History Clings to Rusty Hulk

By William K. Stevens
Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK - You look to the right as you come off the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel into Norfolk and you see the algae-covered hulk of an old warship, rusty and skeletal, beached on the tip of Willoughby Spit.  Maritime historians are pretty certain it once was a bantam fighting cock of the U.S. Navy:  the torpedo boat Stringham by name, an immediate forerunner of the modern destroyer.

When the 20th Century was a baby, the Stringham plied the East Coast, practicing how to kill battleships and armored cruisers of her era.

John T. Butler of 309 Stanford Road, Churchland, remembers.  He is now 76.  He served aboard the Stringham as an ordinary seaman almost 60 years ago.  Butler remembers how the crew used to organize crap games on a topside platform the captain had rigged for "rasslin'."

He remembers how the Stringham once encountered an awkward ironclad of the Civil War Monitor class in Chesapeake Bay.  The deck of the ironclad was only a foot or two above water and the wake of the 28-know Stringham washed clear across it.

"You should have seen the guys scatter," Butler laughed.  He visited the skeleton here Wednesday, as he ha periodically since he retired from the Navy a second time in 1945.

From 1947 to 1967, when the bridge-tunnel opened, Butler captained a ferry running between Norfolk and Hampton.

"I heard so many people on the ferry talking about it (the hulk) being a German submarine," he said, "and I used to tell them it wasn't, and they wouldn't listen, so I gave up.  Maybe now we can set the record straight."

Librarian john Lochhead of the Mariner's Museum in Newport News said the Stringham has been "pretty definitely" identified with the last year or two.

"There is no absolute proof," Lochhead said Wednesday, "but everything leads to the conclusion the wreck is the Stringham."

The Stringham's keel was laid March 21, 1898.  She was commissioned Nov.7, 1905.  She was 228 feet long, displaced 340 tons and had a complement of 59 men.  She mounted two 18-inch torpedo tubes, carried four-to-six pound guns and was driven by twin screws powered by a coal-burning steam engine.

In naval evolution, she marked the transition between torpedo boats of the late 19th century and the "torpedo boat destroyer," or destroyer, of the 20th.

The Stringham was stricken from the Navy ship list in 1918, filled with cork so she would not sink and made a target for naval guns.  There are shell holed in the skeleton to this day.

"One day - it must have been about 1922 - she was being towed out in rough weather and broke loose from the tow," said William T. Pearson of Norfolk who owns the land where the hull is beached.  This track is occupied by the newly opened Hampton Tunnel Motel.

When the vessel washed up on the beach in 1922, her owners left her there.  Just who owned her at that point is hazy.  but she's served as a breakwater since......"

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John Butler reported for duty aboard the Stringham in 1906.  He recalled, "I could name every ship in the Navy then...there were so few of them.  We had 2,000 men."  But he only served three months aboard the Stringham before being transferred to the cruiser Tennessee.

Commissioned in 1905 and stricken from the list in 1918, Stringham had a short life in a time of rapidly changing technology.  Her construction started about the time Theodore Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Shortly after he completed his second term as president, she had become obsolete.  Odds are long that Teddy once inspected the speedy Stringham as she maneuvered at 28 knots.

One final footnote:  How did she get her name?  she was named for U.S. navy Admiral Hiram Stringham.  Stringham appears in history books for his role in Civil War campaign to gain control of the Carolina Sounds.  As Flag Officer, he led a Union naval assault on Fort Hatteras and subsequently captured forts on Beacon Island, Fort Macon and Beaufort.  Shortly afterward, he would play a key role in history as the senior Naval commander in Hampton Roads during the battle of the first ironclads, Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia (also known as the Merrimack.)

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