Kanawha (1899)

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Kanawha was a 471-ton steam-powered luxury yacht initially built in 1899 for millionaire industrialist and financier Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840–1909). One of the key men in the Standard Oil Trust, Rogers was one of the last of the robber barons of the Gilded Age in the United States. He was also a "secret" philanthropist.

Rogers was a major developer of coal and railroad properties in West Virginia along the Kanawha River. Aboard the Kanawha, he frequently hosted his friends, including American humorist Mark Twain and black educator Booker T. Washington.

After Rogers' death in 1909, the Kanawha served the U.S. Navy during World War I. After the war, it was sold to Marcus Garvey's ill-fated Black Star Line and renamed the S.S. Antonio Maceo. However, the former luxury yacht was apparently in poor condition by this time. It blew a boiler and killed a man off the Virginia coast on its first voyage from New York to Cuba.


Consolidated Shipbuilding was a builder of luxury yachts. The Kanawha was built in 1899 at the shipyard on Matthewson Road, in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, New York City. The shipyard moved after World War II. The former shipyard property became part of Roberto Clemente State Park.[1]

The 471-ton Kanawha was approximately 200 feet (61 m) long. Manned by a crew of 39 people, Kanawha was often compared by the newspapers of the day to the North Star, the yacht of a member of the Vanderbilt family. Even among its contemporaries in the fleet of the New York Yacht Club, Kanawha was a large vessel, noted for her exceptional speed.

Source of original name

The name Kanawha was probably selected by the original owner, Henry Huttleston Rogers. Among his many other activities, Rogers was an active investor and developer of West Virginia's coal lands and railroads in the area of the Kanawha River in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The latter included the Kanawha and Pocahontas Railroad Company incorporated in 1898. Its line ran 15 miles (24 km) from the Kanawha River up a tributary called Paint Creek. Rogers negotiated its lease to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) in 1901 and its sale to a newly formed C&O subsidiary, Kanawha and Paint Creek Railway Company, in 1902.

That same year, Rogers began investing with William Nelson Page in the Deepwater Railway, which was built south into new coal lands from Deepwater in Fayette County on the Kanawha River.

Henry Huttleston Rogers

Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840–1909) was a self-made man from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, a fishing village just over the bridge from the great whaling port, New Bedford. Fairhaven borders the Acushnet River to the west and Buzzards Bay to the south.

In the mid 1850s, whaling was already an industry in decline in New England. Competition from Scandinavian water men, and the emergence of petroleum and later natural gas as a replacement fuel for lighting in the second half of the 19th century, caused a much further decline. Henry Rogers' father was one of the many men of New England who changed from a life on the sea to other work to provide for their families. However, the emergence of the petroleum industry was to become the initial source of success for Henry Rogers.

"Hen" Rogers, as his friends knew him, had married his childhood sweetheart, Abbie Palmer Gifford, the daughter of a retired ship captain, and gone to work in the newly-discovered oil fields of western Pennsylvania. After several years of living in a shack at McClintocksville (near Oil City), and operating the small Wamsutta Oil Refinery with a partner, Rogers had come to the attention of Charles Pratt, an early pioneer of the emerging petroleum industry in the United States. Abbie and Henry Rogers and their young daughter Anne moved to the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York, where he worked in Pratt's kerosene refinery Astral Oil Works. Pratt's product later gave rise to the slogan, "The holy lamps of Tibet are primed with Astral Oil".

Henry Rogers often slept on the floor of the Brooklyn refinery between work shifts, with Abbie bringing his meals to him there. While working for Pratt at Greenpoint, Rogers invented an improved way of separating naphtha (a light oil similar to kerosene) from crude oil. He was granted U.S. Patent #120,539 on October 31, 1871.[2] Rogers became Pratt's protégé and was made a partner in the newly-formed Charles Pratt and Company.

By the mid-1870s, as his family eventually grew to 5 children, Rogers crafted a deal for with John D. Rockefeller for Pratt principals to join his enterprises. Charles Pratt retired soon thereafter and founded Pratt Institute, and his son, Charles Millard Pratt, became Secretary of Standard Oil. Rogers was quite a bit younger than his early mentor, and soon thrived within Rockefeller's organization, rising in the years thereafter to become a principal and a Vice President of the Standard Oil Trust by 1890.

Even after he was well-off financially, Henry Rogers continued to be what was many year later termed "a workaholic". He was an active developer of all types of natural resources and transportation enterprises. Soon, he had investments of his own own in natural gas, copper, steel, coal, and railroad industries. By 1899, he had already become one of the richest men in the United States.

Rogers' new yacht

At the time he had the Kanawha built, Henry Rogers was known widely in the media as simply "H.H. Rogers". He was known publicly as one of the last of the robber barons of the Gilded Age, and was widely known by the nickname "Hell Hound Rogers".

Abbie had died suddenly in 1894. His children were now grown. Rogers subsequently married a divorcée, Emelie Augusta Randel Hart, and they lived in a townhouse in New York City, and maintained a large 85-room summer home at Fairhaven. Rogers and his family had given various public buildings and infrastructure to their hometown, and they vacationed at Fairhaven frequently.

Mark Twain and newspapers

For the last ten years of his life, the Kanawha became Rogers' preferred mode of travel between Fairhaven and New York, as well as on cruises to Hampton Roads in Virginia. Among his personal friends were such diverse people as humorist Mark Twain, leading black educator Booker T. Washington, teacher Anne Sullivan and her amazing deaf and blind pupil Helen Keller, as well as Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. Rogers paid for Keller's education at Radcliffe College. Twain and Washington were frequent guests aboard the Kanawha.

The newspapers, the leading media of the era, seemed to delight in attempting to monitor and report on the travels of the yacht, especially when Mark Twain was aboard. The archives of The New York Times contain many published reports of their travels, which included at least one cruise together in 1902 north to the coast of Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

In April 1907, Rogers, Twain, and friends sailed to attend the opening day festivities of the Jamestown Exposition held at Sewell's Point in a rural section of Norfolk County, Virginia. Twain's public popularity was such that large numbers of citizens paid to ride touring boats out to where the Kanawha was anchored in Hampton Roads in hopes of getting a glimpse of him. As the gathering of boats around the yacht became a safety hazard, he finally obliged by coming on deck and waving to the crowds.[3]

When they were ready to depart the Norfolk area, due to poor weather conditions the steam yacht was delayed by its captain for several days from leaving the Hampton Roads area and venturing into the Atlantic Ocean. Rogers and some of the others in his party (without Twain) returned to New York by railroad. Due to his dislike of traveling by rail, Twain elected to return aboard the Kanawha, despite the delay. However, the news media reporters lost track of Twain's whereabouts; when he failed to return to New York City as scheduled, The New York Times speculated that he had been "lost at sea."[4]

Upon arriving safely in New York and learning of this, to the relief (and likely delight) of his admiring public and no doubt to the great embarrassment of the journalists at the Times, the humorist issued essentially a replay of his famous "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" statement. (He had originally sent this message in 1897 by cable from London to the newspapers in the United States after his obituary had been mistakenly published.)[5]

This time, Twain said, in part,

"...I will make an exhaustive investigation of this report that I have been lost at sea. If there is any foundation for the report, I will at once apprise the anxious public."

Later that year, Mark Twain and Rogers' son, Henry Jr. (Harry), returned to the Jamestown Exposition aboard the Kanawha. The departure from New York of the Kanawha, as well as that of Cornelius Vanderbilt's steam yacht, the North Star, which left at the same time, was dutifully reported by The New York Times. The humorist helped host Robert Fulton Day on September 23, 1907, celebrating the centennial of Fulton's invention of the steamboat. Twain was filling in for ailing former U.S. President Grover Cleveland, and introduced Rear Admiral Purnell F. Harrington.[6]

Secret philanthropy

The newspapers seemed less aware that on cruises aboard the Kanawha, Twain and Rogers were joined at frequent intervals by Dr. Washington. From all outward appearances, Washington was apparently just another friend. That part was mostly true, but there was more.

Known but to a very few, through Booker T. Washington, "Hell Hound Rogers" was a secret philanthropist, encouraging the Negro educator and aiding in his educational efforts for African Americans by deploying a new concept which came to be known as anonymous donor matching funds to contribute very large amounts of money in support of several teacher's colleges (now Hampton University and Tuskegee University) and literally dozens of small schools in the South over the same 15-year period of the Twain-Rogers friendship.

Dr. Washington only revealed this situation in June 1909 just weeks after Rogers' death as he made a pre-planned tour along the Virginian Railway, traveling in Rogers' private rail car "Dixie".[7]

Virginian Railway

Beginning in 1902, Rogers was an investor in the modest Deepwater Railway. It was initially just a short line railroad, much like several others in West Virginia Rogers had been involved with. Unlike the earlier enterprises, the Deepwater Railway did not find a buyer among the large railroads, and eventually grew to become the West Virginia portion of Rogers' final life's work, the coal-hauling Virginian Railway, completed in 1909, which extended 450 miles (720 km) from the Kanawha River to coal piers at Sewell's Point on Hampton Roads near Norfolk, Virginia.

The VGN was planned and initially developed in secrecy right under the noses of some of Rogers' contemporaries, notably Alexander Cassatt and William Vanderbilt, heads of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and New York Central Railroad (NYC) respectively. They had secretly entered into a "community of interests pact" to control the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) and the Norfolk and Western Railway (N&W) in the coal fields, and block all competitors.

Ostensibly headed by coal mining manager William Nelson Page, with Rogers as a silent partner, the leaders of the big railroads were skeptical that Page could finance and complete his venture, which had issued no bonds, and sold no stock. The fact they didn't know was that the new $40 million dollar Virginian Railway was financed almost entirely from Rogers' personal fortune. However, that situation was apparently the source of considerable stress to him after the Financial Panic of 1907 put an unexpected strain on his resources. In the summer of 1907, Rogers suffered a stroke, and took 5 months to recover. He regained his health, at least to most appearances. By mid-1908, he had made the necessary financial adjustments, and the construction on his railroad had resumed. The new Virginian Railway's coal pier was at Sewell's Point, right next door to the Jamestown Exposition site.

The railroad had a final spike ceremony on January 29, 1909, which was also Henry Rogers' 69th birthday. In April of that year, during a tour along the new railroad in his private railcar, Dixie, he was feted with celebrations by communities all along the new rail line, notably at Norfolk, Victoria, and Roanoke in Virginia, and at Princeton, West Virginia.

However, despite the celebrations of early 1909, Rogers was not destined to live to see his new railroad in full operation, scheduled for July 1.

Death of Henry Rogers

Rogers had been warned by his doctor and friends, notably John D. Rockefeller, to slow down his work pace. However, he found that difficult. In May 1909, spent a leisurely weekend at Fairhaven, and visited old friends. However, the following week, he was back at work at his office in the Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway in Manhattan. On the morning of Wednesday, May 20, 1909, he awoke at his townhouse in New York City, and complained to his wife that he was feeling poorly. She immediately called for his doctor, but within the hour, he was dead from another stroke. Following an elaborate funeral in New York City, his body was transported by train to Massachusetts, and he was interred at Fairhaven that Saturday next to his beloved Abbie in Riverside Cemetery. He had outlived her by only one day short of 15 years.

The master of the Kanawha would not be returning to the luxury yacht. Not much seems to be recorded about the fate of the Kanawha in the period immediately following the death of its original owner. Rogers' only son, Henry Jr., had the family's large summer home in Fairhaven torn down soon thereafter. It also seems unlikely that adequate funds among the Rogers children and their families, or even the will to continue cruises of the Kanawha, survived the death of the Standard Oil magnate and founder of the Virginian Railway.

World War I

According to records of the U.S. Navy, after nearly two decades as a pleasure craft the Kanawha was acquired by the Navy in late April 1917 for use in World War I. The Navy had earlier had another ship also named Kanawha, USS Kanawha (AO-1) — a fleet oiler built in 1914. To avoid potential confusion, the former Rogers yacht was commissioned by the Navy as USS Kanawha II (SP-130).

Following brief service in the vicinity of New York City, in June 1917 Kanawha II became one of the early ships sent across the Atlantic Ocean to operate in European waters. For the rest of the War, and for some months after the November 1918 Armistice, the ex-yacht performed patrol and convoy escort missions off western France, making occasional contact with German submarines.

In March 1918, Kanawha II was renamed USS Piqua, probably to avoid message confusion with the Navy oiler. In the summer of 1918, she was the flagship of the U.S. District Commander based at Lorient, France.

Her European service ended in May 1919, when Piqua began a month-long voyage back to the United States. She was decommissioned and returned to her owner at the beginning of July 1919.[8]

Black Star Line

The final chapter in the life of the Kanawha was as unusual as the way it had started. The Black Star Line was a shipping line incorporated by Marcus Garvey, who organized the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The Black Star Line derived its name from the White Star Line, another shipping line whose success Garvey felt he could duplicate, which would become a standard of his Back-to-Africa movement.

Unfortunately for Garvey and his efforts, the ships he purchased beginning in 1919 were apparently both overpriced and in poor condition. Among these was the once-grand and well-maintained Kanawha. It was noted that Dr. Washington, the late educator, had been an honored guest aboard the ship years earlier. Renamed by the Black Star Line the S.S. Antonio Maceo, after putting in for unplanned repairs at Norfolk, it blew a boiler and killed a man off the Virginia coast on its first voyage from New York to Cuba, and had to be towed back to New York. The Black Star Line stopped sailing in February 1922, and was soon out of business.


This article includes text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.