Ring in the New Year at Navy Pier with a Bell from The White City

Ring in the New Year at Navy Pier with a Bell from The White City
The large ship's bell from both the 1893 White City "Battleship" and the real Battleship Illinois

Wow! How’s that for a thoroughly confusing article title!  No kidding though! There will be hundreds if not thousands of people flocking to Navy Pier in Chicago for New Year’s festivities and never know how close they are to a historic relic from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition!

 At the eastern most end of the free Smith Stained Glass Museum exhibit (which by the way has its own beautiful windows from the 1893 Expo) you will find a large ship’s bell sitting on a square stand with some inscriptions on both sides.   On one side is the inscription, “U.S.S. ILLINOIS 1893”  On the other is the inscription, “Presented to the U.S. Battleship ‘ILLINOIS’ by Julia Arthur Cheney and Benjamin P. Cheney ‘To Thine Own Self Be True, And It Must Follow As The Night The Day – Thou Canst Not Then Be False To Any Man’”. Other than that there are no plaques, signage or explanations as to why the bell is there, where it came from and what if any historic significance it has.

 Turns out that the bell had the distinct honor to adorn two U.S. Naval Vessels, one authentic and one a phony!

 We should probably approach this subject chronologically and so we venture back to Chicago 120 years and to one of my favorite historical events, The White City of Chicago in 1893. 

 The Columbian Exposition in Chicago was an extraordinary world stage where an individual, business, government, organization, ethnic group, or “what have you”  could showcase their newest, greatest, most awe inspiring creations.  From May through October of 1893 the “White City” as it became known transformed an uninspired and underdeveloped Jackson Park and surrounding area into an over 600 acre neo-classical wonderland of beauty, creativity, culture and invention. 

 The United States government had many exhibits but the Naval Exhibit was to be unique.  The Naval exhibit consisted of a Naval Pier which was located just to the south of the northern inlet of Lake Michigan water to the lagoon.  The pier had room for oversized exhibits such as a working, water filled exhibit mimicking ocean currents and naval steam engines.  It was the exhibit that was “docked” at the pier which was truly unique.   The exhibit was a full scale replica of the Battleship Indiana and a model for the soon to be finished Massachusetts and Oregon and it was to be named the U.S.S. Illinois

The replica Battleship Illinois at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago

The replica Battleship Illinois at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago

The Battleship Illinois was the brainchild of newly promoted Commodore Richard Worsam Meade and at first the naval administration laughed at the idea of a battleship built out of brick, cement and staph but eventually warmed to the idea.   The ship was actually built on a foundation similar to that of a building but within the water to give it the look and feel of a real floating vessel.  The naval architect assigned to design the faux ship was Frank W. Grogan.  In a Chicago Tribune article dated November 5, 1892 it was said that Mr. Grogan had the distinct honor of witnessing a man get seasick while aboard the ship.

 The ship was mainly constructed of brick, wood, cement and staff with some iron and metal where necessary to assist with the illusion.  It was also said that at a very close distance an experienced sailor would have had a very difficult time discerning this fake ship from the real thing.  The model was 348 feet long and 69 feet 5 inches wide.   All the appurtenances of the forward main deck had a realistic look.  There was a fully functioning galley, actual captain’s quarters and duplicate captain’s quarters for visitors to explore.  There were two actual 6 ½ inch guns on both sides of the ship that could launch a 100 pound shell over six miles.  On the carriages of the 6 ½ inch guns were perforations that were made by a 6 pound gun.  It was said that no gun carriage would be accepted by the navy until they took a shot at it.  If the perforation was clean and the carriage did not crack then it was acceptable for use.    There were also larger mock cannons such as the 13 inch guns that, if real, could launch  a 1,100 pound shell roughly 15 miles.   Had the Illinois actual engines and could move it would be expected to reach a top speed of 15 knots.   The ship had finally coast about $103, 000 to produce with initial estimates being $80,000.

Diagram of the replica battleship

Diagram of the replica battleship from "Engineering: An illustrated weekly journal" London, 1893

 Commodore Meade was a battle hardened navy man with a use of profane language that was legendary.  It was reported that he made no apologies for this and that Daniel Burnham along with other directors of the Expo had resorted to placing cotton in their ears when having to deal with him.

 Commodore Meade assigned command of the ship to Captain Taussig who had roughly 200 sailors at this disposal.

The mock battleship was a great draw at the Columbian Expo and on the 4th of July it drew an estimated 600 visitors an hour and at one point extra barriers had to be put up around the deck to keep the throngs of people from falling overboard.   Mr. Potter Palmer and Bertha Palmer who was also President of the Board of Lady Managers visited the ship at around 5pm on the 4th of July and reportedly were pushed around in the crowd just like everyone else. 

 Following the close of the Exposition the U.S. Congress passed a resolution transferring the model Battleship Illinois to the State of Illinois.  The resolution stated:

 That on the termination of the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago Ill., in November1893, the exhibit of the Navy Department of the United States Government, better known as the model battleship Illinois, a fac-simile of the battleships Indiana, Massachusetts, and Oregon with such of her boats, equipments, and appurtenances now on exhibition as the Secretary of the Navy shall deem proper, be transferred to the State of Illinois as a naval armory for the use of the naval militia of the State of Illinois, provided that such articles as have been loaned by the various bureaus of the Navy Department , the United States Marine Corps, the Naval Academy, and the Hydrographic Office be not included in the said transfer except as hereinbefore provided.

 The faux battleship was to be used as an armory by the newly created Illinois Naval Militia known as the Chicago Naval Reserve which was signed into existence on July 1, 1893 by then Governor Altgeld.  The concept of the local naval reserve came out of a meeting of local Annapolis naval graduates who met at the Marquette Club in September of 1892.  The head proponent of the idea was the current president of the club Col. Leroy T. Steward.  Col. Steward instructed the senior graduate B.M. Shaffner with drawing up the bill that Gov. Altgeld signed. 

Commodore Meade, Library of Congress

Commodore Meade, Library of Congress

 Every officer in the reserve was to have his own stateroom on the battleship with luxurious appointments and the battle ship was perfect for conducting drills.  The plan was to actually uproot the battleship from its current location separating it from its pillar foundation and floating it to its new location which was to be in the harbor just south of the Van Buren Street pier.  The estimated cost of the move was $50,000.  All the wonderful plans fell through.

 The model was used for a very short time by the newly formed naval militia and one of its official uses was a party that was held on board on the night of July 28, 1894.  The celebration or “Promenade” as it was called was to celebrate the safe return of the 1st Battalion Naval Militia from its recent active duty in helping to quell the recent coal strikes in the area.  There was a concert by the Chicago Marine Band, formal dress mess and the ship was decorated from end to end with Chinese colored lanterns and flags. 

 The Naval militia was disbanded about 6 months after this and the ship was stripped of any item of worth by the Naval department.  By June of 1895 the ship was a wreck, being stripped of anything of worth including plumbing.  The Illinois Adjutant General had employed a single custodian named Matt Wright who admittedly stated that there wasn’t much left to take care of.  The South Park Commissioners planned to widen the northern inlet to the lagoon and stated that the pier and ship had to be removed by May 1, 1896.

 At some point the large brass bell that adorned the great brick battleship Illinois came into the possession of Benjamin P. Cheney Jr. who was the wealthy son of the founder of Wells Fargo & Company and the holder of the largest portfolio of railroad securities in the Boston Area.  He was known as a collector of antiquities and it is very feasible that he may have purchased the bell when artifacts from the Exposition were being disposed of at auction.  On February 23, 1898, Mr. Cheney married a world renowned actress named Julia Arthur (born Ida Lewis) in Covington, Kentucky. 

 Julia Arthur began her stage career at the age of 11 and had the honor of performing with Henry Irving’s touring company at his Lyceum Theater in London and around the world.

Julia Arthur (born Ida Lewis) in 1897 before her marriage to Benjamin P. Cheney Jr.

Julia Arthur (born Ida Lewis) in 1897 before her marriage to Benjamin P. Cheney Jr.

 Interesting side note:  Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, worked as Henry Irving’s secretary and Irving was the first person to play Dracula in a live theater performance.

 On February 10, 1897, about one year before the marriage of the Cheneys, the construction of the authentic battleship Illinois was begun by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. out of Newport News, VA.  Governor Tanner chose Miss Nancy (Nannie)Leiter of Chicago to formerly christen the ship on October 4, 1898 from the Newport News Shipbuilding dockyards.  Miss Nancy Leitner was the sister of Joseph Leitner  a friend of Governor Tanner’s and a colonel on his staff.

Forty thousand people were on hand on October 4th for the christening ceremonies including Governor Tanner, Chicago Mayor Carter Harrrison II, Miss Leiter and her family and a crew of city and state dignitaries.  Guests arrived at the christening platform which was the size of a standard Chicago city lot, several hours early and the anticipation of the launch was almost two much to bear.  Mayor Harrison marveled at the first fighting ship launched after the recent Spanish-American War which cost more than City Hall itself.

Sketch of the real Battleship Illinois and of Miss Nancy Leiter who christened her.

Sketch of the real Battleship Illinois and of Miss Nancy Leiter who christened her.

 The bottle of wine which Miss Leiter was to break against the bow was suspended from a white cord and hung at Miss Leiter’s hand level so all she needed to do was swing the bottle at the ship.  There was initially some controversy brought by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union about the evils of using alcohol to christen the ship but that was a losing battle since no seaman in his right mind would christen a ship with anything else for fear of bringing the worst “Hoodoo” onto the ship.

 At 1:33pm there was a large crash and cry from the dock worker’s below and President Orcutt of the shipbuilding company screamed to Miss Leiter, “Quick, quick!”  Miss Leiter jumped up and swung the bottle at the slowly moving hulk of a ship and successfully smashed the bottle while calling out, “ I name thee Illinois!”   The ceremony went off without a hitch with the exception of one dock worker being killed by a flying timber as the ship slid into the waters of the James River. 

 It would take roughly another two years to fully armor and arm the newest and most fearsome battleship of the Navy’s fleet and when it was finished the ship was 373 feet long by 72 feet 2 ½ wide.  It weighed over 12,000 tons with an average armor plating of 16 ½ inches and its engines propelled the ship forward at a record-breaking 17.33 sustained knots.  Its armament including four 13 inch cannons, Fourteen 6 inch rapid fire guns, Seventeen rapid fire 6-pounders and Six rapid fire one-pounders. 

 At some point before its test race on June 12, 1901, the Cheney’s presented the brass bell from the Colubmian Expo’s model Illinois to the new battleship Illinois still bearing the original 1893 inscription but with the new inscription bearing both Benjamin and Julia Cheney’s names. 

 The battleship Illinois (BB-7) was officially commissioned on September 16, 1901 and commanded by Captain G.A. Converse.  The ship served as a training and ceremonial ship and became part of The Great White Fleet which sailed around the world from 1907 to 1909.  The Battleship was decommissioned in Boston on August 4, 1909, placed in reserve commission in 1912 but re-commissioned later in 1912 to begin training and battle maneuvers with the Atlantic Fleet.  In 1919 she was taken out of service once more and loaned to the State of New York on October 23, 1921 for use by the Naval Militia.  In 1925 the Illinois was being rented out to private individuals for social meetings for $225 per night. 

The real Battleship Illinois after her sea trials, U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

The real Battleship Illinois after her sea trials, U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command

 After the Washington Treaty which limited naval warship construction, the Illinois was turned into a floating armory for the New York Naval Reserve.  Shortly before the U.S. entered World War II, the Illinois was renamed Prairie State to allow the construction of a new battleship Illinois which was never completed.

 Benjamin P. Cheney died of dehydration on June 5, 1942, while walking 20 miles for help after his vehicle broke down near Kingman, Arizona.  He died near the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad of which he was once a director.  Sadly the Coroner stated that if he had walked the same distance in the opposite direction he would have found assistance.

 Julia Arthur Cheney passed away in Boston on March 28, 1950 and sadly, on May 18, 1956, after over 50 years of service to the U.S. Navy and the Nation, the Prairie State was towed to Baltimore and sold for scrap to the Bethlehem Steel Co. 

 What happened exactly to the Illinois’ after that is still unclear but on August 11, 1983 the bell appeared as part of the décor for the Opening of the Forest Park Mall which was located at the site of an old torpedo factory.   I actually remember seeing this bell at the time and having no idea what it was and being in High School at the time really didn’t care. 

 The bell now resides at Navy Pier at the east end of the Smith Museum of Stained Glass display with no explanation of what it was and what it has witnessed in the last 120 years.  While its ringing days are over you may want to give it a nod when you are ringing in 2014!

Leave a comment