Three famous warships sprang from the shipyard's first Navy contract in 1894

The first three Navy construction contracts won by Newport News Shipbuilding in late January 1894 marked not only a milestone moment for the barely 8-year-old yard but also the birth of three ships that became famous warriors.

Awarded on Jan. 22, 1894, the gunboat USS Nashville (PG-7) was celebrated across the country just four years later when it fired some of the first -- if not the very first -- shots of the Spanish-American War.

The contracts for the USS Wilmington (PG-8) and USS Helena (PG-9) followed on Jan. 29, and both vessels joined their sister ship in racking up impressive war records off Cuba, including the capture of numerous enemy ships and a storied attack on the harbor at Mansanillo.

"The Captain of the Nashville orders the First Gun fired," the San Francisco Call crowed in an April 23, 1898 front page headline.

"The First Shot of the War," exclaimed the accompanying woodcut illustration, which showed the American gunboat as it attacked and then captured the Spanish merchant steamer Buena Ventura.

Measuring just under 234 foot long, the Nashville was a pygmy compared to the much more capable and ambitious battleships the yard would construct for the Navy after the Spanish-American War was over.

The Wilmington and the Helena were not even 20 feet longer.

By the time President Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet assembled in Hampton Roads for its famous 1907 cruise around the world, however, the increasingly prominent shipbuilders at Newport News could claim responsibility for constructing nearly half of the 16 battleships that assembled.

The yard expanded as the nation's global naval ambitions did, transforming Newport News into one of
America's pre-eminent producers of naval vessels.

"Newport News Shipbuilding had only been around for a few years -- and in a very short time it went from building tiny tugboats to battleships," says naval architect and historian William A. Fox, author of "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships."

"So it was a leader early on in its history."

After sending its historic three shots across the bow of the Buena Ventura, the Nashville went on to capture three more Spanish vessels, Fox writes.

It later served in the Philippines, China, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean before being assigned to convoy escort duty and submarine patrol in the Atlantic during World War I.

Decommissioned in late 1918, the ship found new life on the James River as a Richmond Cedar Works barge until 1954. In 1957 the 60-year-old hull was sold for scrap.

The Wilmington and Helena went on to serve in the Philippines and China, too, carrying the flag across the Pacific after the Spanish-American War.

When it was finally decommissioned on Dec. 29, 1945, the long-lived Wilmington was the oldest Navy ship in full commission, Fox reports.

The Helena served almost as long, patrolling the Yangtze River and South China coast for more than 30 years before being decommissioned.

It was finally sold for scrap in 1934.

-- Mark St. John Erickson

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