Revenue Cutter Spencer                           



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 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

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Internet research shows that the First Assistant Engineer of the RC Spencer was

 Henry Hoff Oct. 15th, 1844 New York SPENCER

Cutter History
By John Tilley,
USCG Historian's Office:

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 struggled to make the steam engine compatible with the 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.


      The Harriet Lane, the service's first operational steam cutter, fired the first shot from a naval vessel during the war on 11 April 1861 when she put a round across the bow of the steamer Nashville entering Charleston harbor during the siege of Ft. Sumter. Unknown to CAPT Faunce of the Lane, the Nashville was actually a Confederate blockade runner; when challenged, she hoisted the Stars and Stripes and was allowed to pass.   The Harriet Lane also took part later in operations in Hampton Roads, Virginia and in the capture of Hatteras Inlet, NC. She would be lost to a Confederate boarding party in Galveston harbor on January 1st, 1863.




Willoughbys Spit, 1820-1872

Location & historical notes: Virginia, in the lower Chesapeake Bay, 2.9 miles and 090 degrees from the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse.  Moored at the east end of Willoughby Bank, an extensive shoal area lying north of Willoughby Spit.  The station marked the south side of the channel for entering Hampton Roads.  The station was no longer considered necessary after the Thimble Shoals Lighthouse was activated 0.9 miles and 022 degrees from the former lightship station.

Lightships assigned:

1820 - ?: "C "

1821-1847: "Q "
1847-1867: "R"  (RC Spencer)

1867-1868: LV-21


Funds appropriated: 1819; contract awarded Sept 2, 1819
Built: 1819 by James Poole, Hampton VA
Tonnage: 70; wood hull, copper fastened and sheathed
Stations: 1820: Willoughby's Spit (VA)
1821-1859: Craney Island (VA)
Notes: The first U.S. lightship. Placed at the northern extremity of Willoughby Bank, a shoal making out from Willoughby's Spit, however the vessel was unable to endure sea conditions at this location and was shortly moved to a position off Craney Island in the Elizabeth River off the port of Norfolk.


Built: 1821
Tonnage: 120; wood hull
Station: 1821-1847: Willoughby's Spit (VA)
Note: Replaced "C" after it was moved to

Craney Island station



Tonnage: 400; iron hull
Illumination: Fitted with two lights
Station: 1847-1867: Willoughby's Spit (VA)
Retired: Aug 1867
Notes: Former Revenue Cutter SPENCER converted to lightship service following the Mexican War. Retired from lightship duty when hull plating found to be too thin at waterline





BUILT AT: New Bedford (MA)

BUILDER: Stephen Andrews

Treasury Dept authorized vessels for Upper
& Lower Cedar Point (141)) & Cross Rip

CONTRACT PRICE: $47,500 (for 3 vessels)


DESIGN: Wood - white oak; copper & iron fastened; bowsprit; 2 masts

LENGTH: 78' (lbp), BEAM: 21'6", DRAFT: 10', TONNAGE: 150 gross

PROPULSION: Sail- schooner rig

ILLUMINATING APPARATUS: 2 lanterns each with 8 lard oil lamps

FOG SIGNAL: Hand operated bell & horn






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