This post was written by SCHS Library Volunteer Gail Denisoff.
|Stylized image of the USS Maine explosion. Only 94 of the ship's 355 crew members survived the explosion. Courtesy of the Nautical History Gallery and Museum|
Schenectady resident Ambrose Ham was a 20 year old Apprentice First Class aboard the USS Maine when it exploded in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898. An article in the Schenectady Evening Star dated February 17, 1898 questioned his survival. According to the article, an Ambrose Hall was listed as a survivor and hope was that he was really Ambrose Ham.
Born January 10, 1878, in Indian Fields, New York, Ambrose moved to Schenectady as a boy with his mother and brothers where he lived on Catherine Street and attended school until the 6th grade. Following the death of his mother in about 1894, he came under the guardianship of Mr. B.L. Conde of Schenectady who enlisted him in the US Navy on July 31, 1894 at the age of 16. He was placed on a school ship in Newport RI where he apprenticed for approximately 18 months. On his enlistment card he was described as being 5’4 ¼” tall with grey eyes, light brown hair and a light freckled complexion. At the time of the explosion, Ambrose had been part of the crew of the Maine for about a year and a half.
The USS Maine is best known for the explosion in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898
|Image of Ambrose Ham from|
the Feb. 6, 1906 edition
of the Binghamton Press
and Leader. Courtesy of
Ambrose did indeed survive the sinking of the Maine. In response to a letter sent to him from the Schenectady Sunday News, Ambrose gave this account of the incident sent from the US Army Hospital in Key West, Florida dated February 26th, 1898 (original letter in the Grems-Doolittle Library):
I received your letter with picture last night. I thank you very much for taking such an interest in my escape from the Maine.
On Tuesday, Feb 15th I went on watch at 8:00 o’clock, aft on the poop deck. I was standing signal watch and my watch would be up that night at 12:00 o’clock. Everything went well till twenty minutes of ten.
It was a beautiful night, the water in the harbor was as still as a lake. The ship was swinging to flood tide. As I was about to turn around to walk aft, I saw a volcano of fire which seem to envelope the whole ship then followed a terrible roar and another which lifted the big ship out of the water. I was hit by a piece iron which was coming down like hail. The whole forward part of the ship was torned to pieces, steele was twisted like wire. Men were thrown high in the air and what few escaped were burned so badly we could hardly tell who they were.
As soon as the explosion was over I ran to the Captain boat which was not injured and helped to lower it into the water. Several men who were not hurt got into the boat with Cadet Holden in charge and picked up the men in the water. By that time boats from shore and some from the Spanish man of war came up, picked up a lot of injured men and took them ashore to the Hospital. Well our boat stayed around the wreck which was burning. The after part of the ship was not injured and on the poop deck was the Captain, leut comd. Wainwright and a couple of junior officers. Then the captain gave orders to see if everyone was off the ship. Next order was to abandon ship. The captain was the last man to leave the ship, he seem as cool as a piece of ice. He was taken over to the City of Washington where some of the survivors were and such a night – men with broken limbs, burned faces. The Maine surgeon, the Captain and Lieut. Blow were working hard dressing the mens wounds.
Two of the men were taken to Havana Hospital that night but they died afterwards. Next day we were taken to the Steamer Olvette which runs between Key West and Havana and left that afternoon and arrived in Key West at night. Went to the Hospital some to Marine some to Army Hospital. Last week eight men came from Havana, four are expected today. The men were treated kindly on the Steamers and in the Hospital. On the City of Washington some of the passengers stayed up all night to watch the wounded.
Whether it was an accident or not I will not say. The court of inquiry will know tomorrow. My injuries were slight and are all well now. The men in this Hospital are improving quickly and will be able to get discharge from Hospital in two weeks with the exception of two men who have broken legs. It was said last night that two men died in Havana Hospital. I don’t know how true it is.
I am sorry I could not send this account before for I only received your letter last night. Would you mind sending me one of the papers with my picture in it. I would like to read the account of the disaster in your paper and oblidge.
|The USS Marblehead courtesy of Wikipedia.|
Following his release from the hospital, Ambrose served aboard the USS Marblehead in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He was honorably discharged from the Navy on January 9, 1899, a day before his 21st birthday. After returning to Schenectady, Ambrose lived on Paige Street and worked as a grocer. His guardian, Mr. Conde had pursued a lawsuit that his mother, Mrs. Hannah Wiltsie Ham had initiated before her death for an inheritance from an uncle of hers. He was successful and when Ambrose returned, there was $1300 in the Schenectady Savings Bank waiting for him. Shortly thereafter, on March 12, 1899, Ambrose was baptized in the 2nd Dutch Reformed Church .