19th century U.S. Coast Survey steamer wreck identified by archaeologists

Related Articles

Related Articles

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.

 

“Before this identification was made, the wreck was just an anonymous symbol on navigation charts,” said Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “Now, we can truly honor the 20 members of the crew and their final resting place. It will mark a profound sacrifice by the men who served during a remarkable time in our history.”

Built in 1847, the Walker was one of the U.S. government’s first iron-hulled steamers, and was intended for the U.S. Revenue Service, the predecessor of the United States Coast Guard. Instead, the Walker and some of its sister steamers were sent to the U.S. Coast Survey.

Admiral Robert J. Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard, said that Walker represented the transition from sail to steam for government vessels, “reflecting the enduring need of the United States to harness the power of new technology to promote its maritime interests.”

“Coast Guardsmen are always saddened by the loss of life at sea and especially so when those lost were working to make the lives of other mariners safer by charting the waters of the United States,” Papp said.

The U.S. Coast Survey is NOAA’s oldest predecessor organization, established by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807 to survey the coast and produce the nation’s nautical charts. In 1860, as the Civil War approached, the Coast Survey redoubled efforts to produce surveys of harbors strategically important to the war effort along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

Surveyers onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson produced this multibeam sonar image of the Walker wreck. Credit NOAA
Surveyers onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson produced this multibeam sonar image of the Walker wreck. Credit NOAA

The New York Herald, in reporting the Walker’s loss on June 23, 1860, noted that a “heavy sea was running, and many of the men were doubtless washed off the spars and drowned from the mere exhaustion of holding on, while others were killed or stunned on rising to the surface by concussion with spars and other parts of the wreck.”

The Walker wreck site initially was discovered in the 1970s by a commercial fisherman. The wreck’s identity has been a mystery despite being regularly explored by divers. Resting 85 feet underwater, the vessel’s identity was confirmed in June as part of a private-public collaboration that included research provided by New Jersey wreck divers; Joyce Steinmetz, a maritime archaeology student at East Carolina University; and retired NOAA Corps Capt. Albert Theberge, chief of reference for the NOAA Central Library.

While in the area to conduct hydrographic surveys after Hurricane Sandy for navigation safety, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson sailed to the wreck site and deployed its multibeam and sidescan sonar systems. Hydrographers searched likely locations based on analysis of historical research by Vitad Pradith, a physical scientist with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey.

A NOAA Maritime Heritage diving team, on a separate Hurricane Sandy-related mission in the area, was able to positively identify the Walker. Key clues were the size and layout of the iron-hulled wreck, and its unique engines, rectangular portholes, and the location of the ship, which was found still pointing toward the Absecon lighthouse, the final destination of a desperate crew on a sinking vessel.

“The identification of Walker is a result of excellent collaboration with the local community,” said James P. Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “We look forward to working with our local partners to share Walker’s story with the public in a manner that both promotes educational dive tourism and protects this nationally significant wreck and gravesite.”

NOAA’s intent is not to make the wreck a sanctuary or limit diving, but to work with New Jersey’s wreck diving community to better understand the wreck and the stories it can tell.

“We want to enhance the dive experience and support the dive industry with enhanced access to this wreck,” Delgado said. “New Jersey is home to some of the most accomplished wreck divers who not only understand history and wrecks, but who have also been in the forefront of wreck exploration. We look forward to working with them on the Walker.”

Header Image : In 1852, W.A.K. Martin painted this picture of the Robert J. Walker. Credit: The Mariners’ Museum

Contributing Source : NOAA

HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases

Archtools

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Academics Develop New Method to Determine the Origin of Stardust in Meteorites

Meteorites are critical to understanding the beginning of our solar system and how it has evolved over time.

Primate Voice Boxes are Evolving at a Rapid Pace

Scientists have discovered that the larynx, or voice box, of primates is significantly larger relative to body size, has greater variation, and is under faster rates of evolution than in other mammals.

New Discoveries at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair

Researchers at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s military headquarters located in the Masurian woods, Poland have made several new discoveries.

Medieval Sword Found at Bottom of Oder River

An almost complete medieval sword has been recovered from the Oder River in Poland.

Inside the Ice Giants of Space

A new theoretical method paves the way to modelling the interior of the ice giants Uranus and Neptune, thanks to computer simulations on the water contained within them.

Innovative Method Opens up New Perspectives for Reconstructing Climatic Conditions of Past Eras

Corals precipitate their calcareous skeletons (calcium carbonate) from seawater. Over thousands of years, vast coral reefs form due to the deposition of this calcium carbonate.

New Study Supports Predictions That the Arctic Could be Free of Sea Ice by 2035

A new study, published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, supports predictions that the Arctic could be free of sea ice by 2035.

Rare ‘Boomerang’ Earthquake Observed Along Atlantic Ocean Fault Line

Scientists have tracked a 'boomerang' earthquake in the ocean for the first time, providing clues about how they could cause devastation on land.

Popular stories

Port Royal – The Sodom of the New World

Port Royal, originally named Cagway was an English harbour town and base of operations for buccaneers and privateers (pirates) until the great earthquake of 1692.

Matthew Hopkins – The Real Witch-Hunter

Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch-hunter during the 17th century, who published “The Discovery of Witches” in 1647, and whose witch-hunting methods were applied during the notorious Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts.

Did Corn Fuel Cahokia’s Rise?

A new study suggests that corn was the staple subsistence crop that allowed the pre-Columbian city of Cahokia to rise to prominence and flourish for nearly 300 years.

The Real Dracula?

“Dracula”, published in 1897 by the Irish Author Bram Stoker, introduced audiences to the infamous Count and his dark world of sired vampiric minions.