determined to design the structure to the extent that interior bracing could be reduced to a minimum.  The cofferdam was designed to consist of 20 component cylinders, each 50 feet in diameter, made of interlocking steel sheet piling, and placed nearly tangent to each other.  To provide closure between the cylinders, short arcs of piling were driven adjacent to the cylinders, spanning horizontally from one cylinder to the next.  These arcs were connected into the cylinders by using three way interconnecting piles.  All interlocking sheet piling consisted of members 12 “ wide.  The piling was proposed to be 75 feet long, and to be driven into the stiff clay bottom. Then with the completed 50 foot diameter cylinders being filled with earth, it was proposed in design, and hoped, that each cylinder would be self-supporting against the external mud and water pressures.  Because of the inconvenience of shipping the 75-foot lengths of pile, half of them were made up of 50 foot and 25 foot lengths, and the other half 40 foot and 35 foot lengths which would provide alternating locations of joints in the adjacent piles after the separate units were spliced together.    The piling was manufactured and provided by Lackawanna Steel Company, and was guaranteed to stand a strain of 9700 pounds per lineal inch in the interlock connections.

It was precalculated that the piles should penetrate ten feet into the stiff clay, and extend 5 feet above the mean low water level.  However, the piles penetrated deeper into the hard clay than expected, so it was determined to drive all steel piles to a depth so that 2 feet of piling extended above the mean water level. Wood piles were then to be driven into the fill inside the cylinders along the inside face of the cylinder to extend the freeboard higher for protection against higher water levels caused by wave action.

Heavy equipment was required to proceed with the work.  The Cuban government loaned the use of a 50-ton floating derrick, a pile driver, and a number of barges.  Two other barges were purchased, and another borrowed from the United States Navy.  The principal pieces of floating plant that were used for the construction of the cofferdam were as follows:

 Two tugs
            Two launches
            One 7-yard clamshell and dipper dredge
            One 36” hydraulic drag-suction dredge
            One 20” hydraulic cutter dredge
            Four pile drivers and derrick boats
            Two 100 ton decked scows
            One coal barge
            One light steamer scow
            Three dump scows
            One 50-ton decked scow
            One derrick boat

To begin the work of driving the piles to construct the cylinders, the location of all twenty cylinders were marked.  A Timber pile was driven at the location of the center of each cylinder.  This pile supported a floating half circle form, which provided the alignment for the piles for the cylinder.  The piles were then carefully driven vertically against this form.

The piling sections weighed 40 pounds per lineal foot.   The first pile was driven on December 6, 1910.  When the piles were set up to be driven, some of them extended as much as 40 feet above the water level, making it difficult to hold the steam hammer on the piles.  False leads were improvised to aid in stabilizing these piles.  During most of the pile driving operation, the wind was very strong and sometimes bent the piles as they initially extended way above the water level.  The pile drivers used were two No. 3 Arnott steam hammers weighing 3700 pounds each, one Vulcan steam hammer with the weight of the hammer being slightly more than the Arnott hammer, and one Monarch steam hammer which also had a weight slightly more than the Arnott hammer. Occasionally piles while being driven encountered debris from the MAINE, such as the foremast, a gun turret, and one of the MAINE’s large anchors.  Pile driving was stopped until these items were brought to the surface.  As the 50-foot diameter cylinders were finished, they were filled with earth to make them stable, and to provide the required overturning resistance to support the horizontal force of the proposed water level differential.

Very tough, hard, heavy clay from a shoal within a few hundred feet of the site of the cofferdam was used to fill the cylinders.  The clay in the shoal was so stiff that the first dredge tried was unable to dredge the material.  A 20-inch suction dredge was finally obtained and was able to dredge the clay.  This dredge removed the clay from the shoal then deposited it inside the cylinders.  An additional 24000 cubic yards of clay was placed around the outside of the dam.

To keep from distorting the cylinders, the fill was placed uniformly in them by moving from one cylinder to another, and by maintaining a uniform depth at all times around the cylinder.  The stability of the cylinders was dependent on the solidity of the fill within them.  The stiff clay, when dredged, mixed with water and required time to consolidate inside the cylinders.  After a short time, the surface of the fill seemed firm, but there was still excessive moisture in the cylinders.  It was determined that by pumping water from within the cofferdam in stages, then waiting for a time, the water inside the cylinders would also drain allowing further consolidation within the cylinders.  The high water saturation of the fill proved to be a continuing problem in the operation, however, as all problems developed, the very capable and enterprising engineers in charge always arrived at a countering condition to solve the problems.

During the filling operations, several cylinders developed ruptures at some of the interlocking joints of the piles.  These failures were repaired, and on June 5, 1911, with all twenty cylinders filled, the cofferdam was considered finished and ready for dewatering.

For dewatering the cofferdam, two electrically driven centrifugal pumps, one 8-inch and one 12-inch were mounted on floats within the dam, with their discharge hoses across the dam.  The capacities of the pumps were 1800 gallons per minute for the 8-inch pump and 4200 gallons per minute for the 12-inch pump, against a 65-foot head of water.

The water in the cofferdam was lowered in successive stages of five feet, holding it for nine days to allow the cylinders to drain.  The cylinders were not as stable as calculated because of the unanticipated water within the fill inside the cylinders.  In an effort to further stabilize the cylinders, some of the fill from the inside half of the cylinders was removed and piled on the outside half of the cylinder.  This also removed some of the pressure from the inside wall of the cylinder.

When the water inside the cofferdam was lowered by 15 feet, the dewatering was stopped and careful measurements of the tops of the cylinders taken.  The measurements across the top of the dam, between cylinders F and P, gradually decreased by 32 inches.  That meant that the cylinders were either tilting inward, or sliding inward.  To counter this movement, 4200 cubic yards of stone was dumped inside the dam at the bottoms of the cylinders to form a stone toe inside the dam.  By continuously monitoring the distance across the dam from opposite cylinders, it could be determined which cylinders were moving the most.  Additional stone was added to the toe as necessary.  Stone was also piled on top of the fill in the outer half of the cylinders to shift the center of gravity of the cylinder outward thereby providing more stability.  The total volume of stone place in this operation was 14,900 cubic yards.

Because of the continuing movement of the cylinders, there was serious concern about the stability of the dam.  This movement was much more than anticipated.  No risks could be taken, so a system of bracing was used inside the dam to support the insides of the cylinders against overturning.  These braces consisted of a series of 12” x 12” timbers, attached together, from cylinder wall to the side of the hull of the intact portion of the sunken ship.  In the area of the forward portion of the ship, which was completely demolished, the bracing consisted of a series of 14’ X 14” timbers spanning the entire interior width of the dam, from cylinder to cylinder.  These timbers were laterally braced along their lengths with wooden piles, and with anchor cables to portions of the wreck.  To spread the load of these braces against the side of the cylinders, a mass of concrete, vertically supported by wooden piles, was placed between the braces and the wall of the cylinder.

With the stabilizing of the dam completed, removal of water and mud from inside the cofferdam continued.  First the mud was hydraulic [liquid] enough that it could be removed by pumping, then it became more solid and had to be removed by other means.  The mud around and on the wreck was removed by shoveling and sluicing.  Some was removed in buckets.  However, all mud was washed through screens to search for, and recover, human remains and personal belongings.  The mud on and around the destroyed portion of the wreck was removed by derrick boat and dump boxes.  Some mud inside the cofferdam was relocated to areas within the cofferdam where wreckage had been removed.

Pressure of water forced water through the interlocked joints of the cylinder piles.  To counter this, wells were installed to a depth of fifty feet in the center of the cylinders.  By pumping the water from these wells, the leakage was abated.

Because the tops of the steel piles of the cylinders were only about 18 inches above the water level, the winds and adjacent moving boats allowed water to overtop the cylinders and enter the clay fill inside the cylinders.  This water was detrimental to the stability of the cylinders.  Holes were drilled through the cylinder walls on the inside of the dam to allow the water inside the cylinders to drain.

When designed, it was expected that there would be some yielding of the component cylinders, but it was hoped that the stiff filling inside would make them sufficiently stable.  The cylinders displayed much more flexibility than had been expected.  This was attributed to the plasticity of the filling inside the cylinder.  The piles were apparently well anchored into the stiff clay at the bottom to resist against sliding of the cylinders. However, the cofferdam, as constructed and braced was adequate to resist the pressures of the mud and water adjacent to it.

Upon completion of dewatering the cofferdam, and the removal of the mud, the removal of the wreckage began.  Forward of frame 41, which is slightly forward of amidships, the ship was completely destroyed.  The after portion of the ship was intact.  It was determined to place a temporary bulkhead across the ship at the point of the break, at frame 41.  The debris of the forward portion of the wreck was cut up into pieces, then lifted out with derrick boats.  The debris was loaded on barges, towed to sea, and thrown overboard.  The maximum weight of any such piece was about 10 tons, and average weight about 2 tons.

The two 10-inch guns, weighing about 29 tons each, were lifted by a gin pole, then drawn up a greased incline to the top of cylinder E.  These guns and parts of the turret were later placed ashore and given to the Cuban government to be incorporated into a MAINE memorial in Havana.

The intact portion of the ship was to be bulkheaded and repaired to the extent necessary to allow her to float.  A wooden athwartship bulkhead was constructed at frame 41.  It was composed of a single thickness of 3-inch plank, placed vertically and supported against 10” x 10” horizontal timbers which were spaced to suit the water pressures.  The 10” x 10” horizontals were backed by 10” x 10” vertical timbers spaced from 3 foot to 5 foot centers and braced to the framing of the ship, and to the boilers, and other points.  The top of the vertical 3” planks were made flush with the main deck.  The bottoms of the planks were spiked to a sill bolted to the bottom plating, and backed with concrete.  The horizontal timbers supporting the planks were x-braced.  The joints between planks were caulked with oakum.  All areas between planking and the steel hull were carefully made watertight.  Additional bracing of the bulkhead was made by using metal tie rods, which also tied all components of the hull and deck together.  The bulkheading was carried around the sides above the armor belt as far as the plating had been blown out.  The resultant bulkhead was practically watertight.

On January 26, 1912, when the bulkhead was nearly completed, the water in the cofferdam was allowed to rise a few feet.  To free the hull of the ship from the suction of the mud beneath, a series of holes six-inches in diameter were cut through the bottom of the ship next to the keel.  A watertight flange was placed and connected at each hole.  The opening was reduced to two inches, and a system of two inch piping was connected to each.  Water pressure through these holes served to clear the mud under the ship as water was let into the cofferdam to float the ship.  When the water in the cofferdam reached 19 feet, the ship broke away from the bottom and was floating.  Temporary braces supporting the cofferdam either broke away, or were removed as the ship rose.  As the water in the cofferdam was raised, pressure on the cylinders was diminishing.

After the intact portion of the wreck had been floated, the procedure of removing the piling and fill material was begun to allow an exit for the floated wreck.  An opening was made in the easterly wall of the cofferdam.   Removing the first piles of each cylinder was difficult, requiring an upward pull of from 160 tons to 240 tons to remove the first pile in each cylinder.  The remaining piles pulled more easily.  When the opening was made through the easterly wall of the cofferdam, the wreck was towed out stern first to decrease pressure on the temporary bulkhead.

On March 16, 1912 at 2:00 PM, amidst somber cannon salutes and tolling bells, the wreck was towed out to sea by a United States tug, the OSCEOLA, and steadied by two other tugs.  A solitary figure remained on the wreck, dressed in a black suit. The figure was that of "Dynamite Johnny" O'Brien, an early arms smuggler/supplier for the Cuban Insurrectionists, adventurer, and now a respected member of the Corps of Port Pilots of Havana. A large U.S. flag was placed on a temporary mast, and the deck was strewn with roses. As the vessel moved, tens of thousands of silent people lined the waterfront. The MAINE passed between an honor guard of American and Cuban vessels with crews at attention. As the vessel approached open water, the band on the NORTH CAROLINA played somber music.

MAINE was followed by the USS NORTH CAROLINA, which held the flag-draped coffins of the 36 crewman who had been found aboard the MAINE's rusting hulk. The crewmens' remains were placed under the supervision of the their former chaplain, now monsignor, John Chidwick. Chidwick had presided over the funerals of their comrades fourteen years earlier.  After having reached a point beyond the three-mile limit, the actual sinking was carried out in exact accordance with the prearranged plan.  A party went aboard and opened valves in prearranged openings in the bottom, opened sluice gates in the temporary bulkhead, and five sliding gates in the bulkhead.  It took nine minutes to perform this operation, and for the party to leave the ship.

The wreck disappeared into 620 fathoms of water 41 minutes after the opening of the valves and gates.  As she went down to the ocean bottom, air pressure exploded the her decks and spray shot into the air.

At the location of the cofferdam, the remaining piles were pulled in 112 days.  Additional wreckage of the ship was found, cut up, and removed.  All fill material was removed, and the area dredged and carefully swept to a depth of 37.5 feet in the presence of representatives of the Cuban government and declared free of obstructions.

All work was completed by December 2, 1912.  The total cost of the project was $ 900,000.   The total recovered remains of what was believed to be about 75 persons were buried at Arlington National Cemetery as directed.

Even after the MAINE was sent to her final, watery grave, she still did not fully rest in peace, but rather in pieces. Portions of the MAINE actually began to be offered to the public at a very early time, even before she was raised. The 1903 Bannerman's catalog of military goods included not only cork life rings from the MAINE, which had been brought to New York after the disaster and then sold as surplus, but even included the one of the MAINE's capstans, and sections of cable from the vessel.

While the vessel was being raised and afterwards, many more artifacts, formerly trapped beneath the wreck, came to light. These pieces, owned by the government, were given out to organizations and towns around the country for use in monuments. In this way, she is still remembered. Many people have had the strange experience of wondering in some aging park or forgotten cemetery in a landlocked portion of the country and stumbling upon a piece of the USS MAINE. For information on where some of these parts ended up, and images of some of them now, click here!

In 2000, the wreck of the MAINE was again found and photographed by a group of researchers off the Cuban coast.


(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on

Bannerman, Francis, "Catalogue of Military Goods", New York, 1903.

Blow, Michael, A Ship to Remember , (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992).

Ripley, Warren, "The Battery", Charleston, SC: Evening Post Publishing Co., 1977.

United States House of Representatives, House Documents Vol. 157;  Nos. 298-758, with exceptions, Documents of a Public Nature I;  63d congress 2d session 1913-1914; (Wasington: Government Printing Office, 1914)

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