This coming February marks the centennial of the loss of the Navy tug Cherokee off the coast of Delaware with the death of her commander, Gloucester native Edward Dolliver Newell, namesake of Newell Stadium at Gloucester High School.
Newell was born to prominent Gloucester dentist George Newell and his wife Carrie (Rust) on December 2, 1894. The Newell home was at 9 Hovey Street, nearby the field that would one day bear his name. They were a well-known family; George practiced out of his office at 156 Main Street, and from 1934 to 1936, when he was in his eighties, served as mayor of Gloucester. It is no surprise, then, that Edward distinguished himself as a master mariner while still in his late teens.
In October 1913, Newell graduated from the Massachusetts Nautical Training School — now Massachusetts Maritime Academy — and entered the merchant marine, serving aboard several civilian vessels. Within a year, he was the third officer aboard the merchant ship Lexington, having previously served aboard the Rambler and San Juan, the latter making runs from New York to Puerto Rico. Newell also earned a commission as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve and served aboard the USS Sterling.
When war broke out between the United States and the Central Powers, Newell joined the active Navy, and was sent to train in navigation in Boston. Newell had distinguished himself sufficiently at sea to get a command of the recently commissioned Navy tug Cherokee.
The Cherokee was an iron-hulled tug built in 1891 at the Dialogue yard in Camden, New Jersey. Originally named the Luckenbach, she was acquired by the Navy upon the United States’ entrance into the war. On December 5, 1917, three days after Newell’s twenty-third and last birthday, the tug was commissioned and christened Cherokee (No. 458). At 120 feet in length and 24 ½ feet in beam, and drawing 15 feet, the Cherokee was fitted out for the offshore service. Her top speed was 12 knots, and her armament consisted of one three-inch gun.
On February 24, 1918, the Cherokee, under the command of Lieutenant Newell, set out from Newport, Rhode Island bound for Washington, DC, with a cargo of coal. Aboard was a crew of thirty nine men (five officers and thirty-four enlisted men — one lucky soul was on leave). In Washington, she was to pick up a load of guns destined for a southern port. On the evening of February 25, the Cherokee headed into a strong northeast gale around thirty or so miles off Cape Henlopen, Delaware, and foundered in heavy seas near the Fenwick Island Lightship. After being pummeled throughout the night, the tug was thrown broadside to the waves. As she wallowed in the troughs, her hatches were battered until they could no longer keep out the sea; the tug filled and went to the bottom with twenty-nine of her crew, including Lieutenant Newell and all her officers.
As the Cherokee sank, several of her crew managed to launch two rafts and drift clear of the wreck. The wireless officer never abandoned his post as he tapped out distress signals. The first signal was received at Lewes, Delaware shortly before eight in the morning. Distress signals were received at Lewes, from where a cutter was dispatched to find the tug, and at Cape May, where contact with the Cherokee was maintained until about nine o’clock in the morning. Around the same time, lookouts aboard the British steamer Admiral, on its way from Bermuda to Philadelphia, alerted the captain, D.O. Davies, to wreckage adrift in the heavy seas. Near an upturned lifeboat, Captain Davies would later report, his men found a raft with eleven men, one of whom had died. The Admiral had not received any distress calls. Captain Davies and the Admiral remained in the area for two hours, and had sent out a wireless to vessels that might transit the area. While they searched, they discovered another raft with three dead bodies aboard. When a second British steamer had arrived on the scene, the Admiral raced towards shore to deliver the survivors. Of the ten men who were alive, the highest ranking man was a chief boatswain’s mate.
Lieutenant Newell was twenty-three years old when he lost his life aboard the Cherokee. He had been married for eighteen months; his widow lived in Philadelphia. Following the sinking of the Cherokee, the Navy launched two separate investigations. The first was inconclusive; the second exonerated the ship’s officers of negligence and determined that the men who died had done so while carrying out their duty. The sinking was blamed on the unseaworthiness of the twenty-seven year old vessel. In fact, Lieutenant Newell had once written his father and told him of how he had reported his concerns over the safety of the Cherokee to the Navy
In 1936, the new Gloucester High School football stadium overlooking the Annisquam River was dedicated in honor of Edward Newell, remembered as “a gallant officer; a beloved shipmate.”