Feb. 15, 1898: The armored battleship USS Maine explodes in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, killing 266 of its 354 crew members and accelerating the decline in U.S. relations with Cuba’s parent nation, Spain. The U.S. goes to war against Spain later that year.

The ship, commissioned in 1895, was the first U.S. Navy vessel named after the state of Maine. It was built at a time, decades after the Civil War, when the Navy and private industry no longer had significant shipbuilding expertise. By 1898, technical progress already had surpassed its design. The Maine arrived at Havana on Jan. 25, three weeks before the blast. Its presence there amid an ongoing war between Spain and Cuban revolutionaries is seen as a gesture of aggression toward Spain.

A naval court of inquiry determines on March 21 that the Maine’s destruction is the result of two explosions, and that the cause of the first most likely was a mine placed outside the ship; the second was from an ignited magazine inside the ship.

U.S.S. Maine entering Havana harbor, 1898 Detroit Publishing Co. photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

In a study of the incident published in 1974, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover concludes that the court of inquiry was assembled hastily by a sick naval officer and that it failed to interview people with the proper technical expertise. The Maine’s captain was alerted to threats outside the vessel but had a spotty record for making sure his ships were in good working order, Rickover writes.

“The strained relations between the two nations, the warlike and patriotic atmosphere in Congress and the press, and the natural tendency to look for reasons for the loss that did not reflect upon the Navy might have been predisposing factors in the court’s findings,” Rickover writes.

The court was aware that the configuration of damage inside the ship was consistent with that of an internal explosion, he said, adding, “Had the ship blown up in an American or friendly foreign port, and had the same type of damage occurred, it is doubtful that an inquiry would have laid the blame on a mine.”

In any case, the United States, champing at the bit for war at any excuse, defeats Spain in three months. In the 1898 Treaty of Paris, Spain cedes Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States, demonstrating convincingly the latter nation’s evolution into a major world power.

The Maine’s shield and scrolls are recovered from the wreckage and placed in 1922 in Davenport Park in Bangor, where they are identified as the Battleship Maine Monument.

Feb. 15, 1912: A train collision on the Grand Trunk Railroad in North Yarmouth ignites a fire aboard one of the trains that burns three crewmen to death.

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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