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Old Time Kentucky: Christening U.S.S. Kentucky with water may have resulted in early retirement


By Berry Craig
KyForward columnist

When Christine Bradley was invited to christen the U.S.S. Kentucky, she spurned champagne for water. The daughter of Gov. William O. Bradley was ardently anti-alcohol. Her parents were teetotalers, too.

“The use of water to christen the Kentucky has furnished food for many a jest since Miss Bradley’s plan was proposed,” the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on March 25, 1898, the day after she ceremoniously launched the big battleship.

Her father, Kentucky’s first Republican governor, rose to her defense at a post-christening banquet.

Commissioned in 1900, the 375-foot, 10,470-ton Kentucky fought in no sea battles, epic or otherwise. After ending up as a less-than-glamorous training ship, the Navy decommissioned the vessel and sold it for scrap in 1923 (Wikimedia Photo)

Commissioned in 1900, the 375-foot, 10,470-ton Kentucky fought in no sea battles, epic or otherwise. After ending up as a less-than-glamorous training ship, the Navy decommissioned the vessel and sold it for scrap in 1923 (Wikimedia Photo)

A celebrated stump orator, Bradley “extolled the virtues of water and commended the symbolism” of its source, according to Kentucky’s largest newspaper.

The liquid was from the famous Lincoln spring near Hodgenville, which provided water for little Abraham and his family.

The C-J claimed “there was abundant evidence of approval from those who heard” the colorful Bradley, dubbed “Billy O. B.” by his fans.

“When he declared that in consequence of such christening the Kentucky would go to sea with a fervent godspeed from thousands of Christian women, such as never followed any ship, the crowd was enthusiastic in its applause.”

Elevated to office in 1895, Bradley stood near his daughter as she broke a bottle of non-bubbly over the bow of the brand-new warship at the Newport News, Va., Ship-Building and Dry-Dock Co. Other platform guests included the company president and Virginia Gov. J. Hoge Tyler, a Democrat.

Commissioned in 1900, the 375-foot, 10,470-ton Kentucky fought in no sea battles, epic or otherwise. After ending up as a less-than-glamorous training ship, the Navy decommissioned the vessel and sold it for scrap in 1923.

Anyway, old salts considered it bad luck to christen a ship sans-alcohol. As the Kentucky slid down the slipway into Hampton Roads, “at least a dozen small bottles of whisky…were hurled against its sides by some who were willing to do that much to appease the superstitions of sailors,” the C-J assured its readers.

At the feed, Tyler, knowing Bourbon was the Bluegrass State’s most famous product, poked fun at the “Kentucky innovation in christening battleships,” the paper said.

Bradley was lightning-quick with a comeback. The governor suggested that “while Kentucky willingly imitated the virtues of the mother State, she was trying to escape from its vices.”

Christine, a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, became a national hero among foes of the demon rum.

The story of the cold water christening resurfaced in 1904 when she wed Dr. John South of Frankfort. “Miss Bradley has won at home the pleasant fame of being the most popular girl in the state and is known abroad by virtue of her refusal to christen the battleship Kentucky with wine,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recalled.

“….She refused to use the accustomed bottle of champagne, and the Kentucky received its corn-honored name in a baptism of clear, cold water. For this, Miss Bradley was generally commended and received the praises of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.”

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Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of five books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com


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