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Lexington Electric, Part II

February 15, 2010, 5:00 am

(First part here)

020367.jpgIn the winter of 1929-30, as the United States economy sank into the Great Depression, a continuing drought in Washington state made things even more difficult for the city of Tacoma. Tacoma relied for its electricity on power generated by a series of dams in the interior of the state. The drought, “unequaled for thirty-nine years,” reduced the water level behind those dams to such a low level that the city’s electricity supply was reduced to 10 percent of the requirement. The situation was so dire that some local churches had organized prayers for more rain, though at least one minister was not best pleased:

‘God planted timber for water conservation,’ declared the Rev. M, E. Bollen of University Baptist Church. ‘We cut it for profit and ask God to make up the difference. For Seattle to ask God for rain without bringing forth fruits of repentance is sheer hypocrisy and rank paganism. Rain-making preachers…have so enlarged the theological eye of the needle that it resembles a triumphal arch over the boulevard and limousines dash through six abreast.’[1]

By coincidence, the Lexington was at the Puget Naval Yard being overhauled, and in late November, the cities asked that she be used to provide power. Secretary of the Navy Adams rejected the proposal, saying that “‘many considerations’ made it inadvisable.”[2] Undeterred, a group from Washington appealed to President Hoover. Though the President told them that the decision was up to Adams, Hoover seems to have pressured the Secretary of the Navy during the following week, because Adams relented. He was still not best pleased by the idea, saying that losing the Lexington to such a task would be a “serious blow to the Navy.”[3], but he reluctantly agreed to release the aircraft carrier to the city for a “period not exceeding thirty days.”[4]

020247.jpgThe Lexington tied up in Tacoma on December 15th, barges serving as bumpers between her and the dock, and a special-built electric substation sitting nearby. Crowds gathered at the dock and on nearby hills to watch. The next day, the ship started providing electricity, 12 hours per day. It was not a complete replacement, but it was enough to keep the city and the city’s industries running, no small thing in the middle of an economic downturn.

During the month, the Lexington was visited by troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The Boy Scouts were entertained “with a drill by the marine corps detachment of the ship,” and the Girl Scouts showed “particular interest in the culinary department and its gigantic kitchen utensils.”[5]

020248.jpgThere was, naturally, time for a little inter-city rivalry. Seattle had been hit by the drought as well, though apparently not as hard. She had–at least from Tacoma’s viewpoint–lorded that over the “City of Destiny” and there were some lingering hard feelings. When Seattle admitted that perhaps she could use some of the electricity from the Lexington, the city government of Tacoma flatly refused:

Tacoma and Seattle are at odds again. Tacoma papers and part of the public contend that Seattle has caused Tacoma undesirable publicity over tho Puget Sound power shortage, to remedy which the navy’s airplane carrier Lexington is now furnishing power daily in Tacoma. Official cognizance of the feeling against Seattle has been taken by Tacoma’s mayor and city commissioners. By a unanimous vote they have decided that none of the Lexington’s power shall be furnished Seattle unless specifically ordered by the Navy Department and that no power shell be sold to Seattle excepting current which otherwise would be wasted.[6]

When the Lexington detached itself on January 16th, she had delivered over 4 million kilowatt hours of electricity to the city. The rains in January had been plentiful, enough at least to get the power flowing from the dams to the city again.[7] The power supply was not back to normal, but Tacoma had, at least, made it through the holidays. The rest of the Great Depression loomed ahead.

We should not worry too much about the “serious blow” to the Navy that Secretary Adams had predicted. The month-long stint allowed the service to test the Lexington’s propulsion system more intensively than was possible at sea, and naval engineers avidly watched as the Lexington’s propulsion system underwent an impromptu endurance test. Their report, written on January 27th, 1930, revealed that the ship had managed its trial superbly, and that other than a slight oil leak, no problems had arisen.

The precedent was set, and carriers would be used again as floating powerplants, including the purchase–post-World War II–of two American escort carriers to serve as floating sources of electricity for Chinese cities on the Yangtze River.[8] The Lexington would serve in more missions of mercy, bringing earthquake relief to Nicaragua in 1931 and leading the search for Amelia Earhart in 1937.[9] When she was lost, at the Battle of Coral Sea, it was those missions that were highlighted. The Lexington, a weapon of war, was also, oddly, one of solicitude.

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