On November 10, 1908, the first American dreadnought battleship, the USS North Dakota was christened by Mary Benton of Fargo as it slid from its construction site into the water. The ship was the biggest, heaviest, and fastest ship yet built by any navy. The ship, its builders, the Navy, the United States, and North Dakota were praised in superlatives. The Fargo Forum printed a front page headline declaring the ship to be “Uncle Sam’s Biggest Peacemaker.” Governor John Burke, speaking at the formal launching ceremonies at Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts stated that “this is the greatest fighting machine in the world . . . named after the greatest agricultural state in this union.”
The ship’s design reflected the lessons American Navy officers learned in defeating the Spanish in 1898. A US Navy officer, Commander Homer C. Poundstone had noted that while the US won the war, on average only two per cent of shells fired from US ships hit their target. Poundstone theorized that locating the proper range of fire required different calculations for guns of different sizes mounted on the ships. In the confusion of battle, this led to inaccuracy in placing shots. In 1903 Poundstone designed two models for all-big-gun ships – an entirely new idea in ship construction - but the plans were set aside with little further attention.
The 1905 Russo-Japanese War, in which Great Britain played a supporting role as Japan’s ally, led British naval engineers to think about more effective battleships. The British ship, HMS Dreadnought, was soon built along the lines of the all-big-gun ships proposed by Commander Poundstone. So impressive was the Dreadnought that its name came to represent an entire generation of battleships. The USS North Dakota was the first American dreadnought to launch (its sister ship, USS Delaware was launched shortly after). Other nations followed suit: Germany, France, Italy, and Japan began to enlarge their navies with all-big-gun battleships.
The USS North Dakota was not completed and ready to sail until April 11, 1910. Over the next thirteen years, she sailed along the east coast, the Caribbean Sea, the coast of Mexico, and to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She patrolled the east coast from Virginia to Long Island during World War I, and trained midshipmen from the US Naval Academy. She toured ports on the Mediterranean Sea in 1919. Her crew took honors in target practice on the open sea, hitting targets as far as 10 miles away at a rate exceeding thirty per cent.
The ship, however, was also troubled by engine breakdowns, a major explosion in September 1910, and a fire. Some Naval officers had complained as the ship was being built in 1907 and 1908 that the design was flawed, the guns were inadequate, and the turbine engines were of an inferior design. The debate raged over the North Dakota’s design in such respectable journals as The New York Times and Scientific American. The Grand Forks Herald made reference to the debate in its articles about the launching of the ship, but assured North Dakotans that the critics were not on solid footing.
Were the critics right? The debate centered on many technical aspects of the ship, as well as national preparation for a possible war, cost of armaments, speed of production, and the honor of the US Navy command. Read both sides of the debate before making your decision.
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