In the long, often spectacular history of Hampton Roads, few sights can match the epic scene that unfolded in the waters off Old Point Comfort in early December 1907.

Trailing long vees of white water and giant plumes of black smoke, battleship after battleship passed through the Virginia Capes and into the harbor, where they anchored in two 4-mile-long crescent lines a stone's throw from the Hotel Chamberlin and its busy steamship wharf .

Some 10 days elapsed as 16 of the immense white warships steamed in from Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and other Atlantic coast navy yards, forming what the Daily Press described as "the greatest naval movement in the history of the American people."

And by the time Rear Adm. Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans hoisted his flag above the USS Connecticut — assuming command of what soon become famous as the Great White Fleet — many observers were comparing this momentous display of American naval power to the historic battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack in the same harbor 45 years earlier.

No wonder President Theodore Roosevelt and a crowd of thousands were so excited when the presidential yacht Mayflower arrived on Dec. 16 to be greeted by 16 thunderous 21-gun salutes, nearly half from battleships built in Newport News.

"Did you ever see such a fleet? And such a day?" Roosevelt said.

"Isn't it magnificent? Ought not we all (to) feel proud?"

Even as reporters scratched down his words, the Commander-in-Chief who had sold Congress on a grand voyage to the West Coast knew the answer.

Over the following 14 months, his ships would circle the earth, not only blunting the imperial ambitions of Japan — which had just beaten the Russia navy in a one-sided war — but also demonstrating to the rest of the world America's arrival as a global industrial and naval power.

"There had never been anything like it — a fleet this size — a voyage this long — and going around the world with that many ships was unprecedented," Hampton Roads Naval Museum curator Joe Judge says.

"The Great White Fleet was clearly designed to show off American naval power in a way it had never been seen before."

Global ambition

Decorated with gilded scrollwork and painted red, white and blue banners on their bows, Roosevelt's battleships traveled more than 43,000 nautical miles, visiting 20 ports on six different continents, including a critical call on Japan.

Such good-will voyages had become common among the world's naval powers in the early 1900s, and Roosevelt had previously embraced opportunities to send American ships to France, Germany and Great Britain.

So in some ways the Great White Fleet was merely a bigger and more widely traveled version of those cruises.

"It generated a tremendous stream of souvenirs and good will material from around the world — including postcards, brochures, booklets and newspaper stories," says Judge, whose museum has mounted two displays of artifacts from the voyage.

"There's no doubt that it made quite an impression wherever it went — and that's exactly what Roosevelt wanted."

Still, this global demonstration of good will also was meant to showcase America's industrial and naval might, especially after the emergence of Japan as a major sea power.

And after winning a Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt knew that job would require overcoming many of the same problems that had dogged the Russian navy in its failed attempt to fight half a world away from its primary supply bases.

"The U.S. Navy of the day was powered by coal — and insuring a supply in the distant Pacific was always a problem," Judge says.