USAT Buford

USAT Buford at Galveston harbor in 1915
  • SS Mississippi (1890–1898)
  • USAT Buford (1898–1919)
  • USS Buford (ID 3818) (1919)
  • USAT Buford (1919–1923)
  • SS Buford (1923–1929)
Builder: Harland and Wolff, Belfast
Launched: August 29, 1890
Commissioned: By the US Navy on January 15, 1919
Decommissioned: September 2, 1919
Fate: Scrapped in 1929
General characteristics
Type: Cargo ship
Displacement: 8,583 tons
Length: 370 ft 8 in (112.98 m)
Beam: 44 ft 2 in (13.46 m)
Draft: 26 ft (7.9 m)
Depth of hold: 30 ft 6 in (9.30 m)
Speed: 11 knots (20 km/h)
Complement: 202
Armament: 2 × 3" mounts

USAT Buford was a combination cargo/passenger ship, originally launched in 1890 as the SS Mississippi. She was purchased by the US Army in 1898 for transport duty in the Spanish–American War. In 1919, she was briefly transferred to the US Navy, commissioned as the USS Buford (ID 3818), to repatriate troops home after World War I, and then later that year returned to the Army.

In December 1919, nicknamed the Soviet Ark (or the Red Ark) by the press of the day, the Buford was used by the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Labor to deport 249 non-citizens to Russia from the United States because of their alleged anarchist or syndicalist political beliefs.

She was sold to private interests in 1923, contracted in mid-1924 to be the set for Buster Keaton's silent film The Navigator, and finally scrapped in 1929.

Ship's history

The ship began life as the SS Mississippi,[1] constructed by Harland & Wolff of Belfast, Ireland for Bernard N. Baker of Baltimore and the Atlantic Transport Line. While under de facto American ownership, she would fly the British flag, due to the economies of the navigation laws of the period.[2] The Mississippi was launched on August 29, 1890[3] and began her maiden voyage, from London, on October 28, 1890. In command was her first captain, Hamilton Murrell,[4] "Hero of the Danmark Disaster," who a year earlier had saved 735 lives from the sinking Danish passenger ship Danmark, the largest single rescue at the time.[5]

For the first year of her career, the Mississippi plied the waters between London, Swansea, Philadelphia and Baltimore.[6]

In January 1892, the Mississippi was moved to the London-New York route,[3] where she remained until she was purchased by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Department as part of a seven-ship deal on June 24, 1898, and became an army transport ship, serving in the Caribbean theater of the Spanish–American War.[7] The Mississippi was assigned the number "25" on July 5, 1898.[8] However, she sailed under her given name until March 2, 1899, the following year, when she was officially renamed the USAT Buford,[9] in honor of Gen. John T. Buford, the Union cavalry officer and hero of the Battle of Gettysburg of the American Civil War.

On May 28, 1900,[10] the Buford entered the naval yards of the Newport News Ship-Building Company for a major refitting as a troop-ship for service between the United States and the Philippines.[11] Two of her original four masts were removed; the other two were replaced with long masts.[1] While under conversion, the Buford would miss the peak of the Boxer Rebellion. Once back in service in November of that year, the Buford took up regular service on the Pacific run from San Francisco to Honolulu and Guam terminating in Manila, and returning via Nagasaki and Honolulu.[12]

At 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, the Buford was in San Francisco when the Great Quake of 1906 struck. She was taken from the pier into the bay to avoid the resultant fire and was one of three transports - Buford, Crook and Warren - used in the harbor as temporary storehouses for the supplies coming into the stricken city by sea in the weeks following the disaster.[13][14]

In September 1906, the Buford was sent to rescue over 600 passengers and crew from the SS Mongolia, which had pierced her hull after running aground at Midway Island. Before Buford arrived on the scene, the Mongolia's crew had freed her. However, the two ship captains determined it prudent to send the passengers back on Buford. To ensure the safe arrival of Mongolia's crew, should the passenger steamer's bilge pumps fail to keep pace with the leaks, the Buford escorted her during the five-day return to Hawaii.[15]

In 1907[16] and 1911,[17] the Buford was involved in famine relief missions to China. In 1912–1916, she was involved in refugee and troop missions during the Mexican Revolution.[1] With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Buford continued her refugee rescue work, bringing away Americans who wished to flee the European fighting.[18] She supported the American war effort once the U.S. entered the conflict.[19]

The Buford was in Galveston harbor when a massive hurricane hit on August 17, 1915 and was the city's sole line of communication to the outside world through her radio.[20]

In December 1918, the Buford underwent another refit to prepare her for transporting American Expeditionary Force troops home from the war. [21] On January 14, 1919 she was transferred to the U.S. Navy, commissioned as the USS Buford (ID 3818) the next day, and assigned to troop transport duty. During the next half-year she made four round trip voyages between the United States and France, bringing home over 4700 soldiers. She made one more voyage to the Panama Canal Zone before she was decommissioned by the Navy on September 2, 1919 and returned to the Army Transport Service.[1][22]


The Buford's most notorious incarnation followed a few months later when she was pressed into service as the "Soviet Ark" (or "Red Ark"). On December 21, 1919, she was used to deport 249 political radicals and other "undesirable" aliens, mostly members of the Union of Russian Workers, to the Russian SFSR. Also swept up were the fiery anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.[23] This occurred between the first and second Palmer Raids of the first "Red Scare" period in the U.S. After delivering her charges, the Buford returned to New York on February 22, 1920.[24]

Political context

During the First Red Scare in 1919-20 following the Russian Revolution, anti-Bolshevik sentiment quickly replaced the anti-German sentiment of the World War I years. Many politicians and government officials, along with a large part of the press and the public, feared an imminent attempt to overthrow the government of the United States and the creation of a new regime modeled on that of the Soviets. In that atmosphere of public hysteria, radical views as well as moderate dissents were often characterized as un-American or subversive, including the advocacy of labor rights and any less than complementary discussion of American society and its system of government. Close ties between recent European immigrants and radical political ideas and organizations fed those anxieties as well.

The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States. It effectively criminalized any act or speech that discouraged full compliance with the military draft. Convicted under this law, Eugene V. Debs, a five-time presidential candidate, served 3 years of a 10-year sentence before President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence on Christmas Day, 1921. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were likewise convicted under the Espionage Act and eventually deported. The Immigration Act of 1918 denied entry into the U.S. and permitted the deportation of non-citizens "who disbelieve in or are opposed to all organized government."


Buford passengers
Leading Personages on The Buford's Passenger-List
Emma Goldman, Ethel Bernstein, Peter Bianki, Alexander Berkman

The Buford steamed out of New York harbor at 6 A. M. on Sunday, December 21, 1919, with 249 "undesirables" on board. Of those, 199 had been seized in the November 7 Palmer Raids. Some were leftists or anarchists, though perhaps as many as 180 were deported because of their membership in the Union of Russian Workers, an anarchist organization which served social and educational functions for many Russian immigrants, had been the principal target of the raids. Other deportees, including the well-known radical leaders Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, had been detained earlier. All, by act or speech or membership in an organization, fell within the legal definition of anarchist under the Immigration Act of 1918, which did not distinguish between "malignant conspirators and destructive revolutionists" on the one hand or "apostles of peace, preachers of the principle of non-resistance" on the other. All met the law's requirement in that they "believed that no government would be better for human society than any kind of government."[25] Goldman had been convicted in 1893 of "inciting to riot" and in 1917 for interfering with military recruitment. She had been arrested on many other occasions.[26] Berkman had served 14 years in prison for the attempted assassination of industrialist Henry Clay Frick after the Homestead Steel Strike in 1892. In 1917 he had been convicted alongside Goldman for the same anti-draft activities.[27] The notoriety of Goldman and Berkman as convicted agitators allowed the press and public to imagine that all the deportees had similar backgrounds. The New York Times called them all "Russian Reds."[28]

Not all the deportees were unhappy to be leaving the United States. Most were single, few were being separated from their families, and some anticipated a brighter future in the new Soviet Russia.[29]

The Soviet Ark leaving New York harbor.
The United States army transport Buford, carrying 249 " Reds"
as America's Christmas present to Lenine and Trotzky.

Twenty-four hours after its departure, the Buford's captain opened sealed orders to learn his projected destination. The captain only learned his final destination while in Kiel harbor while awaiting repairs and taking on a German pilot to guide the ship through the North Sea minefields, uncleared despite Germany's surrender a year earlier.[30] The State Department had found it difficult to make arrangements to land in Latvia as originally planned. Though finally chosen, Finland was not an obvious choice, since Finland and Russia were then at war.[31]

F.W. Berkshire, Supervising Inspector of Immigration, made the journey to oversee the enterprise and, in contrast to his two most famous charges, reported little conflict. A "strong detachment of marines" numbering 58 enlisted men and four officers also made the journey and pistols had been distributed to the crew.[23][32]

In "My Disillusionment in Russia," Emma Goldman wrote of the Buford voyage:[33]

For twenty-eight days we were prisoners. Sentries at our cabin doors day and night, sentries on deck during the hour we were daily permitted to breathe the fresh air. Our men comrades were cooped up in dark, damp quarters, wretchedly fed, all of us in complete ignorance of the direction we were to take.

Alexander Berkman, in "The Russian Tragedy," [34] added,

We were prisoners, treated with military severity, and the Buford a leaky old tub repeatedly endangering our lives during the month's Odyssey... Long, long was the voyage, shameful the conditions we were forced to endure: crowded below deck, living in constant wetness and foul air, fed on the poorest rations.

The Buford reached Hanko, Finland at 4:25 pm on Friday, January 16, 1920. The prisoners were kept between decks until they were landed the next day, Saturday, January 17, 1920, at 2 pm. They were taken off the transport and marched between a cordon of American marines and Finnish White Guards to a special train that was to take them to Terijoki, Finland, about two miles from the frontier.[35][36] The 249 "undesirable aliens" were placed, 30 to a car, in [unheated] box cars fitted up with plank benches, tables and beds. Each car contained seven boxes of army rations. The supplies include bully-beef, sugar and hard bread.[37]

Finnish White Guards were stationed on each car platform. The party was to be completely isolated until it reached its destination. Once loaded, the train was then held overnight while rumors of the party being killed as they crossed the border caused a diplomatic flurry.[37]

The journey began the next day, January 18, but the exiles were sidetracked at Viborg, Finland, remaining confined in their cars, while awaiting the British Prisoners' Relief Mission, which was to cross the Russian frontier at the same time. Delayed by storms, the Buford began her return voyage that same day.[37]

On January 19, the trek continued to Terijoki. Once the deportees had arrived, and after trudging through a heavy snowstorm, a parlay was conducted under white flags of truce between Berkman, guarded by the Finns, and the Russians, out on the ice of the frozen Systerbak River, which separated the Finnish and Bolshevist lines. Things being settled, the "undesirables" then crossed over into Russia at 2 pm, Berkman and Goldman waiting until everyone else had safely crossed.[38] All were enthusiastically received with cheers and a band playing the Russian national anthem. In the war-wrecked town of Bielo-Ostrov, which overlooked the stream, they boarded a waiting train which took them to Petrograd.[39]

Most of the press approved enthusiastically of the Buford experiment. The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote: "It is hoped and expected that other vessels, larger, more commodious, carrying similar cargoes, will follow in her wake."[40]

Later service

On August 5, 1920, the Buford returned the ashes of Puerto Rican patriot Dr. Ramon Emerterio Betances to San Juan.[41]

On May 2, 1921, once again in the Pacific, the Buford rescued sixty-five passengers and crew from the inferno of the Japanese steam freighter Tokuyo Maru, which had caught fire and burned 60 miles southwest of the mouth of the Columbia River, off Tillamook Head, Oregon.[42]

In mid 1922, as one of her final duties as a U. S. transport, the Buford conducted an inspection tour of Northwestern and Alaska Army posts and closed a number of posts in the territory abandoned by the War Department.[43]

In 1923, the Buford was sold to John C. Ogden and Fred Linderman of the San Francisco-based Alaskan Siberian Navigation Company.[1] After a voyage to Alaska and Siberia in the late summer of 1923 and another to the South Seas in early 1924, the Buford was chartered for three months by silent film comedian Buster Keaton for use as the principal set of his film The Navigator.[44] The Buford had been "discovered" by Keaton's Technical Director Fred Gabourie while scouting for ships for another, outside project, The Sea Hawk. Released on October 13, 1924, The Navigator proved to be Keaton's most financially successful film and one of his personal favorites. After this moment in the limelight, the Buford slipped into dormancy and would occasionally reappear at the center of several financially dubious schemes.

On February 25, 1929,[45] it was reported that the Buford would be scrapped in Yokohama, Japan by Hasegawa Gentaro. She sailed from Los Angeles on May 11, 1929, flying the American flag under the command of Capt. A. G. Laur to meet her final fate.[46]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Atlantic Transport Line: S.S. Mississippi (I)" (HTM). Retrieved 2018-07-14.
  2. ^ Kinghorn, Jonathan (2012), The Atlantic Transport Line, 1881–1931: A History with Details on All Ships, Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, ISBN 978-0-7864-6142-4 , p.103.
  3. ^ a b Bonsor, Noel R. P. (1955), North Atlantic Seaway, vol.3, Jersey, Channel Islands: Brookside Publications, ISBN 0-905824-00-8 , p.1087.
  4. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "Port Paragraphs," Aug 30, 1890, pg. 6
  5. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "President Baker's Approval," Apr 23, 1889, pg. 1
  6. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "Port Paragraphs," Nov 28, 1890, pg. 4
  7. ^ New York Times: "Transports For The Army," June 25, 1898, p.2, accessed January 1, 2010
  8. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "Rushing Troops South," Jul 6, 1898, pg. 1
  9. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "New Names For Auxiliary Ships," Mar 3, 1899, pg. 2
  10. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "Battleship Kentucky," May 29, 1900, pg. 7
  11. ^ Richmond Dispatch: "Contract for Newport News," May 25, 1900, p.1, accessed January 1, 2010
  12. ^ Annual Reports of the War Department, Vol II, 1906: "Regular Trans-Pacific Service" p.28, accessed January 1, 2010
  13. ^ Annual Reports of the War Department, Vol I, 1906: "EARTHQUAKE IN CALIFORNIA" - Special Report of Maj. Gen. Adolphus W. Greely, Commanding the Pacific Division, p.114, accessed January 1, 2010
  14. ^ Annual Reports of the War Department, Vol I, 1906: "REPORTS OF SUBORDINATE OFFICERS - Reports of Maj. Carroll A. Devol, Quartermaster, U. S. A." p. 186-7, accessed January 1, 2010
  15. ^ "Mongolia Comes Here Leaking/Passengers in Good Spirits". The Hawaiian Star. Honolulu, Hawaii. 28 September 1906. pp. 1, 5.
  16. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "Sails To Relieve Starving Chinese," May 1, 1907, pg. 10
  17. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "B. and O. Offers Its Aid," Feb 17, 1911, pg. 5
  18. ^ New York Times: "Transport For Refugees," Aug 25, 1914, pg. 5, accessed January 1, 2010
  19. ^ U.S. Army Ships--USAT Buford (1898) Department of the Navy -- Naval History and Heritage Command, accessed January 1, 2010
  20. ^ The Baltimore Sun, "Texas Storm Sweeps Inland," Aug 18, 1915, pg. 1
  21. ^ Crowell, Benedict; Wilson, Robert Forrest (1921), Demobilization: Our Industrial and Military Demobilization after the Armistice, 1918–1919, New Haven: Yale University Press, ISBN 0-559-18913-3, retrieved January 11, 2010 , p. 35.
  22. ^ NavSource Online - Section Patrol Craft Photo Archive: "USAT Buford - ex-USS Buford (ID 3818) - ex-USAT Buford", accessed January 1, 2010
  23. ^ a b New York Times: "'Ark' with 300 Reds Sails Early Today for Unnamed Port," December 21, 1919, accessed February 1, 2010
  24. ^ New York Times: "'Soviet Ark' Returns: Buford Can Be Ready for Another Load of Reds by Wednesday" February 23, 1920, p. 8, accessed January 1, 2010
  25. ^ Post, Louis F. (1923), The Deportations Delirium of Nineteen-twenty: A Personal Narrative of an Historic Official Experience, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, ISBN 0-306-71882-0, retrieved January 11, 2010 , p.14-16.
  26. ^ Post, 12-16
  27. ^ Post, 19-20
  28. ^ New York Times: "Hundreds of Reds on Soviet 'Ark' Sail Soon for Europe," December 13, 1919, accessed February 1, 2010
  29. ^ Charles H. McCormick, Seeing Reds: Federal Surveillance of Radicals in the Pittsburgh Mill District, 1917–1921 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 158-63. Older histories note that some of those deported left a wife or family behind, but McCormick's more current research demonstrates that such cases were rare. See Post, 5-6
  30. ^ Post, 6-11
  31. ^ Post, 3, 10-11
  32. ^ Post, 4
  33. ^ My Disillusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman (1923). Accessed January 1, 2010
  34. ^ The Russian Tragedy by Alexander Berkman (1922). Accessed January 1, 2010
  35. ^ The Bolshevik Myth: Chapter One - The Log of the transport "Buford" by Alexander Berkman (1925). Anarchy Archives, accessed January 3, 2010
  36. ^ New York Times: "Soviet Ark Lands its Reds in Finland," January 18, 1920, accessed February 1, 2010
  37. ^ a b c New York Times: "Reds Reach Viborg; Border Fire Halts," January 19, 1920, p.15, accessed January 1, 2010
  38. ^ New York Times: "Deportees Cross Soviet Frontier, But May Not Stay," January 20, 1920, p.1, accessed January 1, 2010
  39. ^ New York Times: "Bolsheviki Admit All Reds," January 21, 1920, p.17, accessed January 1, 2010
  40. ^ Murray, Robert K. (1955), Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919–1920, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 0-8166-5833-1 , p.208-9.
  41. ^ New York Times: "Porto Rico Honors Patriot's Ashes," Aug 6, 1920, pg. 12, accessed January 1, 2010
  42. ^ Los Angeles Times, "One Dead, Seven Missing: Army Transport Rescues Sixty-five From Burning Jap Steamer," May 4, 1921, pg. I-5
  43. ^ Los Angeles Times, "Maj.-Gen. Morton Sails For Alaska," Jun 28, 1922, pg. I-15
  44. ^ Los Angeles Times, "Deep Sea Comedy," May 11, 1924, pg. 23
  45. ^ Los Angeles Times, "Former Transport Buford Reported Sold," February 25, 1929, pg. 6
  46. ^ Los Angeles Times, "Old Transport To Sail On Last Voyage," May 10, 1929, pg. A-12

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