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The many lives of the Mesquite

The Mesquite aground off Keweenaw Point. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE – The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite ran aground off the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the early hours of December 4, 1989. Despite initial hopes of salvage, over the next several days, winter storms damaged the ship beyond repair. The Mesquite’s life as a buoy tender was over. Subsequently she would go on to have another life as a cultural resource. She was scuttled to become the centerpiece of the Keweenaw Underwater Preserve. But what about the ship’s life before that fateful night?

The Mesquite keel was laid on August 20, 1942 in Duluth, Minnesota at the Marine Iron & Ship Building Company. Just three months and 69,770 man-hours later, she was launched November 14, 1942. She was christened the Mesquite by Jessie L. Tyler, wife of the chief inspector for the Coast Guard at the shipyard.

Upon the completion of her fitting out and sea trials, Mesquite sailed from Duluth to the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, Maryland to have her armament and sensors installed. She was commissioned there on August 27, 1943 after a total of 229,811 man-hours. The total cost was approximately $890,000.

As originally built, Mesquite displaced 935 tons but later additions of new equipment raised her displacement to 1,028 tons. She was 180 feet long, 37 feet wide and had a draft of 14 feet. Having a single screw, her maximum speed was 13 knots. Her single cargo boom could lift 20 tons onto her buoy deck.

In addition to her buoy tending capabilities, Mesquite was also designed to perform light ice-breaking. Her hull was reinforced with an “ice belt” of thicker steel around her waterline. Similarly, her bow was reinforced and shaped to ride over ice in order to crush it with the weight of the ship. Built in wartime, she carried a three-inch gun plus two 20mm machine guns, as well as depth charges.

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The Mesquite served in the Pacific during WWII, sailing through the Panama Canal and arriving in Australia in February 1944. In the Pacific Islands, the Mesquite would place and maintain navigational aids. She travelled from New Guinea in April 1944 to various other islands, eventually arriving in the Philippines in July 1945. She spent the next year maintaining navigational aids in the Philippines before heading back to the United States, arriving at San Francisco in August 1947.

After returning to the Great Lakes, her armaments were removed, leaving Mesquite with only small arms for law enforcement actions. After the war, the Mesquite’s life changed to a typical Great Lakes buoy tender: servicing aids to navigation, breaking spring ice and occasionally aiding vessels in distress. Her home ports included Sault Ste. Marie, MI (1947-1959), Sturgeon Bay, WI (1959-1977) and Charlevoix, MI (1977-1989).

Her primary mission was maintaining navigational aids. Much of her activity was driven by the annual advance and retreat of heavy winter ice on the Great Lakes. Buoys were brought to port in the fall to prevent them from being damaged, sunk, or set adrift by ice. Buoys were cleaned, repaired, and repainted over the winter, then redeployed in the spring.

Among the Mesquite’s notable episodes, in November 1956 she rendered assistance to the freighter J.P. Wells which had lost her rudder in a storm with 30-foot seas. With USCGC Mackinaw, the Mesquite was able to tow J.P. Wells to Sault Ste. Marie for repairs.

In April 1960, she was called on when two tankers became iced-in on their way to Green Bay. The Mesquite cut a track into the port, widened it, and then broke the ice near the immobilized ships to allow them to move into the broken track. The entire round trip, including breaking out the two tankers, took nine hours.

On April 10, 1964, the Mesquite herself needed a rescue. While putting buoys out for the spring, she ran aground on Eleven-Foot Shoal in Green Bay, ripping a twelve-foot gash in her hull. Low water levels were a factor and the tug sent to pull her off the reef also went aground. Another Coast Guard cutter arrived and towed the tug off the reef. Then the two ships cooperated in towing the Mesquite free. After repairs, she returned to service.

A particularly dramatic rescue occurred in January 1973. An engine on the tanker Venus exploded and caught fire, killing one of her engineers. The Mesquite went to the ship’s aid, extinguishing the engine room fire in a matter of hours. She earned the Coast Guard Unit Commendation for this incident.

In June 1976, the Mesquite went into the Coast Guard Yard for renovations, overhauling her engines and adding a bow thruster to improve the ship’s maneuverability.

In 1984, in cooperation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Mesquite released 210,000 lake trout fingerlings on offshore reefs in Lake Michigan. It was hoped that fish released in the middle of the lake would have a higher survival rate than those released along the shore.

On November 26, 1984, the Mesquite sailed from Charlevoix bound for Grenada as part of the U.S. invasion Operation Urgent Fury. Her primary mission was law enforcement patrols, but it became clear her services were not needed in Grenada. She headed back to Miami in early 1985 where she participated in a number of drug seizures and humanitarian missions while in Florida waters.

In one incident, after the USCGC GALLATIN sized a 35-foot fishing boat loaded with 20,400 pounds of marijuana, the Mesquite towed the boat to Miami, turning the contraband and crew over to law enforcement authorities. The Mesquite returned to Charlevoix April 1985, just in time to begin her usual task of resetting buoys in the spring.

The Mesquite returned to Florida during the winter of 1988-1989 for law enforcement duties. While on patrol, she boarded twenty vessels. She arrived back in Charlevoix in April 1989, in time to replace her buoys.

Running aground in 1989 ended her life as a buoy tender but she began a new life as an underwater attraction to divers. To learn more about this transition, join us for a live online program at 6:30 this evening.

Watch a 40-minute documentary, Superior Destiny, about this storied ship, and then hear from Eric Smith and Dan Fountain, who worked to place the wreck in its permanent underwater home. These divers and keepers of history will give us their perspective on making this film, including additional slides. Enjoy a look at this Superior wreck through the presenters’ accumulated years of diving experience.

The presentation will include time for questions. The cost is $5 to join this program, which supports the History Center. Register for the online program on our Events page at marquettehistory.org/things-to-do.

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