For four years the USS Chicago was the most powerful seagoing warship in the United States Navy. Her reign would have been longer, except that it took an absurdly long six years to build the ship. On August 1, 1893 the much more powerful USS New York was commissioned and clearly eclipsed the Chicago . The Chicago was built to an obsolescent design but she was a necessary first step in the explosive rebirth of the USN in the last two decades of the 19th century. Her substantial gestation pains eased the way for future designs.

The Naval Appropriations Bill of August 1886 was groundbreaking, as it for the first time provided for modern armored ships for the USN, the Maine and the Texas . However, this bill and these ships were not the birth of the modern American Steel Navy. That occurred three years earlier in 1883. In 1881 the naval advisory board had looked into the possibility of the United States building an armored ship of up to 8,500 tons but had rejected the idea. The industrial infrastructure of the United States could not produce the armor plate, large caliber guns or other technologically advanced features of a major warship. Not only was the technology required beyond American shipyards but existing slips and docks were too small.

Instead the USN had to comfort itself with beginner’s ships. It was better to build ships of a substandard caliber and smaller dimensions, just for experience and to get yards used to building modern construction than to continue in the moribund state of the USN of 1881 with nothing other than rust and wood. The 1883 appropriations act actually had its genesis in the spring of 1881 when William H. Hunt became Secretary of the Navy at the start of the term of republican President James A. Garfield. He appointed a board to advise what new construction was needed by the navy. There was a quite a disagreement among its members as to what was needed but in the end they advised to start a very ambitious program of 68 steel warships. Hunt knew that he couldn’t sell that big of plan to Congress, then in the fall of 1881 Garfield was killed in an assassination. The presidential successor, Chester Arthur, used his elevation to the presidency to pay off old political debts and replaced Hunt as Secretary of the Navy with William E. Chandler. Hunt was made ambassador to Russia and he died at his post in 1884, two years before his vision of a modern steel navy started to come to fruition with the launching of the first modern steel cruiser, the USS Atlanta. This would not be the first time that politics would intervene drastically in the formation of a modern American steel navy, nor would it be the most serious intervention. If any American naval building program was fraught with political intervention and bungling it was the initial program of 1883.

Congress would have none of a program for 68 ships, so the program was whittled down to a modest six cruisers and nine smaller ships. Even this was too grand for the isolationist Congress. The final bill authorized only two small cruisers to be paid out of existing naval funds with no extra money for their construction to be administered under a new committee. This last provision, instead of being a detriment was actually a benefit as the members of the new committee were more practical, realistic and had the temper of the current political environment. The new committee, headed by Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt, revised the plan by deleting the largest of the approved cruisers, added three even smaller cruisers and a dispatch boat, all to be paid out of additional construction funds. This bill passed almost intact. The final approved act called for the smallest of the two initial proposed cruisers, two of the smaller cruisers and the dispatch boat but with an additional $1,300,000 in construction funds. On March 3, 1883 this Bill was signed by President Arthur and the American Steel Navy was born.

These first four ships were called the ABCD ships because the names of the four ships started with those letters. The two small cruisers were Atlanta and Boston , the larger cruiser left over from the earlier attempt was Chicago and the dispatch boat was Dolphin. Secretary Chandler wanted to start on the ships as soon as possible so bids were solicited in May 1883 before the final plans had been developed. Because of this confusion some possible builders were frightened off, with good reason as it turned out. There were only eight bidders and only two, William Cramp of Philadelphia and John Roach of Chester , Pennsylvania bid on all four. John Roach was the low bidder on all four, as the Roach facility was the only one that had the infrastructure of rolling steel plates, hull construction and erecting machinery already in place. All four ships were given to Roach.

Plan, Profile, Quarter Views
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Although strictly in conformance with existing law, it was unfortunate that all four bids went to this one company. Since Roach was a friend of the Secretary of the Navy and had been involved in some earlier questionable dealings, the whole thing became a political football, which the Democratic party seized upon as an election issue. As construction started the Roach Yard experienced problems that had been predicted by minority of the first advisory committee. This was the first time that modern steel warships had been built for the USN and every step in the construction process presented new unexpected challenges. Steel plates were more difficult to produce than anticipated and the quality of the plates varied. Some were rejected as not meeting naval specifications. A fire at the Roach yard destroyed some of their critical machinery and it had to be replaced. Even during construction different naval boards kept changing requirements on the ships.

The smallest of the ships, the Dolphin was the first to be completed. Then, shortly after President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic party came to power in November 1884, the steel propeller shaft of Dolphin shattered during trials. The new Secretary of the Navy was a political hack named William C. Whitney who used minor deficiencies of the Dolphin to launch to outright attack the naval program and the Roach yards. Whitney refused to accept the Dolphin into the navy and refused to pay for it. What’s worse Whitney persuaded the Attorney General to call the entire contract with Roach for all four ships void. Work on all ships ceased and creditors besieged Roach demanding money, which the constructor did not have because of the improper actions of the Secretary of the Navy and Attorney General. Furthermore, the Attorney General threatened legal action against Roach to return the money the company had already received from the government. That put an end to Roach. John Roach placed his company into bankruptcy and the New York World gleefully proclaimed; "John Roach’s career as a naval barnacle is ended." Whitney was dismayed to discover that even the biggest of the naval yards at New York was incapable of finishing the three cruisers’ hulls and engines. Roach had been right in the problems that he had presented to the navy and had been amply justified in his delays. Whitney seized the Roach yard and completed most of the work on the three cruisers there, under the supervision of navy constructors.

It was also realized that Whitney’s rejection of the Dolphin and the Attorney Generals voiding of the contract with Roach were completely improper. By then it was too late for the John Roach Shipyard. John Roach had died broken hearted and the company that he had founded was bankrupt, financially destroyed in the political hatchet job. One hack politician, appointed as Secretary of the Navy, along with the help of his fellow hack politician, appointed as Attorney General, had deliberately destroyed a shipyard for political purposes. In 1883 this yard was the most advanced in the nation. By 1886 it was no more. There is no telling what further contributions the John Roach Shipyard may have made to the progress of the American Steel Navy if no but for the misguided actions of Whitney et al. However, Whitney at least partially redeemed himself in pushing the rapid expansion of the American Steel Navy for the balance of his tenure as Secretary of the Navy.

Hull Detail
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The design for the two small cruisers to be named Atlanta and Boston was by Francis Bowles who had studied his trade Greenwich , England . Many features of the design were very similar to those found in the Armstrong export Elswick Cruisers. The design featured a cut back superstructure to allow a greater arch of fire for the echeloned 8-inch guns. William Watts a mentor of Bowles, and DNC of the Royal Navy, thought the design would cause too much blast damage to the superstructure. The pair were powered by a plant of 4,030 ihp and had a single screw. Capable of only 15 knots, they were far too slow for a cruiser design. On a displacement of 3,189 tons with an armament of two 8-inch and six 6-inch guns, the Atlanta Class started a trend for the USN, heavy armament in warship designs. The pair also featured a full brig sailing rig. Considering that the USA had no overseas ports or coaling facilities, it was considered imperative that sail be incorporated in the design. The Chicago also fell within this requirement. Although Chicago at 4,500 tons was much larger, she too was equipped with masts. Chicago was given a full set of three masts plus bowsprit, compared to two masts and no bowsprit for the Atlantas.

As built the Chicago was equipped with two vertical cylinders driving the twin shafts. The engine design was not well thought out as the cylinders were connected to walker beams above the deck. Having the upper portion of the engine above deck and subject to enemy fire is obviously not a good idea. Fourteen boilers fed steam to the two engines, which were rated at 5,248ihp on trials with a top speed of around 14 knots. The Atlantas were laid down in November 1883 and the large Chicago followed the next month on December 29, 1883. The cruiser was launched on December 5, 1885 but trouble had already started. For Roach trouble started in November 1884 when Grover Cleveland was elected as president. All during 1885 Whitney, the new Secretary of the Navy attacked Roach and the new designs. Payments were stopped and Roach went bankrupt with the navy taking over completion of the ships. The navy initially did not have the ability to do so and completion was greatly delayed. Chicago was the most affected ship by these actions. As the largest of the ABCD ships, she had the furthest to go for completion. Chicago was not commissioned until April 17, 1889.

Chicago was armed with four 8-inch/30 guns mounted on sponsons overhanging the hull, so as not to interfere with the sail rig. Additionally the ship was equipped with eight 6-inch/30 and two 5-inch/30 guns. Her firepower was about equal to contemporary foreign cruiser designs. However, the propulsion plant was definitely inferior and USN power plant designs lagged behind those of other navies for some time. The Chicago as well as the Atlantas were protected cruisers. They had no side armor but did have 1 ½-inch armored deck, which in theory would protect the engine spaces and lower ship from damage and flooding. However, the magazine was given a paltry 3/4-inch armored deck. At the time of their design US industry was not capable of rolling steel plate belt armor and this contributed to the slowness of construction. It is interesting to note that after forcing Roach into bankruptcy, the politicians and the navy saw the errors of their ways. Yards capable of building warships do not pop up over night. After the navy and Whitney discovered that the navy yards were hard pressed to complete the three ABCD cruisers, other private yards such as Cramps of Philadelphia and Union of San Francisco were given much more leeway in working on navy contracts. Maybe it was just part of the learning curve. The USN had to learn how to build warships and had to learn that shipyards are national assets and should not be casually thrown away through partisan politics.

Hull Detail
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In 1889 the A,B,C ships, plus gunboat Yorktown, were formed into the Squadron of Evolution and were used to train the officers and crews of the new Steel Navy in tactical and operational theories. They inaugurated the squadron’s formation by cruising as a squadron to Europe . By 1894 the ships were part of a much larger assemblage called the White Squadron after their paint schemes but by then new and better ships had come into the fleet and their defects were more apparent. Here is where the value of the cruisers came to the fore. By 1895 the new protected cruiser designs, as well as New York , had been commissioned and the first three battleships would be commissioned. After only six years in commission Chicago was clearly obsolete so it was decided to try to bring her into line with a complete refit. From May 1895 until December 1898 Chicago underwent a complete refit. Two pole masts were retained but the main mast, bowsprit, as well as sail set were removed. The 8-inch/30 guns were replaced by 8-inch/35 guns. The eight 6-inch/30 and two 5-inch/30 secondary guns were also removed and replaced by fourteen 5-inch/40 QF guns. The 6-inch/30 of the 1880s was a poor, slow firing design. Although the new 5-inch guns were listed as rapid fire (RF) or quick firers (QF), in reality the new 5-inch guns were rather slow firing themselves. She also received new machinery and had her funnels considerably heightened. The new machinery almost doubled the power to 9,000ihp and top speed was raised by 4 knots to 18 knots. A little extra armor was also worked into the hull. She continued in her role as flagship on foreign stations first back to Europe and then to South America . Reason for flagship status were the spaciousness of her hull and the luxurious nature of the wardroom, captain’s and admiral’s quarters.

From 1910 to 1917 Chicago was earmarked for a training ship of the naval reserve for the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Naval Militia. From 1917 to 1923 she was flagship for the USN submarine force. Chicago then went to Pearl Harbor , first as a submarine flotilla flagship, and then was made a barracks ship. On July 16, 1928 the protected cruiser Chicago was renamed USS Alton in order to furnish the name to a new heavy cruiser. She served in this capacity until 1935 and then it was decided to tow her back to San Francisco . As more famed ships would do in the future, Chicago decided that she did not want to slowly disappear at a scrap yard. In July 1936 she sank while under tow to the mainland.

The Chicago and two Atlantas were the instruments that permitted the USN to train to the new standard of naval warfare in the age of steel, until newer and better ships were designed. They also allowed for US designers to cut their teeth in the designs of modern steel warships and started the designs of unique American origin, that would come to fruition with the first armored warship of the USN to be completed, the armored cruiser New York . However, their greatest value was in the realm of industrial capacity. In spite of the unfortunate fate of the John Roach Shipyard, they also provided the impetus for forging the industrial infrastructure that allowed the USN to be truly independent of foreign warship and armament manufacturers and this was accomplished with extraordinary speed. This happened not a moment too soon because at the end of the next decade the new American Steel Navy was tried in its first full test, the Spanish-American War. By then the USS Chicago would be coming off her first rebuild and would be a distinctly 2nd class ship. (History from American Steel Navy, 1972, by John Alden; U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated History, 1984, by Norman Friedman)

USS Chicago Vital Statistics

Dimensions: Length - 342 feet 2 inches (104.29m); Beam - 48 feet 3 inches (14.70m); Draught - 19 feet mean (5.79m):
Displacement - 4,500 tons (4,864 tons fl) After Refit - 5,000 tons:
Armament as Built - Four 8-inch/30; Eight 6-inch/30; Two 5-inch/30, Two 6pdr, Two 1pdr
Armament After Refit in 1898 - Four 8-inch/35; Fourteen 5-inch/40

Armor As Built - Armored Deck 1 1/2-inches over machinery, 3/4-inch over magazine: Armor After Refit - As Before but armored deck extended over steering gear, Conning Tower - 3-inches; Battery  - 1-inch; Bow reinforced for ramming
Machinery as Built - Two shaft vertical engines, 5 boilers, 5,000ihp; Top Speed - 14 knots: Machinery After Refit - Two shaft Horizontal Triple Expansion (HTE) engines; six boilers; 9,000ihp; Maximum Speed - 18 knots

Combrig Chicago
The Combrig Chicago represents the cruiser after her 1895 to 1898 refit. Significant alterations would be required to back date the kit to the as built status. These would include addition of more substantial fore and mizzen masts, and a further addition of the main mast and bowsprit removed during the refit. A complete set of yards would have to be added as the original design contemplated and was equipped with sail. Another change made during the refit was to land the obsolete 6-inch/30 secondary gun for 5-inch/40. Fourteen of these weapons replaced the eight 6-inch and two 5-inch/30 guns so the hull gun placements would have to be rearranged. The funnels would also have to be shortened to model the as built Chicago .

The Chicago as one of the original three cruisers of the new Steel Navy, was a mix of features but in general reflected America ’s lack of technology in the 1880s at large steel warship construction. The design is almost all hull with very little superstructure and of course the Combrig kit reflects this fact. The hull which measures slightly over 5 ¾-inches overall is fortunately provided with plenty of detail by Combrig. The hull has a very high freeboard with a slab sided, slightly tumble home design. It is definitely a throw-back to the broadside designs of the 1860s. The slab sides are broken by the two large sponsons for 8-inch guns and forward enclosed 5-inch sponson. These positions are all smooth graceful curves and provide an excellent contrast on the tall hull. Another unique feature found on the hull is the merchant stern with a knuckle slightly above the waterline. Only the first 5-inch/40 position on each side is in an enclosed sponson jutting from the hull. The next six 5-inch/40 positions on each side are flush with the hull sides. Each position is clearly indicated with hinged upper and lower doors on each position incised in the hull. The doors are shown closed with just the barrel protruding. Anchor plates are located very low on the bow, close to the waterline. The hull has a variety of different portholes/windows. At gun deck level they are portholes within square window ports that could be opened. As with the 5-inch gun doors, these are portrayed in closed positions. A long row of the standard circular portholes are on the next deck down. Also at this level is a third type of port. These are rectangular and hinged at the top, without a center porthole. A very nice touch are the large rectangular openings in the forward bulkhead for cating home the anchors. There is a slight film in these openings but this can easily be removed.

In common with the Combrig Baltimore (Click for Review), the Combrig Chicago has detail and fittings scattered throughout the deck. It comes as no surprise that ship’s built during this period had a great number of ventilation funnels. With the Chicago there is a short raised forecastle, which contributes to her old fashioned appearance. At the stem of the forecastle is a short solid bulkhead slightly set back from the hull edge. Going down the centerline are 19 assorted coamings, skylights and deck plates of various natures, although two of these are side by side and not on centerline.  Additionally there are the stack bases and two small deckhouses. With all of these fittings, the deck is quite busy. Many of these fittings have very delicate detail such as access doors, ventilation louvers and skylight windows. If that was not enough detail, there are six twin bollard plates and 33 locator holes for various fittings. Four of these are for the 8-inch gun mounts, a couple are for the pole masts, some are for windlasses but most are for ventilator funnels. Each of the paired 8-inch guns is under raised deck. The 8-inch guns are trained through large rectangular openings with bulkheads fore and aft of each opening.

Smaller Resin Parts
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Smaller Resin Parts
Considering that the Chicago is mostly hull with minimal superstructure, there is surprisingly a wide variety of smaller parts with the kit. There is a small resin film wafer with additional decking as well as fighting tops. Although the forecastle is cast as part of the hull casting, there is an even shorter raised quarterdeck on this wafer. This quarterdeck mounts a solitary QF gun on centerline. The two largest parts on the wafer are the two butterfly shaped flying decks that lie over the 8-inch gun mounts. The forward flying deck also has a small pilothouse/conning tower with numerous small vision ports along the upper edge. The front face of this deck has a solid bulkhead/splinter shield. This is not fabric covered railing. If you examine the photograph of Chicago in early 1889 on page 12 of John Alden’s American Steel Navy, it is very clear that this is a solid steel splinter shield. There are two small searchlight platforms that are on supports on each side of the aft end on the rear flying deck. These present a problem in that this set does not have photo-etch. The instructions show the searchlight platforms simply fitting on top of the aft deck. This is wrong. These are decks for search light towers that were of solid bulkheads, or more likely on lattice-work. These platforms were added in the 1895 to 1898 refit. The Combrig line drawing reflects the platforms on lattice-work but A.D. Baker’s drawing on page 21 of U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated History is less clear. This drawing shows Chicago in 1918 but the searchlight structures are still there. A photograph on page 18 of the same source, same photo used for Combrig box top, indicates that there were solid bulkheads here but this could be canvas dodgers covering latticework. Also, the area appears to be lattice work from the period postcard of the ship after refit, show in the vital statistics section. In either case, the modeler will have to add a solid or latticework base to these platforms. The searchlight platform and top for the foremast are also on this sheet.

Of all of the smaller resin parts, my favorites are the four open 8-inch/30 gun mounts. They are not actually open as they are equipped with the characteristically American slanted top gun shields. Each gun mount has the base with gun cradle, multi-banded barrel and splinter shield. Unfortunately they are partially hidden underneath the flying decks but they are nice nonetheless. You just get the barrels for the five-inch/40 guns, since they protrude from closed shutters, but they are well done themselves. Rounding out the armament are eight QF guns with shields. These are delicate so be careful in removing them from the sprue. There are two slender tall funnels of unequal height. The shorter of the two is the fore funnel as it fits into the forward flying bridge. The tops of the funnels are hollow to about 1/8th of an inch and both feature delicate aprons. Eight of the resin runners contain parts associated with the boat fittings. Five of the runners contain the ten ship’s boats, two contain the 26 davits in three sizes and the last has three boat skids that fit over the hull side bulkheads, aft of the rear flying deck. That’s a total of 39 parts that add even greater busyness to the already busy deck. Other deck detail parts come in the form of 14 large ventilator funnels, nine medium ventilator funnels, four small ventilator funnels, two windlasses, three searchlights, four anchors and a binnacle. Also included are the multiple piece mast with yards.

As mentioned, the Combrig Chicago does not come with photo-etch. However, the model could certainly benefit from at least a judicial use of photo-etch. First, the searchlight towers need supplementation. Attaching the searchlight platforms directly to the aft flying bridge is incorrect. My best guess is that they were on latticework, rather than solid bulkheads. If your cache of spare photo-etch has some short lattice towers, great. If not, consider fashioning two from what you do have. There are six inclined ladders clearly visible on the plan view drawing. They are found in the following locations: two from main deck to forward flying deck; one from main deck to aft flying deck; two from aft flying deck to the two searchlight platforms; and one from the main deck to the quarterdeck. Since these are prominent positions, their addition will significantly enhance the detail on your Chicago . Although the Chicago had solid bulkheads along the deck edge, these solid bulkheads also had awning stanchions that could be added, as well as railing on the forecastle, quarterdeck and tops. Lastly, even after the refit Chicago still retained ratlines. My understanding is that White Ensign Models does have appropriate photo-etch ratlines.

Smaller Resin Parts
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The Chicago instructions are in the standard one sheet Combrig format. The front page has a 1:700 scale plan and profile, that as always in a Combrig kit, is used to finalize attachment of the different parts. With all of the locator holes, attachment of almost all of the smaller parts is obvious, the locations of some parts without locator holes, must be ascertained by reference to the plan or profile. Another benefit of the drawings is that they provide a good reference for supplementary photo-etched detail such as inclined ladder positions. Also on the first page is a short history of the ship in English as well as the vital statistics. However, the statistics reflect the as built armament not the armament of the ship as rebuilt in 1898. The rear side of the instructions has a reduced size photograph of all of the parts as well as the assembly diagram. There is an inset of the 8-inch gun subassemblies but this is not really needed. A note also states that the boat arrangement is not shown. Some of the davits and the three boat skids are shown but the bulk of the 39 parts in this area is not shown. Pay special attention to the plan and profile drawings for the exact location for these parts. There is a disconnect with the boats in that the kit provides ten boats, yet the plan shows twelve. Of course the small davits go with the small boats. The profile drawing will also greatly help in supplementing the construction of the masts, since ratlines and rigging is shown. I have already mentioned that the instructions incorrectly show the attachment of the searchlight platforms directly to the aft flying deck. No, add the towers.

Box Art & Instructions
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The Combrig 1:700 scale USS Chicago has excellent resin parts. However, with no photo-etch parts, there is room for supplementation and significant additional detail through the addition of photo-etch. The first steel cruisers of the USN were ordered from the John Roach shipyard and the Combrig kit gives the modeler the chance to build the biggest Roach Coach of them all. The USS Chicago was the largest warship capable of being built in the United States in the 1880s. The ship was also the best warship in the growing fleet until 1893. The importance of the protected cruiser Chicago is not in her battle history but as the starting block of all of USN steel warship design.