On April 18, 1898 the U.S. Navy acquired a tugboat that had been constructed in San Francisco a decade earlier by the Union Iron Works. This tugboat, along with another that had been built in Philadelphia, became part of the Navy’s fleet when the United States was preparing for war against Spain. The Oakland Tribune ran an article about them; its headline was “TUGBOATS IN UNCLE SAM’S SERVICE.”
About three months after being acquired by the Navy, the San Francisco-based tugboat was officially commissioned as USS Active. It was the third U.S. Navy vessel to be named Active.
After its commissioning, the USS Active was assigned as a harbor tugboat at the Bremerton Navy Yard (which is now the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility) in Bremerton, Washington. However, the Active returned to Mare Island in 1899 for a long-term tour of duty there.
While the tugboat that became the Active was acquired by the Navy for possible use during the Spanish-American War, she had no direct involvement in that short military conflict.
The San Francisco earthquake
However, the tugboat Active was very active during one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. On April 18, 1906 – eight years to the day that the Active was obtained by the Navy – San Francisco was devastated by a major earthquake. As well as causing the deaths of more than 3,000 people (the city’s population was about 400,000 at the time), the earthquake demolished much of the city.
The earthquake also caused widespread, destructive fires across the city. San Francisco’s fire department was overwhelmed; therefore, the Navy provided urgently needed resources and personnel for the firefighting efforts. Active was among the Navy vessels that tied up at or near the San Francisco waterfront on April 18 to help put out the fires.
Fighting the fires
Active was docked in San Francisco Bay alongside Pier 8 on the city’s waterfront. The tugboat was commanded by Midshipman John E. Pond. He and the ship’s crew used the tugboat’s hoses to provide critically needed water to help battle the fires on the waterfront and nearby sections of the city. Over the next several days, the U.S. Navy sailors serving on Active (along with the crews of the tugboat USS Leslie and the torpedo boat destroyer USS Perry) worked very hard to help save San Francisco and its citizenry from the fires that spread across the city.
In addition, the U.S. Navy servicemen joined U.S. Army troops to patrol sections of the city, protecting neighborhoods from looters and providing medical aid to injured residents. Also, the Active steamed to Mare Island on April 21 and then returned to San Francisco carrying relief firefighters from the crews of the cruisers USS Chicago and USS Marblehead.
The actions of the crew of Active and the other Navy ships in the aftermath of the earthquake did not go unnoticed. The commander-in-chief of the Navy’s Pacific Squadron, Admiral Caspar F. Goodrich, recognized their “heroic work” and how they “fought flames for over two days without rest at imminent risk to life, and saved alone, or aided in saving, all that is left along the waterfront.” The admiral also noted, “The president [of the] State board of harbor commissioners wrote that had it not been for their great assistance we would never have been able to preserve the waterfront.”
For the 20 years following the earthquake, Active continued to serve the fleet from its base at Mare Island except for a tour of duty at the Naval Training Station in San Francisco from 1915 to 1918.
Then in 1918, the USS Active was renamed USS Lively. In 1926 the Lively sank in an accident alongside a dock at Mare Island. While the tugboat was raised, it was deemed unfit for service. She was decommissioned; in 1930 the ship was sold by the Navy to the Seattle-based Puget Sound Tug and Barge Company for commercial service. During the 1930s, the company renamed the tugboat Active.
World War II
The U.S. entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. holdings in the Pacific Ocean. The Active was reacquired by the Navy and reclassified as the unnamed YT-323. (The Navy had used the designation “YT” for “yard tugs” since 1920.)
The Active, now YT-323, was more than 40 years old. But it provided towing services for the Navy at Kodiak, Alaska. In 1945 the tugboat was placed out of service and returned to the Puget Sound Tug and Barge Company. The company renamed her Active again and operated the vessel until she was scrapped in 1963.