Dakota Datebook

U.S.S. North Dakota

Monday, November 22, 2004

In the early 20th century, Germany, England, France and Japan were all engaged in building huge battleships called dreadnoughts; they were named after the first of their kind, the HMS Dreadnought, built by the British in 1905. Dreadnoughts were made of steel with heavy armor plating and multiple large guns.

The U.S. jumped into the arms race in 1906 with the building of the U.S.S. Delaware and her sister ship, the U.S.S. North Dakota. The North Dakota was 518 feet long, 85 feet wide, and had a displacement of 20,000 tons, larger than any other warship in service at that time. She was the first turbine-powered Navy ship and was said to run so smoothly – even at the high speed of 21 knots – that her gun sights consistently stayed steady; this wasn’t the case on ships with standard reciprocating engines.

The North Dakota was outfitted with ten 12-inch guns mounted in five turrets that allowed for firing broadsides in either direction. She also had fourteen 5-inch guns, four 3-pounders, four 1-pounder semi-automatics, two 3-inch field guns, two .30 caliber machine guns, and two 21-inch torpedo tubes located below the waterline.

Governor John Burke and 45 other dignitaries traveled to Quincy, Massachusetts, for the christening of the ship on November 10, 1908. One of their dinner menus during the trip consisted of Green Sea Turtle Soup, Filet of Black Bass, and Prime Roast Beef or Roast North Dakota Turkey for entrees. Mary Benton of Fargo broke a bottle of champagne wrapped in red silk ribbons against the bow of the vessel, and the North Dakota, commanded by Charles P. Plunkett, slid into the water as a Navy band played the Star Spangled Banner.
The people of North Dakota made donations toward purchasing a christening gift for its sailing namesake – a 40-piece silver service made by the Gorham Silver Company. The designs incorporated motifs of bison, wheat, wild roses and corn. A silver punch bowl was engraved with scenes depicting early North Dakota, and its handles were sculpted bison heads that resembled ship figureheads.

Speaking of figureheads, all figureheads were removed from battleships in 1912, when the Navy adopted battleship gray as a camouflage technique. The figurehead for the North Dakota weighed 3,420 pounds. It was shipped to Bismarck in 1913, and two years later, more than 1,000 pounds of its bronze scrollwork was sold for scrap. The highly decorative bow plate was saved and is on exhibit at the Heritage Center in Bismarck, as is the silver service.

Carrying a crew of 933, the ship never engaged in armed conflict. Instead, it was used for training exercises, for delivering troops and for guarding the east coast. During World War I, it was used in New York for training gunners and engineers.

The U.S.S. North Dakota was decommissioned on this date in 1923, and her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register. Her 850-pound bronze bell, along with its 30-pound copper clapper, was given to the state in 1930. A scale model of the North Dakota, built at the Washington Navy Yard, was exhibited at the state fair in Fargo in 1910. It was put on exhibit at Harvard in 1941 and then at the naval shipyards in Bermerton, WA in 1954. It, too, can be seen at the Heritage Center, where it has been on loan from the U.S. Navy since 1982.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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