The following article, printed in the Summer 1978 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly, tells the fascinating story about the silver service the state of Utah presented to the USS Utah battleship.
By Michael S. Eldredge
Early in the afternoon of June 2, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt rose to the podium before a capacity crowd in the Mormon Tabernacle where an estimated fifteen thousand Utahns had gathered. His speech was the climax of a momentous day that had begun earlier in the morning with a triumphant parade in his honor. Following a prolonged standing ovation, President Roosevelt began a stirring address calling for the conservation of natural resources and praising the residents of Utah for their reputation in preserving the environment.
Also present in the official party were Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, and Secretary of the Navy William H. Moody, both of whom were given an opportunity to speak briefly following the president. When Moody's turn came, he called for Congress to appropriate five battleships in the coming session, one of which he promised to name "Utah." The crowd cheered again as the prospect of being honored by a namesake battleship was met with "considerable enthusiasm."
Six years passed, and by 1909 President Roosevelt's visit was only a memory and Secretary Moody's promise was all but forgotten. Then, late in May of that year, the Navy Department announced that one of two battleships approved earlier on May 13, 1908, would be named for the state of Utah. Already under construction at New York Shipbuilding Co. in Camden, New Jersey, the new warship was described as a Florida class battleship that, when finished, would be the largest dreadnought constructed to that time for the United States Navy. Displacing well over 28,000 tons, the 510-foot-long Utah was to be armed with ten 12-inch caliber guns, sixteen 5-inch caliber guns, and ten torpedo tubes. She would have a complement of 50 officers, 69 marines, and 872 enlisted men, a crew of 991 in all. Her maximum speed would reach just over 21 knots propelled by the new Parsons Turbine, the first to be installed in any U.S. warship.
Six months after the announcement, in October 1909, Utah Gov. William Spry was asked by the Navy Department to select a sponsor for the traditional launching ceremonies tentatively scheduled for late December. Governor Spry consulted his Secretary of State, C. S Tingey, and Attorney General Albert R. Barnes for recommendations, and their response was unanimous: Governor Spry's petite eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary Alice, would be a most appropriate selection to christen the Utah. Shortly after Miss Spry's selection as sponsor, New York Shipbuilding Co. announced the official date of launching as December 23, 1909. Immediately, plans were drawn up for the official delegation that would attend the event in Camden over the Christmas holidays. Included in the invitation list was almost every prominent citizen of the state.
A considerable number of Utahns departed with the governor's entourage on Saturday morning, December 18, riding east by rail from Salt Lake City to Chicago for a connection to Philadelphia. After a brief delay caused by a wreck near Chicago, the delegation finally reached Philadelphia Wednesday morning in time for the launch the following afternoon.
On arrival, Mrs. Spry and Mary Alice were treated to a motor tour of Philadelphia while Governor Spry toured naval facilities on the Delaware River. Everywhere the response to the Utah delegation was warm and courteous. A special air of excitement seemed to permeate the already festive holiday mood in Philadelphia as the anticipated launch of the world's largest battleship drew near.
Following an exhaustive day of touring, official visits, and chasing down missing baggage, the governor's party gathered early in the evening along with Utah's congressional delegation, up from Washington, D.C., for a reception in their honor, hosted by another Utahn, Lt. Comdr. Henry A. Pearson, the prospective executive officer of U.S.S Utah. After the reception, the governor and his party returned to their comfortable quarters at the Bellvue Stratford Hotel for a restful night prior to the launching day activities.
Shortly after ten o'clock the following morning the official party arrived at the New York Shipbuilding Co. where thousands had gathered to witness the event. A special platform had been constructed over the bow of the huge warship as it rested on the heavily greased ways leading into the icy Delaware River. By 10:45 A.M. the platform was overflowing with company and governmental officials as well as several foreign dignitaries. Numbered among the observers were two foreign naval officers, Lt Comdr. D. R. MarQuesde of Brazil and Comdr T. Hiraga of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The obvious center of attraction was young Mary Alice Spry, adorned in a beautiful white coat and furs, a large white picture hat, and a special corsage bouquet of sego lilies. Miss Spry was positioned near the bow of the ship where she received last minute instructions from navy architect James E. Swan as to how, where, and when to strike the traditional bottle of champagne. When workmen below completed chopping away the temporary support timbers, foreman Thomas Mason gave the signal to activate the hydraulic rams below the bow of the ship. Within minutes the huge warship began sliding slowly and quietly, and at exactly 10:53 A.M. the battleship's beautiful sponsor gleefully smashed the bottle over the gray steel crying out, "I christen thee Utah! God Speed!"
Mary Alice Spry and Gov. William Spry at the christening of the battleship Utah at Camden, New Jersey, December 1909. Utah State Historical Society collections, courtesy Lita Spry Foss family.
Amid the wild chorus of whistles, sirens, and bells from the various ships on the river, mixed with the roar from thousands of onlookers, the Utah majestically slid into the choppy whitecaps of the Delaware River. "As the infant Dreadnought rose and fell in her first bed of drifting ice she seemed to acknowledge the parting words of Miss Spry."
Immediately after the launching, Mr. Swan presented a sapphire bracelet to Miss Spry on behalf of the shipyard to commemorate the occasion. A round of remarks from dignitaries, including Governor Spry and Senator Smoot, wound up the morning's activities, after which the official party departed for a banquet in honor of the visiting Utahns.
In spite of having been just launched, the battleship would not be ready for the fleet for almost two years inasmuch as construction of the warship was not even 50 percent complete. Miss Spry had noticed this with some degree of concern, recalling years later that she had been particularly dismayed at the odds of such an acclaimed warship winning battles without any guns.
After a holiday vacation in the East, Governor Spry and his family returned to Salt Lake City two weeks later on Wednesday morning, January 5, 1910. The governor was immediately confronted by the press over complaints made by non-Mormon factions in the state that the launching of the new battleship Utah had been marked by religious overtones because the event had taken place on the 104th anniversary of Joseph Smith's birth. It was alleged that Senator Smoot had noted this in his remarks at the shipyard the day of the launching. Somewhat dismayed, Governor Spry replied tersely:
The statement attributed to Senator Smoot at the time of the launching that it had been pre-arranged for the battleship to be launched on the anniversary of Prophet Joseph Smith's birth, December 23, is all bosh. I was on the platform before Senator Smoot arrived and we left together. If he had said anything like that I would have heard of it. It is a coincidence that the christening of the ship should occur on the same day as the anniversary of the birth of the founder of the Mormon Church, but there was no thought of arranging this day by either myself, Senator Smoot or others.
Governor Spry's summation seemed to dispose of the issue satisfactorily in the eyes of the press, yet the controversy was destined to appear again during the state's involvement with her namesake battleship.
When the new American steel navy appeared in the late nineteenth century, a tradition evolved simultaneously among namesake states to provide their battleships with a suitable gift, usually in the form of an ornate silver service. These gifts usually ranged in cost from $5,000 to $25,000, depending on the relative interest within the namesake state and the size of the silver service to be presented. Governor Spry had pondered this tradition for some time prior to the launching and had decided to encourage a budget of approximately $10,000. Although this figure was somewhat lower than the average expenditure for such gifts, it did not indicate a lack of interest in the project. To the contrary, Governor Spry saw the tradition as an important means of providing the people of Utah the opportunity to establish a personal identity with their new battleship. Accordingly, he sought a plan to fix the price at a reasonable sum that would not seem excessive to the average citizen and still provide for a superior quality silver service. Seeing quality as more desirable than quantity, Governor Spry favored a smaller service of master craftsmanship, preferably made from Utah silver.10 To finance the project, he proposed that a subscription from the young people of Utah be solicited, supported by an appropriation from the legislature. Governor Spry had outlined his plan to reporters in Camden shortly after the launching ceremonies:
My idea is to have the silver service donated by the school children of Utah instead of having the Legislature appropriate the money or a few wealthy men contribute the necessary amount. There are 104,000 children of school age in my state out of a population of 350,000. We rather pride ourselves on that record. . . and you can see that if there is a contribution of but ten cents from each of these children we shall have a $10,000 fund to expend on the silver service.
The people of Utah are immensely proud of having this magnificent craft named after our State, and I am quite sure the popular subscription will be a success.
Within weeks after his return to Utah, Governor Spry set his plan in motion by appointing a special committee on March 30, 1910, to supervise the procurement of a silver service. The committee was chaired by the prominent mining magnate Daniel C. Jackling and included Professor David H. Christensen, head of the public schools in Salt Lake City as well as a member of the Utah State Board of Education; Mrs. Elizabeth McCune and Miss Fay Loose of Provo; A. R. Heywood of Ogden; and A. C. Nelson of Salt Lake City.
The committee immediately drew up a definitive plan for action based on the ideas outlined by Governor Spry. The two most pressing needs were, first, to solicit silver manufacturers for designs and bids and, second, to put in motion the subscription for financing the gift by Utah school children.
Governor Spry had received letters of inquiry from several silver manufacturers as early as June 1909, shortly after the first announcement of the new battleship. Throughout the summer the governor had studied these proposals carefully and maintained steady correspondence with several companies to gain their reactions to his own ideas. By the time Colonel Jackling and his committee were appointed, most of the groundwork was laid for the submission of bids. Shortly after the committee was formed, a letter was sent to several major jewelers and silver companies inviting bids with "designs practical in nature and symbolizing industry, history, or other institutions of the State" to be submitted by June 1, 1910.12 To this invitation, several major companies responded, including the Bailey, Banks, and Biddle Co. of Philadelphia, the Gorham Company of New York City, and the Joseph Mayer Company of Washington. In June the contract was awarded to the Gorham Company, represented locally by the J. H. Leyson Company. C. R. Pearsall, general manager of the Salt Lake City firm, became the spokesman for the contractor and consequently an ad hoc member of the committee.
Throughout the remainder of the summer the committee concerned itself with refining details of the silver service, and by late September the final design was approved and ready for display. Consisting of 102 pieces, the silver service was relatively conservative in design but was nevertheless rich in detail, chronicling important places, people, and natural descriptions of Utah. Highlighting the service were the larger, more conspicuous pieces, including an eight-gallon punch bowl engraved with the profile of the new battleship on one side and a scene of the Wasatch Mountains on the opposite. The bowl was surrounded by twenty-seven cups for Utah's twenty-seven counties, each embossed with the state seal. The water pitcher was engraved with a scene of the Devil's Slide, and a view of the Bingham Copper Mine was selected for the centerpiece. On the tray for the coffee server appeared the relief of a downtown scene in Salt Lake City looking north on Main Street to the Pioneer Monument and the Salt Lake Temple.
When all of the designs went on public display for the first time in mid-September, it was the coffee server tray that eventually caught the eye of Mrs. Erna Von R Owen, a non-Mormon who was relatively new to the state. Describing her interest as nothing more than personal, her visit to Leyson's showroom was motivated by what she attributed later to intense interest in the new battleship Utah based on family affiliation with the navy.
I could see the designs readily, but I wanted to see them all, and this one was concealed from view and I had to look for it—I mean this one with the Brigham Young design on it. When I saw it I was consumed with indignation. It did not occur to me that I could do anything. I said, "Are you women going to allow this thing to go through."
That the likeness of Brigham Young would appear on the state's official gift to her namesake battleship was too much for Mrs. Owen's peace of mind. She immediately confronted Leyson's over the design and finding no satisfaction set out directly to enlist support from others who would find the design equally offensive. Although most Utahns were unaware of the protest, Mrs. Owen immediately mounted an active campaign against the design. Within weeks her support grew to include several prominent non-Mormon Utahns and was spreading to influential figures nationwide. Responding to Mrs. Owen's call for assistance, Norman Hapgood, editor of Collier's Weekly, replied, "You are wasting your time over that matter; it is such an outrageous project that it will defeat itself automatically." On Sunday, December 4, 1910, the issue finally reached the press when the New York American ran a blistering article on the glorification of Brigham Young on Utah's gift to her namesake battleship. The mouthpiece of the American party, known for its anti-Mormon point of view, accused the State Silver Service Committee of meeting in secret in the absence of a single Gentile member to approve the Brigham Young design.
Thousands of citizens of Utah who are not Mormon themselves but who are contributors to the fund that was raised to buy the silver service learned of the truth within the past few days and immediately sent a protest for publication in the New York American.
The article went on to denounce the deceit of the local jeweler "Tyson and Co.," describing how the design was well hidden from public view and "to see it at all it was necessary to stand on tiptoes."
The Salt Lake Tribune wasted no time picking up the story and ran virtually the same article the following day with succeeding editorials on December 6 and 9. On Sunday December 11, C. R Pearsall made the first response to the flurry of charges against the committee, branding the accusations as "reeking with falsehood" and "hardly a line of truth in the entire article." Pearsall continued:
You understand I am speaking as the one who sold this service to the committee appointed to purchase it, and you know I am a Gentile. . . .
. . . I asked the company making the silver service to place the picture on one of the small pieces and this was done. You understand this was my idea. . . .
. . . I have never had an order [from the committee] to use any design or sentiment that would advertise, or was in any way characteristic of the Mormon church or people.
The editors of the Tribune responded to Pearsall's letter by excusing its obvious refutation of the American article to the likelihood that Pearsall did not actually know what the real silver service being produced in New York City looked like. "If so, it would by no means be the first time unsuspecting gentiles have been taken in by the wiles and tricks of the 'brethren.'"
Official reaction to the controversy, other than Pearsall's rebuttal in the Tribune, was slow in coming and seemed to reflect not only surprise but also the attitude that the whole story was preposterous and did not warrant the dignity of a reply. By late December, however, Mrs. Owen's efforts had resulted in a number of protests arriving at the governor's office from various leagues and auxiliary organizations throughout the country, prompting an official statement from Governor Spry:
In reply I will state that it is not now, nor has it been the intention of this State to present the figure of Brigham Young as any part of the design on the service.... This monument has been dedicated to the memory of the pioneers who settled this country in 1847 and contains figures of the Indian, the trapper, and the pioneer with his wife and child, and also a figure of Brigham Young who led the pioneers and it is in no sense erected to the memory of Brigham Young.
From her new home in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, throughout the early months of 1911, Mrs. Owen continued her undaunted efforts which were characterized by as much public exposure as possible before groups that could be persuaded to petition against the proposed design. Directing her attack at the whole institution of the Mormon church, Mrs. Owen described unspeakable horrors and crimes perpetrated by its leaders. Even ex-President Roosevelt and President Taft were denounced as supporters of the Mormon cause.
"Why, President Taft spoke in the Mormon Tabernacle," she said, "and he shook hands with two Mrs. Smiths—the two wives of one man."
"Oh-o-o-o-o-o!" breathed the women, looking terribly shocked.
"The names of Taft and Roosevelt are used for propaganda in making converts to Mormonism," continued Mrs. Owen. "Roosevelt openly favored the Mormon cause. He—"
"Will you please let Roosevelt alone?" shouted Mr. Conkling. . .
"Let him alone, let him alone! I say will you let Roosevelt alone!" shouted Mr. Conkling, and so he was superior in lung power to Mrs. Owen, she gave up.
In Utah, the Silver Service Committee continued on with the task of funding the gift, while public interest in Mrs. Owen had rapidly diminished.
Contrary to the report made in the New York American, solicitation for donations from Utah's schoolchildren did not begin until February 15, 1911, when an official announcement was issued by the committee to Utah's school superintendents.
Subscriptions in any amount from ten cents up will be welcomed and each donor will receive a very handsomely embossed certificate bearing the autograph signatures of the Governor of the State and members of the Committee, so worded that the amount of contribution is not shown on the certificate, thus eliminating rivalry and placing contributors on an equal footing.
The fund drive continued through the end of the school year in early June and was met with varying degrees of success in different parts of the state. It was viewed as one of the most important aspects of the silver service project, primarily because the drive allowed every student in the state an opportunity to participate in the project and also be appropriately acknowledged. When the drive was over, a total of 26,477 schoolchildren were listed as having contributed $2,277.42.23
Meanwhile, on May 16, 1911, Mrs. Owen's campaign reached its apex when she succeeded in obtaining a hearing before the House Committee on Naval Affairs in Washington, D.C. Accompanying her was an impressive array of witnesses to testify in her behalf against the appearance of Brigham Young on Utah's silver service. The hearing lasted for one hour and forty-five minutes and included the greatest barrage against Brigham Young and the Mormon church that Mrs. Owen and her companions could muster. Accompanying Mrs. Owen were Rev. Robert Stevenson of Westminister College in Salt Lake City, Miss J. E. Richards of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Mrs. Albion V. Wackhams of the Interdenominational Council of Women for Christian and Patriotic Service, Rev. George A. Miller of the Ministerial Federation of Washington, D.C., and Rev. Frank J. Goodwin of Mount Pleasant Congregational Church in Washington, D.C. Highlights of the hearing included a variety of statements made by the delegation that indicated the overall credibility of the presentation made before the committee.
Mrs. Owen. . . Governor Spry was made the chairman of the committee. Governor Spry is a good Mormon; that is, he pays his tithes and goes to the temple once a year. . . . the committee is entirely Mormon with the exception of D. C. Jackling, who is a "Jack Mormon." He is a man of large financial interests and is identified with the Mormons. . . .
Mr. Stevenson. He [Brigham Young] was also the exponent of the doctrine of the bloody atonement. Brigham Young mentioned that there were certain sins that could only be atoned for by shedding the blood of the person who committed the sin. One of these Sins was apostasy and another was adultery. Now, Allen, in his "Story of the Mormons" relates the following: that a wife confessed to her husband that she had been untrue to him, and, at her request, as she sat upon his knee, he cut her throat in order that she might atone for her sin. . . .
Mr. Goodwin. . . A pioneer design would represent the women with their sunbonnets and carrying their children and would represent the immigrant wagons. That is the real pioneer design, because that shows the pioneers. These are all Mormons. Now, whoever saw a pioneer in a frock coat, and that is the way Brigham Young is dressed here. This is not in any sense a pioneer design.
If anything, the complaints and accusations levied at Brigham Young, the church, Governor Spry, Daniel Jackling, and any other abomination that could be remotely connected to the coffee server tray raised a few eyebrows on the Naval Affairs Committee, however not high enough to get anything more than a promise for another hearing at a future, unspecified date.
Three days later, in a letter to Governor Spry dated May 19, 1911, Utah Sen. George Sutherland lamented the questionable manner in which the hearing was handled and asked that the governor and Jackling consider appearing before the committee to respond.
I did not know anything about the hearing until it was all over, but as soon as I heard of it myself and Congressman Howell had an interview with Representative Hobson who is an active member of the Committee. . . .
She [Mrs. Owen] gave the Committee to understand, as I am informed that the dominating thing in the whole picture was the figure of Brigham Young.
Dismayed at the renewed notoriety of Mrs. Owen's campaign, Governor Spry responded in a letter to Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer, dated June 3, 1911, that Mrs. Owen had presented false information before the Naval Affairs Committee and should not be considered as the spokesman of popular Gentile attitudes in Utah. Two weeks later, after meeting with the members of the Silver Service Committee, Colonel Jackling issued a statement to the press that echoed the governor's comments, categorically refuted each of the charges made by Mrs. Owen before the Naval Affairs Committee, and closed with:
There have been no protests or objections to the design of the service made within the State, and those few who have gone without the State to raise such objections have no material interests in the State, nor do they represent any such interests. . . . the representations made by certain persons claiming to be of Utah before the Committee on Naval Affairs May 16th last, are false in all essential particulars as bearing on this matter and contrary to their claim, they misrepresent the non-Mormon as well as Mormon people of Utah.
D. C. Jackling
By separate correspondence, the committee informed Secretary Meyer that there would be no compromise on the issue and that the silver service would have to be accepted as originally designed or there would be no silver service given. The "take it or leave it" ultimatum presented no problem to the Navy Department who had maintained a disinterested position throughout the controversy and officially could see no objection in accepting the silver service in the spirit that was intended by the tradition.
The characteristic furor in the Utah press that invariably appeared with any Gentile-Mormon conflict, began to subside considerably following Jackling's announcement. Nonetheless, the Salt Lake Herald Republican could not pass up the opportunity to pronounce its valediction on the whole affair in an editorial dated June 28. It read in part:
There are many people whose idea of Hell is a place where they will have to mind their own business. Unfortunately they come to Utah. . . . She [Mrs. Owen] probably remained [in Utah] long enough to imbibe the poison which the Salt Lake Tribune sells to a rapidly diminishing few at so much a month, and not long enough to learn that the Tribune is stewing in its own juice and finds the occupation neither lucrative or amusing. . . .
If the brave young gentlemen who officer the Battleship Utah never do anything worse than dine off a silver service, one piece of which bears the likeness of the Brigham Young Statue, it will be unnecessary for them to die in order to get to Heaven; they will be proper candidates for translation.
Late in the morning of November 6, 1911, under overcast skies at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the new dreadnought Utah rode quietly at her moorings, resplendent in the magnificent colors and bunting of a full dress ship. A crowd in excess of one thousand had gathered to witness the impressive ceremonies that marked the presentation of one of the most ornate and controversial silver services ever given to a U.S. warship. Within the crowd, over five hundred Utahns had gathered, making it one of the largest contingents of Utahns to have come together outside the state.
It had been almost two years since Governor Spry had first seen the infant dreadnought on the ways at Camden, New Jersey, and as he boarded the new battleship under full Navy honors, he noted with pride that the ship had indeed developed into a magnificent vessel. Among those in the governor's official party were Sen. and Mrs. Reed Smoot, Col. Edward C. Loose, and Miss Hazel Tout of Broadway fame, a native of Ogden who would unveil the silver service. Also accompanying the governor were members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir under the direction of Professor Evan Stevens, who were scheduled to perform later in the afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Colorful ceremonies aboard the Utah on November 6,1911, featured Gov. William Spry, center, who officially presented the silver service. Utah State Historical Society collections.
The silver service was arranged on a twenty-five-foot-long table stretching between two huge 12-inch gun turrets and covered by a large flag. Above the table a speakers' platform had been constructed over an amidship's superstructure for members of the Utah delegation and the senior officers of the U.S.S. Utah, under command of Capt. William Benson, later to become chief of naval operations.
The ceremony began with brief introductory remarks followed by Governor Spry's official presentation. In a short but stirring speech Spry acknowledged the schoolchildren who had contributed toward the gift and then charged the officers and men to "blaze the way to a higher and nobler civilization." Miss Tout then unveiled the silver service which was officially accepted by Captain Benson. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang the state song "Utah, We Love Thee" with new verses added by Professor Stevens in honor of the battleship:
Queen of the Ocean Wave,
Utah! We love thee!
Manned by the true and brave,
Utah! We love thee!
Unconquered may'st thou ride,
Long o'er the restless tide,
Our Country's joy and pride,
Utah! We love thee!
William S. Benson, who later became chief of naval operations, was the first commanding officer of the U.S.S. Utah.
A set of flags was next presented to the ship from the Utah Grand Army of the Republic and the Utah Spanish-American War Veterans and was accepted by Lieutenant Butler who led the ship's company in three cheers for the state of Utah. The ceremony then concluded with a stirring rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" by the choir. The presentation had been a fitting conclusion to what had been a long, involved, and at times frustrating project. The purposes set forth at the outset by Governor Spry had been fulfilled ably by the Silver Service Committee, and the relatively new state of Utah had shown itself well in the national limelight.
Not to be discouraged, however, Mrs. Owen's campaign reached its anticlimax the following day when a substitute coffee server tray was presented, adorned with the figure of a young girl representing the state of which Mrs. Owen was no longer a citizen. Her hope that the tray would replace "the Brigham Young design" was short-lived as her young girl tray ultimately found its way to a frame on the bulkhead of the captain's cabin. Thus passed the silver service into history aboard the U.S.S. Utah for the next twenty years.