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Spencer, 1844

The Revenue Cutter Spencer was named for John C. Spencer, the 16th Secretary of the Treasury.  He was born in 1788 in Hudson, New York, graduated from Union College in 1806 and studied law.  He was admitted to the state bar in 1809 and began a law practice in Canandaigua, New York.  He served during the War of 1812 and was elected to and served in the House of Representatives from 1817-1819.  He then served in a number of state public offices before being appointed the Secretary of War by President John Tyler in 1841.  He was appointed as the Secretary of the Treasury in 1843, following the resignation of Secretary Walter Forward that same year.  Spencer resigned in 1844 and was nominated by President Tyler to the United States Supreme Court but was rejected by the Senate.  He died in Albany, New York on 17 May 1855.

Builder:    West Point Foundry, NY

Length:    160'

Beam:      24'

Draft:        9' 9"

Displacement:  398 38/95 tons


Commissioned:  1844

Decommissioned: 1848

Disposition:  Transferred to the Lighthouse Establishment for conversion and use as a lightship.

Machinery: 2 x high-pressure horizontal, 24" diameter x 36" stroke


Maximum speed/endurance: 
Economic speed/endurance:

Complement:  58

Armament:  5 x 12 pounders; 1 x 18 pounder; 1 x 9 pounder

Cutter History
By John Tilley:

The history of technology catalogues the successes of heroic inventors.  It is worth remembering that virtually every triumph of ingenuity has been accompanied by at least one spectacular failure.  In the early nineteenth century American naval architects struggling to make the steam engine compatible with the were requirements of warship design.  Naval officers were skeptical of the standard propulsion device, the side-mounted paddle wheel.  It took up valuable space in the ship's broadside, and a well-placed enemy shot could cripple a sidewheeler in an instant.

Lieut. William Hunter, USN, claimed to have figured out the a pair of paddle wheels mounted horizontally, rotating in watertight drums and barely projecting through the ship's sides below the waterline.  Hunter patented his invention in 1840, and managed to sell it to both the Navy and the Revenue Cutter Service.  The latter contracted for the construction of four cutters with iron hulls and "Hunter wheels."  The ships eventually were named Bibb, Dallas, McLane, and Spencer, after recent and current Secretaries of the Treasury.

Only the Spencer, built by the West Point Foundry Company of New York, ever got to sea with Hunter wheels installed.  The concept suffered from several basic flaws.  Fifty to seventy percent of the engines' energy was expended in sloshing water around in the drums; the Spencer managed a respectable seven knots, but consumed a ton of coal every two hours.  The hull had an odd, inverted bell-shaped cross-section that left little room for coal bunkers and less for accommodations.  After considerable hand-wringing among the service's senior officers it was decided to complete the other three cutters as sidewheelers.

In 1845 the Spencer's Hunter wheels were removed, the apertures in the hull were plated over, and a pair of screw propellers designed by Captain Richard L. Loper were installed.  The ship thereby earned the distinction of being not only the first iron revenue cutter but the first twin-screw steamer in U.S. government service.

In the following year the United States declared war on Mexico, and the Spencer was ordered to the gulf coast.  The cutter got as far as Charleston, South Carolina before its boilers broke down.  Shortly thereafter the Spencer's steam plant was removed completely and the hull was turned over to the Lighthouse Service for use as a stationary lightship. The Spencer ended its days anchored off Willoughby's Spit in Chesapeake Bay.

The Revenue Cutter Service's first brush with steam power was a disaster, both technologically and politically.  In its wake Congress revoked the Treasury Department's authority to design steamships.  Not until 1857 would another steam-powered revenue cutter, the wooden sidewheeler Harriet Lane, be built.


Browning, Robert M., Jr. "The Lasting Injury: The Revenue Marine's First Steam Cutters." The American Neptune (Winter 1992), pp. 25-37.

Donald Canney.  U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790-1935.  Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

John Tilley. "USRC Spencer" narrative included with the Unique Historic Cutters line-drawing set, USCG Historian's Office.

U.S. Coast Guard.  Record of Movements: Vessels of the United States Coast Guard: 1790 - December 31, 1933.  Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1934; 1989 (reprint).

Last Modified 1/12/2016