Researching USS Saginaw


My main personal ship modeling project is the U.S.S. Saginaw, a side paddlewheel gunboat launched at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in 1859, making her the first ship built at Mare Island and the first warship built on the west coast of the United States. She was also the last paddlewheeler to be built prior to the start of the Civil War.

The model is being built at a scale of 1/8″ = 1′ (1:96) using plank on solid hull construction. With the hull lifts made from basswood, the keel from beech, hull planking from holly and the deck planking from boxwood.

This is the first of two planned models of the Saginaw, with this model being a prototype to help me work out the design issues since there are many unknowns regarding the ship and its type. A larger version, probably 3/16″ = 1′ scale (1:64) will follow, either of similar construction of possibly plank-on-bulkhead construction if I end up building it at the larger scale of 1/4″ = 1′ (1:48), which is more of a museum standard scale, but will make it twice as big as the current model.

The hope is that the larger model will have a home, at least on loan, to the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum. Possibly, when the smaller version is done, it will be at the museum until the larger version is done. But, with big delays, I’ve been working on this for about a year now and I don’t know if the museum’s plans may have changed in the meantime. I’m trying to keep the museum’s director, Jim Kern, informed of the progress. So, hopefully, the museum will still be an option.

Saginaw sail plan

This project has required more research than I’ve ever done, even more than what I’d done on the pilot boat Mary Taylor, which I considered to be fairly extensive. To begin with, the plans of the Saginaw were obtained from the U.S. National Archives through a company called Maryland Silver Company, which makes available a number of ship plans from the National Archives.

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The second most valuable item was finding the book A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters: Life on  Board USS Saginaw, by Hans Konrad Van Tilburg, who led the team which surveyed the wreckage of the ship in the waters of the Kure Atoll – I’ll talk more about this gentleman later as he has been very supportive and helpful and has provided me with a large amount of his original research material. This book brings together pretty much all that is know about the Saginaw into one volume. And, what’s not mentioned I can search for using the book’s extensive bibliography.

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The third item is the book The Last Cruise of the USS Saginaw by George H. Reed, passed assistant paymaster and one of the survivors of the wreck of the Saginaw. This narrative is one of the primary research sources used for Mr. Van Tilburg’s book, but it was important to see the actual text to glean what little details I could.

The fourth item is an article published in the Nautical Research Journal, vol 45, no. 3, titled Nineteenth Century Building Instructions, U.S.S. Saginaw, by J.R. McCleary. This gave an analysis of construction details and included a transcript of a letter from the Navy Department’s Bureau of Construction dated July 10, 1858. The article includes an overview of the Saginaw’s life and of her loss in 1870, and shows some surviving artifacts including the Saginaw’s gig.

There were other information sources, but these were the ones that proved to be the most valuable.

The model itself is progressing, but only slowly right now since most of my time is being spent on a commissioned project. When that’s done, by middle of April or so, I’ll be able to turn my attentions back to the Saginaw.


The hull here is just about 20″ long.


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