When the crowds began pushing through the gates of Newport News Shipbuilding early on the morning on March 24, 1898, they had plenty of reason to feel proud and excited.
After a dozen years and tens of millions of dollars in investment, the fledgling yard had yet to turn a consistent profit -- something that so tested the patience of wealthy founder and railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington that he had considered selling to cut his losses.
But the double launching of the battleships Kearsarge and Kentucky represented not only the young company's first capital Navy ships but also the course that would help it turn the financial corner.
"I must have some return for the immense investment of money in the Newport News plant," Huntington had told the yard's president earlier in the year, as his shipbuilders labored on the ways.
And what they constructed became both the pride of the Navy and the signpost to the shipyard's future.
"Battleships Afloat. Immense Crowd Present," the Daily Press reported in a "Special Launch Edition" that hit the streets just hours after the event.
"Never before in its brief history as a corporation has Newport News welcomed such a throng."
Described by the newspaper as "the twin terrors of the deep," the relatively big, 375-foot-long vessels were not the first warships constructed at the yard.
Three years earlier -- in 1895 -- it had launched the first of three Navy gunboats, including the USS Nashville, which would go on to win fame by firing the first shot of the Spanish-American War.
But when Newport News received the contract for the Kearsarge and Kentucky late that same year, it had only just recently proved itself capable of such large and demanding jobs by completing its first ocean-going freighters in 1892.
That giant leap in the yard's ambition helps explain why more than 20,000 people pressed inside its gates to witness the launchings, while several thousand more looked on from a swarm of steamships, ferries, sailboats and other craft assembled just offshore in the James River.
Two special excursion trains had arrived that morning from Richmond, which reported selling some 4,000 tickets for the event, while the Newport News, Hampton and Old Point Electric Railway put every car it had into its shipyard route, with arrivals from Hampton stopping every few minutes.
The Kearsarge slipped down the greased shipway first after being christened with a bottle of champagne, the Daily Press reported.
The Kentucky slid down some 90 minutes later, but not until after dozens of tiny bottles of Kentucky bourbon had been thrown against the hull in defiance of the Kentucky governor's daughter temperate decision to baptize the ship with spring water.
Both vessels slid into the water without incident, and their 11,500-ton hulls "floated like ducks," the 3-month-old newspaper reported.
Fitted with innovative double-stacked turrets -- which boasted two 8-inch guns mounted over two 13-inch guns -- the Kearsarge and her identical sister were said to be the first American battleships wholly designed in the United States and built completely from American materials, writes naval historian William A. Fox in "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships."
As such they were the darlings of Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, who was pushing a reluctant Congress for the creation of an ocean-going Navy.
They also provided a powerful and persuasive reason for his continued focus on the strategic importance of Hampton Roads, which he believed was home to the nation's greatest naval assets.
"Only Newport News, Virginia, where the new battleships are under construction, warrants a steadfast defense," he said in 1898, outlining his plans for a new American naval "Flying Squadron" that would defend the East Coast from this central location in Hampton Roads.
Both the Kearsarge and the Kentucky would later see service in the Great White Fleet, which then-President Roosevelt would send around the world in 1907 as a demonstration of the United States' growing naval power.
By then nearly a decade had passed since their launching -- and they ranked among the oldest, smallest and least capable vessels in America's fast-growing battleship fleet.
But they'd still paved the way for five other battleships built at the increasingly important Newport News yard, making it the source of nearly half the 16 ships in Roosevelt's armada when it left its anchorage off Old Point Comfort.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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