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April 20, 2013

U.S.S. Maine explosion, war drew much local sentiment

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The Daily Star

---- — For most people in our area in early 1898, a growing conflict between two distant nations probably didn’t get much attention, other than some glances at the newspaper. When a young Oneonta man was one of many injured or killed in an explosion of a battleship he was aboard, the local attention increased markedly to what was soon to become the Spanish-American War.

The U.S.S. Maine had been sent to protect U.S. interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain in the early months of 1898. The Maine suddenly exploded in Havana Harbor on Tuesday, Feb. 15, killing nearly three-quarters of its crew.

Ambrose Ham, the son of Cephas Ham of Oneonta, had been on board the Maine for four years, and his immediate fate was unknown. It was finally reported in The Oneonta Star on Saturday, Feb. 19, that Cephas Ham had received word his son was in Key West, slightly hurt.

“All Oneontans will rejoice with the father and sister over the good news,” the Star concluded.

The cause of that explosion was never actually determined, but popular opinion and the press of the day became a rallying cry to blame Spain and called for action.

While Ambrose Ham survived, local people began taking the saying, “Remember The Maine” seriously. On Wednesday, April 27, Star readers learned, “Manager Fitzgerald of the Oneonta theatre and Mr. Markham, of the company now playing at the house, are arranging a benefit performance for the Maine monument fund. A percentage of Thursday’s receipts will be given to the noble cause and special arrangements are being made for the production. Doubtless, the patriotic plan will be liberally supported by the public.”

Not only were there local fundraisers for the national monument, which was finally dedicated in 1913 at the Arlington National Cemetery, there were local awareness days for school children during May 1898.

“Dr. James M. Milne, principal of the State Normal School, received a communication from the subcommittee on schools of the National Maine Monument committee, suggesting a plan to interest all the public school pupils of the United States in the patriotic movement,” the Star reported on May 17.

A section of the monument was to be designed so that signatures of school students could be placed in a vault. “Every teacher in every school should make an effort to secure the signatures and Thursday, May 26th, has been fixed on as ‘Maine day’ and it is the desire…that all signatures be received that day. The committee also suggests further that exercises of a patriotic order be held on that day also, and there is little doubt that all of Oneonta’s schools will accept the suggestion.”

In addition to the Maine monument efforts, Oneontans had their sentiments toward the conflict and war with Spain that began on April 25, as reported on Wednesday, April 27.

“Doubtless the members of the Oneonta Gun club will be in the proper mood to shoot anything Spanish to-morrow (sic) afternoon and the Spanish rocks will suffer. The report that the Spanish flotilla will sail through the mill race at the hour of the meet may have been issued simply to excite a greater interest in the event. The club is in a progressive condition this season and is expected the shoot to-morrow afternoon will be largely attended.” The actual location of the shoot was not included in the article.

“M. Gurney & Sons received a supply of novelty stick pins with the American and Cuban flags and they sold with a rapidity equal to the proverbial ‘hot cakes.’ The pin, indeed, is a very neat one and the demand shows the sentiment of the people. The firm will receive a large consignment of the pins today.”

The day approached for the Oneonta area to send their men off to war. On Monday, May 2, 86 men departed by train at 4 a.m. to Albany, and then to Hempstead to go into training with thousands of other men. The Oneonta Club, then found at 51 Dietz St., had hosted a festive evening send-off for the men on Saturday night. The men spent Sunday saying goodbye to family and friends, and a fire bell summoned them to the state armory at 2:15 a.m. Monday.

According to “In Old Oneonta,” by Edwin Moore, only four of those men didn’t return home, dying of disease while either en route or in Hawaii.

On Monday: Two local hostage situations took place in 1983.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.