RISING SUN — The first ship named for the state of Maine is best known for the tragedy that touched off a war and resulted in a horrific loss of lives. Commissioned in 1895, the USS Maine was originally classified as an armored cruiser she was, sadly, already out of date by the time she entered service due to a protracted construction period.
The Maine was lost catastrophically the night of Feb. 15, 1898, in Havana Harbor, Cuba. She had been sent there to protect U.S. interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain, when she exploded suddenly and without warning. The Maine sank quickly killing nearly three-quarters of her crew with the cause of the sinking being unclear — even after a board of inquiry. Indeed, the sinking of the Maine continues to be studied to this day, and is still the cause of significant speculation.
The sinking of the Maine made national headlines and popular opinion was ignited to a conflagration by articles in the “Yellow Press” of the day by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, pointing the finger of blame at Spain for the loss of the ship and the men aboard. Two officers and 251 sailors or Marines were either killed in the explosion or drowned, seven others were rescued, but later died of injuries and one officer later died of shock. There were only 94 survivors and of them only 16 escaped without injury. Likely, the story would have made a small headline on the front page of the local newspapers in Cecil County as a national news item, except for one man.
Aboard the Maine that fateful night, was one John A. Kay, the son of a Scottish immigrant who had settled in Rising Sun. John had joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed aboard the Maine as a chief machinist. The initial newspaper reports in Cecil County stated the vessel was sunk shortly after the explosion, but subsequent headlines dominated newspapers, especially The Midland Journal of Rising Sun, when Kay’s body was discovered amongst the wreckage of the ship on Feb. 25, 1898.
Kay’s body was laid to rest at Havana, Cuba, but the recently erected Brookview Cemetery in Rising Sun, would also bear a remembrance to their local son near its entrance. The cemetery was created to serve as a final resting ground for those who may or may not wish to avail themselves of a religious institution as part of the burial rites. A small non-denominational, non-religiously affiliated chapel was erected at the center of the ceremony where four roadways crossed. At the entrance to the cemetery, two stone entrance columns framed the chapel in the distance while in the center of these as the road splits a monument column was erected as a cenotaph memorial to John A. Kay, which still stands today.
As local residents comforted the Kay family and planned the memorial, people across the country shook their fists in anger at the senseless tragedy. The popular rallying cry became, “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!,” a catalyst to the Spanish-American War later that year.