Memorial to the Battleship Maine in Point Defiance Park
There is a curious and seemingly incongruous object nestled alongside one of the quiet footpaths that meanders past the ornamental trees and the cascading stream of the Japanese Garden in Point Defiance Park. The object in question resembles a giant bullet – a sleek hunk of metal with a solid, heavy and venerable presence. A plaque on its rectangular stone pedestal identifies the object as a “Ten Inch Shell” from the U.S.S. Maine.
The Japanese Garden was not there on Memorial Day of 1913 when the shell on its mount was unveiled with great pomp and ceremony. That spot in 1913 was alongside a well-traveled path that ran between the streetcar terminal and the Boathouse Pavilion and most Tacoma residents would have been very familiar with it. It was not until five decades later (1963) that the Japanese Garden was fleshed out and the U.S.S. Maine shell was swallowed up and largely forgotten. It nevertheless seems somehow at home in the peaceful garden despite the bellicose intention behind its origins. It is pitted with age, except for the tip that has been rubbed smooth by thousands of curious hands that have reached out to touch it during the last 99 years. Age has made it comfortable in its place among the trees and rocks of the garden.
This shell was one of many siblings aboard the battleship U.S.S. Maine when the ship exploded and sank in Cuba’s Havana Harbor in Feb. 1898. The explosion cost 267 American sailors their lives. Although the cause of the explosion remains a mystery, it tipped the United States into a war against Spain: the Spanish-American war that set our country on a career of involvement with the wider world. We have been engaged with the course of world affairs ever since.
Launched in 1889, the U.S.S. Maine was armed with four 10-inch guns (the reference is to the bore of the gun) as well as numerous smaller guns. The big guns would have been capable of lobbing such shells up to 20,000 yards. The ship was in Havana Harbor to protect American citizens in Cuba, which was then in the throes of a brutal uprising against the Spanish overlords. The sinking of the Maine was blamed on Spain and the United States went to war and divested Spain of its few remaining colonial outposts including the Philippines and Puerto Rico. After the defeat of Spain, American troops ended up in a quagmire of fighting against Filipino insurgents.
When the U.S.S. Maine was sunk, some of the ship was still above water and in 1912 it was raised in order to remove it as a danger to harbor traffic. Before the main body of the ship was towed out to deep water to be sunk for good, many mementos and relics were taken from the martyred vessel and these were sent off to locations all over the United States to serve as memorials. In 1912 Tacoma’s Spanish War Veterans received the ten-inch shell as Tacoma’s own relic of the venerated ship. Similar shells reside in towns as far as Scranton, Pennsylvania, Deadwood South Dakota and Port Chester, New York to name just a few. Various guns, gears, and fixtures are incorporated into other memorials. The ship’s main mast is the center of the U.S.S. Maine Monument in Arlington National Cemetery where 228 of the crew are buried. Many cities have memorial plaques made from metal salvaged from the Maine. One of these resides in Seattle’s Woodland Park.
In Tacoma, on Memorial Day 1913, the Point Defiance shell was dedicated. Sailors from the cruiser St. Louis were brought in via a special streetcar. The Tacoma Naval Militia band was on hand to provide music and there were speeches delivered by various dignitaries including then Governor Ernest Lister.
In New York City on that same day a more grandiose monument to the U.S.S. Maine was dedicated in Central Park. Former President Taft and members of the Wilson administration were on hand for the event.
The fact that such monuments were being constructed more that ten years after the sinking of the Maine bears testament to the impact that the event had upon the national psyche. The sensation was no doubt akin to that evoked by the attack on Pearl Harbor or our own generation’s experience of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
Today, relics from the World Trade Center (twisted girders and chunks of rubble) are being distributed to Fire Departments, Police Departments and municipalities. These serve as the hearts of memorials all over the country. They are objects of veneration that one can reach out and touch. They are touchstones of history through which we can remember those lost on that terrible day. Thus far, memorials in Federal Way and Silverdale are the nearest places where we may encounter relics of the World Trade Center.
“Never Forget!” is the slogan most often associated with 911 memorials. “Remember the Maine!” became the war cry of the Spanish American War. One generation vows to remember. Subsequent generations, however, always seem to forget. In 1913 civil war veterans were still alive, but the citizens who dedicated the Maine Shell back then had yet to experience two World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf wars all of which would make the Spanish American War seem quaint by comparison.
As it is today, the Maine Shell, on its understated pedestal, is visually compelling. In the quiet and shady garden it stands as a memorial of the forgetfulness that is the grace of the passage of time.
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