Shortly after the close of the American Civil War (1861-1865), the United States government ordered construction of a new armed steamer on August 3rd, 1888 to coincide with rising naval aspirations in Latin and South America. The vessel was originally named "Armored Cruiser #1" ("ACR-1") but renamed as the USS Maine and classified as a "Second-class Battleship". Her keel was laid down by New York Naval Shipyard of Brooklyn, New York on October 17th, 1888. She was formally launched on November 18th, 1890 and commissioned on September 17th, 1895. At the time of her commissioning, she became just the second battleship of the United States Navy (USN) and the first vessel to carry the name of "Maine".
Owing much of her design to developments perfected in Europe, the USS Maine came about at a period when steam engine technology had advanced to such a point that there proved less reliance on sail power. As such, sail-fitting masts were excluded from her design, replaced instead by a pair of observation masts - one fitted fore and other aft of amidships. At center, there was the superstructure and twin smoke funnels dominating her profile. Armament included a mix of guns led by 2 x 10" (254mm) guns in a fore and aft twin-gun turret. This was supplemented by 6 x 6" (152mm) guns in single-gun turrets about her design. 7 x Driggs-Schroeder 6-pounder (57mm/2.2") guns were also installed as were 4 x Hotchkiss 1-pounder (37mm/1.5") guns. For close-in work, 4 x Gatling guns were used. The vessel was also given torpedo-launching facilities through 4 x 18" (457mm) launchers mounted above the water line. Armor protection (of nickel steel) for this fighting ship included 12 inches at the belt, up to 3 inches at the top deck, 8 inches at the main turrets and 10 inches at the superstructure. Power was served through 8 x Scotch coal-fed boilers driving 2 x vertical triple expansion steam engines with 2 x shafts. Maximum speed in ideal conditions was 16 knots with a range of approximately 6,670 kilometers. The vessel was crewed by 374 personnel.
One interesting design arrangement of the USS Maine was her main gun armament concentrated across two round turrets, these offset from centerline to allow for both guns to fire ahead, to the rear and to either side as needed - allowing all four main guns to be conceivably brought to bear on the target (there did prove a balance issue with the Maine concerning her turret configuration however). The forward turret was offset to the starboard side while the aft turret was offset to port. Each turret relied on hydraulic power for their traversal and elevation. In the original line work, the 10" main guns were to be seated in open-air barbettes though this was updated to enclosed turrets during construction.
USS Maine began her ocean-going career in November of 1895 and ended at Sandy Hook Bay, New Jersey. From there, she moved on to Newport, Rhode Island and then to Portland, Maine, joining the North Atlantic Squadron on exercise. She based largely out of Norfolk, Virginia and spent much of her years along the American East Coast and in Caribbean waters. When issues in Cuba with the local populace began to mount and threaten Americans and American interest on the island (at this time governed by Spain), the USS Maine was sent to berth at Havana Harbor. The ship was given a guarded approval by the Spanish government.
Tensions between Cubans and Spain had been rising for decades as the island people sought their independence. A campaign spread to the United States to garner support for such a move and a 1868-1878 initiative was put down by the Spanish. This resulted in a second attempt that saw tens of thousands of Cubans killed in response.
Tensions between the Spanish and the Americans were no better for, in October of 1873, the Spanish captured the USS Virginius, a side-wheel steamer originating as a Confederate vessel during the American Civil War (captured by the North in April of 1865). The Virginius was actively in support of Cuban independence and promptly targeted by Spanish authorities as a result. The vessel was eventually hunted down and captured to which 53 of its crew (both British and American in nationality) executed. This event nearly brought the US (and Britain) to war with Spain. The incident did serve to showcase to the Americans the deficiency in their ironclad strength when compared to the Spanish and this sparked a new US naval program for five such vessels to be constructed.
The story of the USS Maine would take a disastrous turn one February evening. At 9:40PM, on February 15th, 1898, the vessel was rocked by a massive explosion as five tons of her powder charge (located at the forward magazine) ignited while most of the USS Maine crew was asleep. The frontal section of the Maine was completely blown off and 260 personnel were killed where they lay or stood while others soon followed through their received injuries. Many were enlisted personnel for officers generally stationed at the rear of the ship. The complete loss of the vessel's forecastle then forced the open hulk to take on water and begin sinking in the harbor. Nearby Spanish elements sprung into action to provide assistance to the wounded and help to control fires.
After a four week investigation, a US naval committee agreed that the likely culprit for the explosion was a naval mine of unknown origin. It was believed that the mine rolled up against the hull of the Maine and detonated, in turn detonating her forward magazine, causing the deadly explosion. Once news of the results reached the American people, calls for reprisal began to spring up, urged by press outlets playing upon the anger of the public. Forced to action, then-US President McKinley ordered a naval blockade of Cuba to which Spain returned with a formal declaration of war on the United States on April 25th, 1898, thusly beginning the Spanish-American War (April 25, 1898 - August 12th, 1898). The war would last a little over 3.5 months, result in tens of thousands dead and removed Spain as an official world power - the Spanish Empire and all its prestige now ceased to exist. In turn, the war signaled the United States a bonafide world power. The conflict was concluded with the Treaty of Paris signed in 1898 as Spain sued for peace, giving Cuban control to the US government. The sinking of the USS Maine proved a definitive catalyst to the US going to war against the European power.
During the span of 1911 and 1912, the United States Navy moved into Havana Harbor to attempt to raise the hulk of the USS Maine, both to remove it as an obstruction and to study its damage. An inquiry supported the naval mine theory from previous to which the Maine was then moved towed several miles north of Havana until sunk under the direction of the USN with full military honors afforded her dead.
Despite the formal findings, many experts agree that the cause of the explosion was in fact related to a spontaneous combustion of coal at the bunker located adjacent to the six-inch gun magazine. However, the sinking of the USS Maine still remains unresolved for students of naval history.
The USN honored its first Maine by laying down the keel to a second one year after her loss. This USS Maine became a part of the US "Great White Fleet" touring the world in a show of force.