This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.
Written by Dr. Edwin Nieves
U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliarist
“The gratitude of the inhabitants of the city of San Juan be expressed to the officers and men of the Revenue Cutter Algonquin for their gallant service during the different fires which have occurred in the city . . . .”
Hon. Manuel Moraza, Secretary, Municipality of San Juan, June 9, 1915
When San Juan City Council passed this resolution of thanks, Cutter Algonquin had been stationed in San Juan for 13 years. By 1915, Algonquin’s presence had become a re-assuring sight on San Juan’s waterfront for being “Siempre Preparado” – always ready – to respond to the needs of Puerto Rico and its citizens.
In 1897, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service signed a $193,000 contract with Globe Iron Works to build a 205-foot cutter at its Cleveland shipyard. The cutter, named Algonquin, was commissioned on June 20, 1898, and placed under U.S. Navy control in anticipation of serving in the Spanish-American War. Built on the Great Lakes, Algonquin had to be cut in half to fit through the narrow locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway and reassembled on the East Coast. However, an armistice was signed with the Spanish before going into the war. The “Algi”, as it came to be known by its crew, was then stationed in Boston and later took part in the 1900 Great Galveston Hurricane disaster relief mission in 1900.
The Spanish Caribbean would be Algonquin’s longest duty station. After providing safety and security for the 1901 America’s Cup Challenge, the ship was ordered in 1902 to the new U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Stationed at San Juan, Algonquin performed the usual cutter missions of humanitarian assistance, search and rescue, law enforcement, and responding to natural and manmade disasters. Its primary mission was enforcing maritime commerce and customs laws, so it regularly patrolled local shipping lanes and inspected commercial vessels.
Algonquin’s crew participated in several medical and humanitarian missions. For example, in the summer of 1912, the bubonic plague broke out in San Juan and the cutter’s officers and men helped U.S. Public Health Service doctors contain the disease at San Juan’s Puerta de Tierra (Inland Gate) wharf. Their enforcement of a quarantine, demolition of affected structures, and eradication of infected vermin prevented the spread of this dreadful disease to the rest of the island. The crew’s efforts also earned them a commendation from the Public Health Service Surgeon General.
Algonquin regularly cruised the waters around Puerto Rico. The cutter made frequent stops at coastal towns and local islands, such as Vieques and Culebra, transporting local dignitaries and government officials back to Puerto Rico. The ship regularly towed commercial vessels that ran aground in the treacherous shoals and sandbars bordering the entrance to San Juan Harbor and around Puerto Rico. For example, shallow-draft “caravelon” workboats of local fishermen and commercial shippers regularly ran aground or overturned in the rough swell north of the island. In 1912, Algonquin responded to a distress signal from the British schooner Success. Success was aground and taking-on water on the island’s southeast coast. Algonquin’s boarding party learned that Success carried passengers with leprosy. The cuttermen isolated the patients and crew, pumped out the schooner, which sailed on to Saint Kitts. The boarding party’s quick action prevented their exposure to leprosy and its spread to the residents of San Juan.
In 1914, political upheaval erupted during the Dominican Republic’s infamous “Revolucion del Ferrocarill.” The conflict interrupted the flow of goods to the north side of Hispaniola creating a local humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of residents in the towns of Monte Cristi and Puerto Plata, many of them Puerto Rican laborers and their families, were isolated without food or water. The Revenue Cutter Service ordered Algonquin to evacuate the refugees and deliver them to San Juan. Algonquin completed several evacuation runs in June and July, sometimes under fire from shore, embarking hundreds of Puerto Rican men, women and children, and returning them to San Juan.
Algonquin’s crew fought several fires in San Juan. On May 2, 1913, while at anchor, the cutter’s lookout spotted a fire across San Juan Harbor in the village of Catano. A detail with axes and fire-fighting equipment deployed in the ship’s lifeboat under the command of the boatswain. On arrival, the party saw the fire spreading quickly enveloping Catano’s wooden structures. The boatswain promptly led locals in forming a bucket brigade and a built a trench to prevent the fire from spreading. With the aid of the cuttermen, the fire was soon extinguished without any fatalities. Early in the morning of Sunday, Feb. 7, 1915, the cutter’s crew spotted another fire blazing on San Juan’s Puerta de Tierra wharf. An officer was sent with a detail and firefighting equipment. The cuttermen joined forces with the Puerto Rico Regiment and local fire fighters. The combined force fought the fire, demolished walls, closed off gas mains, evacuated residents and removed valuable property. After two days of exhausting fire-fighting duty, the men finally extinguished the flames to the great relief of San Juan’s officials and residents.
During Algonquin’s 15-year assignment to San Juan, the crew lived and worked side-by-side with residents while many locals walked-on to serve as cuttermen. Out of a crew of 67 officers and men, approximately 25 percent were Puerto Rican natives. Algonquin’s crew members were active in the local social life. The cutter hosted dignitaries and government and military officials on special holidays. During these occasions, the crew decorated the cutter, the Puerto Rico Regiment band performed, and guests would come aboard to dance and enjoy the hospitality of the cutter’s crew. Every year, the cuttermen played an important part in July 4th celebrations, and marched in the gubernatorial inauguration parade through the streets of San Juan, usually accompanied by the cutter’s goat mascot “Billy.” Algonquin also supported the naval parade and gun salute to President Theodore Roosevelt during his visit to the island in 1906.
Early in 1917, Algonquin received orders to deploy to Oregon via the Panama Canal. After the start of World War I, it would be placed under U.S. Navy command, and would perform escort duty in the Atlantic. After the war, it was stationed in Alaska and would never return to the Caribbean. However, Algonquin’s San Juan “Siempre Preparados” tradition lives on with the Coast Guard today!