Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2012

A History Lesson From the Revenue Cutter Windom

By Timothy Harrison


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In many cases, vintage post cards are our only link to certain historical events or parts of otherwise forgotten history, as is the case of this 1908 post card showing the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Windom as it became the first ship to navigate the newly deepened Houston Ship Canal that officially opened the Port of Houston in Texas to commercial traffic.

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Politician William Windom (1827-1891) had his ...

Built in 1896, the Windom served three military branches of the government before she was decommissioned in 1930 and she is the only United States Naval vessel ever to bear the two names assigned to her. In 1915 the United States Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Life Saving Service were merged to create the United States Coast Guard and the vessel was no longer a Revenue Cutter, but now a Coast Guard Cutter.

However, when World War I broke out the Windom was transferred to the U.S. Navy and its name was changed to the USS Comanche. This was not the first time the vessel was assigned to war duty. During the Spanish-American War the Windom participated in the blockade of Cuba’s Havana Harbor. At the conclusion of the war the vessel was transferred back to the Coast Guard. Had the vessel been in service a few more years, she might have also serviced lighthouses, when, in 1939, the U. S. Lighthouse Service was dissolved and its duties were taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Windom was named after William Windom who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate from the State of Minnesota. In 1880 Windom was a Republican candidate for president. After 30 ballots at a deadlocked convention, Windom was considered by some as the perfect dark horse presidential nominee; however, Windom threw his support behind James A Garfield, who then won his party’s nomination and then the presidency. In appreciation for Windom’s support in getting the presidential nomination, Garfield appointed Windom as the Secretary of the Treasury

Shortly after President Garfield was assassinated, Windom, who did not want to work under the new President, Chester Arthur, resigned as the Secretary of the Treasury and almost immediately was reappointed by the Minnesota legislature to refill his own Senate seat that he had vacated to become the Secretary of the Treasury.

In 1882 Windom was defeated for reelection to the Senate and moved to New York where he practiced law until 1889 when the newly elected President, Benjamin Harrison, appointed him to again be the Secretary of the Treasury, a position Windom held until his death on April 29, 1891. Interestingly, Windom’s image appeared on the $2.00 bill from 1891 to 1896.

For some of you, the name William Windom might have sounded familiar, but perhaps not in this context - and you’d be correct in that familiarity. William Windom’s great grandson, also named William Windom, is the well known and respected American movie and television star who is a member of the Greatest Generation, having served with distinction in Europe during World War II. You may better remember him as Dr. Seth Hazlitt in one of my favorite old television shows, Murder She Wrote.

And, to think we learned all of this from one antique post card, something we would encourage you to do in helping your family to learn about the intriguing and interesting stories that revolve around America’s maritime and lighthouse history.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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