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the origins and early history of the steamer albatross, 1880 - 1887
by Dean C. Allard

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In the summer of 1886, the ship returned to New England. After a cruise to the Gulf Stream Slope in July, Baird assigned the Albatross to investigate possible uncharted shoals near the cod and halibut banks off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Those banks were not confirmed. In September and October 1886, the Albatross deployed from Woods Hole to once again explore the deep waters stretching seaward of the Continental Shelf. Research stations were established in waters as deep as 1,867 fathoms where Zera Tanner reported that a “vast amount of material” was collected. The ship returned to the Washington Navy Yard in late October (Tanner, 1888:622–623, 668; USFC, 1892: xi–xii).

picture of  pilot house
Figure 16. - Interior of the pilot house, steam steering room.

Another event in 1886 had a major impact on the future of the Albatross. In obtaining Congressional approval for the Albatross 5 years earlier, Spencer Baird specified that his ship could be useful in expanding American fisheries in the Pacific, as well as in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Following up on this suggestion, the Commissioner requested funds for the ship’s transfer to the U.S. west coast, especially to study the area from “California northward to Alaska,” where Baird noted that the fisheries were almost “totally undeveloped.” Congress approved this proposal in August 1886. At the same time, Congressional funds were provided for the replacement of the defective boilers that had plagued Commander Tanner and his crew since 1883 (U.S. Congress, 1887:2, 23).

The Albatross remained in a prolonged repair status throughout the first 9 months of 1887 in preparation for her cruise to the Pacific. The ship was at the Washington Navy Yard until May when she shifted to the Columbian Iron Works in Baltimore for the boiler work. The ship’s naval engineer, George W. Baird, personally designed the replacement boilers and supervised their installation.

The challenges so often involved in ship maintenance are revealed in Engineer Baird’s official report. He was deeply frustrated when the Columbian Iron Works took twice as long as originally estimated to complete its job. The engineer’s anxiety was heightened by the tense labor relations at the shipyard. The unionized Columbian Iron Works workers, resentful that naval crew members undertook some of the work associated with the installation of the new boilers, constantly threatened to strike. Nevertheless, a work stoppage was avoided, and to Engineer Baird's intense relief, in September 1887 the boilers were finally in place and tested (16).

One month earlier, Spencer Baird had died in Woods Hole, and in November 1887, the Albatross took her own departure from the Atlantic. In a 7-month, 16,000-mile voyage, she sailed from Norfolk, Va., cruised down the South American east coast, transited the Straits of Magellan, shaped a northerly course for the Galapagos Islands, and finally reached her destination in San Francisco, Calif., on 11 May 1888.

It is fitting that, during her long transoceanic voyage, this pioneering research vessel carried a scientific party led by Leslie A. Lee, who, with his associates, established more than 125 dredgeing and hydrographic stations (Hedgepeth, 1945:18). This work was a preamble to the distinquished scientific contributions made by the ship in the Pacific Ocean for the next 30 years.

After being taken over by the Navy during the Spanish American War and again in War World I, the Albatross once again served as a research vessel in the Caribbean and Atlantic until finally decommissioned in 1921; Mooney (1991:135-138) provides an overall history of the Albatross.

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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