The US Navy's first USS Dolphin was a gunboat massing 1486 tons, built in 1885 in Chester, Pennsylvania. It was, along with the USS Atlanta, USS Boston, and USS Chicago (three armored cruisers), one of the first steel ships commissioned by the Navy. The Dolphin was the first ship completed of the so-called "New Navy," and was sent out to the Pacific for two years before returning in 1888.

At that time the four ships were formed into the "Squadron of Evolution," and were commonly called the "ABCD ships." The Squadron spent time developing new tactics and maneuvers appropriate for the new steel ships. This went on until 1895, when the Dolphin was assigned to the Special Service Squadron. Her final mission of her first life was delivering President William McKinley's entourage to the dedication of Grant's Tomb in 1897, after which she was laid up in the docks in New York.

The Dolphin was recommissioned in 1898 and was used for blockade duty during the Spanish-American War. Until 1917 she sailed as a special dispatch ship, and eight of her sailors involved in the Tampico incident of 1914 while she was the flagship of Admiral Mayo.

She sailed to the Virgin Islands in 1917 to take possession of them from Denmark after their sale to the US, and remained in the Caribbean as part of the Special Service Squadron until decommissioned in 1921. She was sold in 1922.

During her history, the Dolphin carried more distinguished guests than any other US Navy vessel. Its name was carried on by two Navy warships. The immediate successor was a submarine (SS 169), which survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and continued service in World War II before it was decommissioned in 1945 and sold for scrap. The current USS Dolphin is an auxiliary research submarine (AGS S55), commissioned in 1968. The original Dolphin is currently moored in Boston harbor.

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