Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Wreck of U.S. Coast Survey Ship Identified

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on August 28, 2013
In 1852, W.A.K. Martin painted this picture of the Robert J. Walker. The painting, now at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., is scheduled for restoration. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)


On Tuesday, the folks at NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program announced the identification of the wreck of the U.S. Coast Survey steamship Robert J. Walker, that was sunk in a collision with a sailing ship in June 1860 off the Jersey shore. From the announcement:


More than 153 years after it was lost in a violent collision at sea, government and university maritime archaeologists have identified the wreck of the ship Robert J. Walker, a steamer that served in the U.S. Coast Survey, a predecessor agency of NOAA.
The Walker, while now largely forgotten, served a vital role as a survey ship, charting the Gulf Coast – including Mobile Bay and the Florida Keys – in the decade before the Civil War. It also conducted early work plotting the movement of the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic Coast.
Twenty sailors died when the Walker sank in rough seas in the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, ten miles off Absecon Inlet on the New Jersey coast. The crew had finished its latest surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York when the Walker was hit by a commercial schooner off New Jersey. The side-wheel steamer, carrying 66 crewmembers, sank within 30 minutes. The sinking was the largest single loss of life in the history of the Coast Survey and its successor agency, NOAA.
In late June, 2013, the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, surveying in the area to chart post-Hurricane Sandy changes in coastal waters – an essential job to ensure safe navigation with a major part of the economy based on the movement of goods by water – transited the area where Robert J. Walker was known to have been lost and laid a memorial wreath on the water. Using the sophisticated sonar mapping technology of Thomas Jefferson, The Office of Coast Survey’s Vitad Pradith, working with East Carolina University graduate student and archaeologist Joyce Steinmetz and the crew of Thomas Jefferson did a survey of the area and focused on the previously charted wreck thought to be Walker.



After a ceremony last month onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, Ensign Eileen Pye lays a wreath over the waters where USCS Robert J. Walker sank. (Credit: NOAA)Blank

You can read a detailed, contemporary news account of the disaster, from the June 23, 1860 issue of the New York Commercial Advertiser here.

Videos from the wreck site are online here. The visibility is pretty lousy, but the exposed part of the wreck is similar in many ways to that of U.S.S. Hatteras, that was the focus os a NOAA-led expedition last year. Some of the preservation on the Walker site is remarkable. There are even remnants of what are believed to be wool blankets, that have been preserved by being covered in mud, in an anaerobic environment, until recently. (Hurricane Sandy may have played a role in exposing these materials.)

In her career as a survey vessel, Robert J. Walker probably served off Galveston, as she spent considerable time operating in the Gulf of Mexico. As it happens, her commanding officer during much of that period was Benjamin Franklin Sands (right, 1811-1883), whose first-hand knowledge of the hydrography of the Texas coast would prove useful some years later, when he commanded the Union squadron on blockade duty off Galveston during the closing days of the Civil War. It was Captain Sands who formally accepted Galveston’s surrender in June 1865, an event that effectively ended the Union blockade of Southern ports. You can download a high-res copy of one of Sands’ charts, compiled during his tenure aboard Robert J. Walker, here.

Congrats to NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and all its partners in this endeavor.



Aye Candy

Posted in Technology by Andy Hall on August 6, 2011

Got some additional work done this weekend on the Denbigh model, which continues to shape up nicely. This time I focused on the side houses, placed outboard on the sponsons, just ahead of the paddleboxes. Here are the sidehouses as shown in the 1864 painting of the ship:

If they’re depicted correctly in the painting — and there’s no way to know for sure, as all of that wooden structure burned when the ship was destroyed by a Federal boarding party in May 1865 — then these little cabins must have been tiny, cramped spaces. The artist, Thomas Cantwell Healy (1820 – 1899), appears to have depicted the human figures in the painting a bit too small compared to the overall scale of the steamer, and if they were the size depicted. No plans of Denbigh are known to exist, but plans of another paddle steamer, Will o’ the Wisp, show the small sidehouses to be used as a storeroom (starboard) and a lamp room (port), with a water closet on each side, immediately forward of the paddlewheel, where waste could be flushed directly into the sea below. On Will o’ the Wisp there was a small galley in one of the sidehouses abaft the wheel. Denibgh didn’t have that second set of sidehouses, but the stardboard-side house does appear to have a chimney, so perhaps that structure was fitted as the galley.

In 2002 we recovered, from the space outboard of the hull, just forward of the wheel, a heavy, iron ring or flange (right), that coincidentally (or maybe not) seems to be just about the correct size to match the outflow pipe from a copper toilet bowl recovered from the wreck of Acadia in the 1970s by an amateur salvor, Dr. Wendell Pierce, now part of the collection at the Brazoria County Historical Museum in Angleton, Texas. Kinda neat.

More images of the updated model:

One of the sidehouses, shown with a generic cargo hatch and windlass.

And finally, a test illustration showing the midships hull structure and machinery, superimposed on the new model. Full size image here.


Image: Detail of 1864 painting of paddle steamer Denbigh by Thomas Cantwell Healy. Private collection.