A Tugboat Begins Her Long-Serving and Lifesaving Career in the U.S. Navy

April 18, 1898

The U.S. Navy acquired a tugboat that was constructed in San Francisco a decade earlier by the shipbuilding company Union Iron Works. This tugboat, along with one that was built in Philadelphia, became part of the Navy’s fleet at a time when the United States was readying for war against Spain. “TUGBOATS IN UNCLE SAM’S SERVICE,” proclaimed a headline in the Oakland Tribune.

Just over 11 weeks after being acquired by the Navy, the tugboat that originated at Union Iron Works was officially commissioned as USS Active at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California (approximately 25 miles, or 40.2 kilometers, northeast of San Francisco). Ensign Thomas M. Shaw became the first commanding officer of this tugboat, which was the third U.S. Navy vessel to be named Active.

Not long after being commissioned, the newest version of USS Active was assigned to serve as a harbor tugboat at Bremerton Navy Yard (the present-day Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility) in Bremerton, Washington. In 1899, however, Active returned to Mare Island for what turned out to be a long-term tour of duty there.

While Active was purchased by the Navy for possible use during the Spanish-American War, she evidently had little if any direct involvement in that short-lived military conflict. Active, though, more than made up for that when one of the worst-ever disasters in the United States occurred in California just a few years later. On April 18, 1906 – the eighth anniversary of when Active was obtained by the Navy – San Francisco was slammed by a devastating earthquake. Along with causing the deaths of more than 3,000 people, this earthquake demolished most of the city.

The disaster also resulted in widespread, destructive fires that San Francisco’s overwhelmed fire department was not able to contain, let alone combat, in an effective manner. The Navy therefore provided urgently needed resources and personnel for those firefighting efforts, with Active among the vessels making their way to San Francisco on April 18 to help put out the conflagration.

Under the command of Midshipman John E. Pond, Active was docked alongside Pier 8 on the city’s waterfront at San Francisco Bay. Pond and his crew used hoses on board their vessel to provide critically needed water for battling the furious flames in that section of the city. Over the next few days, the men serving on Active – along with the crews of fellow tugboat USS Leslie and the torpedo boat destroyer USS Perry – labored long and hard to help save San Francisco from the inferno engulfing it.

In addition to their firefighting contributions, these servicemen patrolled that section of the city to protect neighborhoods against potential looters and provide medical aid to injured residents. Another one of the pivotal roles performed by Active entailed steaming back to Mare Island on April 21 and transporting to San Francisco a number of relief firefighters from the crews of the cruisers USS Chicago and USS Marblehead.

The efforts of both the crew of Active and the other Navy servicemen in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake did not go unnoticed. Admiral Caspar F. Goodrich, commander-in-chief of the Navy’s Pacific Squadron, emphasized their “heroic work” and how they “fought flames for over two days without rest at imminent risk to life, and saved alone, or aided in saving, all that is left along the water front.” Goodrich also noted, “The president [of the] State board of harbor commissioners wrote that had it not been for their great assistance we would never have been able to preserve the waterfront.”

During the two decades that followed the earthquake, Active continued to serve at Mare Island except for a tour of duty at the Naval Training Station in San Francisco from 1915 to 1918. In 1918, the vessel was renamed USS Lively. After sinking in an accident alongside a dock at Mare Island in 1926, the tugboat was raised but ultimately deemed unfit for service. She was decommissioned and, in 1930, sold by the Navy to the Seattle-based Puget Sound Tug and Barge Company for commercial service. At some point in the 1930s, the vessel was renamed Active.

Not long after the U.S. entry in World War II, Active was reacquired by the Navy and reclassified as the unnamed YT-323. (YT had been the Navy’s designation for “yard tug” since 1920.) As YT-323, the seasoned tugboat – now more than four decades old — provided towing services for the Navy at Kodiak, Alaska. The tugboat was placed out of service towards the end of the war in 1945 and returned to the Puget Sound Tug and Barge Company. That company operated the vessel as Active until she was scrapped in 1963.

For more information on USS Active, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Active_(1888)

Additional information on the firefighting efforts of USS Active and other U.S. Navy vessels in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake is available at https://www.navalhistory.org/2010/04/18/1906-san-francisco-earthquake-the-navy-responds

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