USS Maine's Ventilation Cowl
Before there was the Titanic, there was the USS Maine. It was a battleship that mysteriously blew up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, in 1898, giving America all the excuse it needed to launch the Spanish-American War -- which America won in a month.
Unlike the Titanic, the Maine sank in less than 40 feet of water, which made timely salvage possible. America's small towns, flush with patriotic fervor, demanded relics of the waterlogged battlewagon to enshrine. Some did better than others. Perhaps the greatest prize -- the captain's bathtub -- was snagged by Findlay, OH, but the other macabre booty was democratically scattered nationwide. Three ventilator cowls -- those horns that stick out of ship decks that people are always falling into or peeping out of in movies -- were dredged up. One was given to Woburn.
The town (pronounced WOO-bun by locals) has tried to do right by its relic. It is sealed in a glass case the size of a bus shelter on the town's postcard-perfect town common, nestled within neatly trimmed shrubbery and flower beds. In fact, the grounds are so well maintained that one wonders why the town can't spare a few bucks to punch some air holes into its reliquary. Our gripe is that the old case for the ventilator cowl, apparently the same one pictured in old postcards, has no ventilation, and on the humid summer day that we visited the glass was fogged to near opacity. A lengthy printed description of the cowl sits next to it, but all we could make out was "...crushed in silent evidence of a catastrophe" through the steamy glass.
The cowl is indeed crushed, whether through the explosion, or water pressure, or the Maine rolling over onto it is not explained -- or maybe it was but we couldn't read it. Rather than looking like the open end of a tuba, the cowl now resembles a supersized fortune cookie on a stem, or the carnivorous plant from Little Shop of Horrors.
Among the numerous USS Maine artifacts on display around the US: its steam whistle (Larchmont Yacht Club, Larchmont, NY), its soup tureen (Blaine House, Augusta, ME), and a penny from the captain's desk (Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, MD). Another ventilator cowl is in the collection of the Aroostock County Historical and Art Museum, Houlton, Maine. Two other ventilator cowls, exact locations unknown, are said to be in Rock Island, IL, and Los Angeles, CA.