Retrieval efforts aim to bring Monitor back to life


After 140 years at the bottom of the sea, the 160-ton gun turret of the USS Monitor is to be lifted into daylight soon off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in the culmination of a five-year, $14 million effort to save the famous ironclad.

The federal-private project will then enter a new phase, to bring much of what remains of the Monitor, a revolutionary warship and a Civil War relic, back to life.

Experts are treating more than 400 Monitor artifacts to try to reverse the corrosive effects of time and seawater. The anchor, propeller, turret, guns, engine, condenser, hull plates and hundreds of smaller artifacts from the ironclad are to be displayed in a new $30 million museum.

Already, the recoveries have produced a rush of insights, said John D. Broadwater, a naval archaeologist who manages the Monitor marine sanctuary off Cape Hatteras.

New light is being shed on the ship's construction, quirks, innovations and death throes, as well as the achievements behind one of history's most celebrated warships.

For instance, conservators are finding that crew members made subtle measurements to keep its steam engine running at top efficiency.

In a more mundane discovery, it appears that the Union sailors who ran the warship tended to ply their meals with mustard, as suggested by the many condiment bottles found at the wreck site.

"We suspect the food needed all the help it could get," said John B. Hightower, president of the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., which is conserving and displaying the Monitor's artifacts.

Undocumented parts

Experts resurrecting the lost ship are finding that the Monitor's remains are often quite different from plans and period drawings. For instance, the gun turret has undocumented braces, and the steam engine departs in some respects from 19th-century renderings.

"It turns out we didn't have the big picture," said Broadwater of the Monitor sanctuary.

Other surprises have emerged. Last year, as experts retrieved the steam engine and began removing layers of marine encrustations, a presumed gauge turned out to be a large clock. Its iron hands had vanished. But close inspection of its brass faceplate showed faint smudges that echoed the last positions of the hands, near 1 and 3.

William F. Keeler, the paymaster who survived the sinking in December 1862, had written that the warship went down in a gale a little after 1 a.m. So historians have concluded that the inrush of icy sea water probably froze the clock, with the hands recording the moment of the ship's demise.

"It's pretty neat," said Curtiss Peterson, the chief conservator at the Mariners' Museum, who found the ghostly traces. "Suddenly, your mind goes back to the night of the sinking."

Even more significant for history - and for conservators' peace of mind - was a discovery concerning a real engine gauge. Known as a register, it counted the engine's revolutions, much as a car's odometer counts miles. Peterson, while removing encrustations from the old device, was elated to see the word "Monitor" etched across its top.

"I smiled ear to ear," he recalled. "If it had said something like 'Toledo,' we would have been in deep trouble."

To date, the inscription is the best direct proof of the ship's identity, though historians have long viewed the mass of circumstantial evidence as airtight.

Built in a hurry

The Monitor was an ironclad whose advanced design altered the course of naval history. Though built in a wartime rush of 100 days, the ship was a deadly mix of innovations featuring the world's first revolving naval gun turret. That advance is still a hallmark of modern warships.

Built at Greenpoint in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Monitor was launched into the East River on Jan. 30, 1862. It was 172 feet long.

The turret, which is to be raised soon, was the distinguishing feature of the flat-decked ship. Measuring 9 feet high and 21 feet across, it housed two 9-foot Dahlgren guns able to jut through small openings and fire shells or cannonballs farther than 2 miles.

On March 9, 1862, the Monitor and the Confederate ship Virginia, an ironclad built over the body of the USS Merrimack, blasted each other for hours in an inconclusive battle at Hampton Roads. The confrontation nonetheless signaled the end of wooden warships and the start of the age of armored battleships.

On learning of the clash, the first between ironclads, the British Royal Navy, the world's pre-eminent naval force, canceled the construction of all wood warships, historians say. The Union began building a whole new class of Monitor-type vessels.

Sank in squall

Nine months later, the Monitor was under tow off Cape Hatteras to a new assignment when it encountered a violent squall and went down on New Year's Eve, killing 12 crew members and four officers.

The ship remained lost until 1973. Scientists found the battered remains 16 miles off Cape Hatteras lying upside down and covered in sand and sponges. It lay at a depth of 230 feet. The heavy iron turret, which tore loose in the sinking, was pinned near the stern.

In 1975, the Monitor was named the nation's first marine sanctuary, protecting the wreck from treasure hunters. But federal officials were nonetheless eager to recover remains of the famed ship for public display.

A loose hull plate and signal lantern came up in 1977, and the anchor in 1983. Federal experts judged that deterioration was quickening over the years, so they formed plans in late 1997 and early 1998 for more extensive retrievals.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which guards the wreck, wrote the recovery plan and solicited aid. The Navy agreed to do the heavy lifting, and the Defense Department agreed to foot much of the bill. For its part, the Mariners' Museum was delighted to receive a steady flow of artifacts.

Scholars threw themselves into mastering what was known about the ironclad, examining hundreds of books, photographs, blueprints, news articles and letters from crew members.

"We had to learn everything possible about how the Monitor was put together so we could figure out how best to take her apart," said Jeff Johnston, a historian at the Monitor sanctuary.

Delicate work

The work was delicate. After more than a century in seawater, the iron was much dissolved and weakened. Half-inch-thick plates had eroded in some places to wisps.

Nonetheless, experts were able to recover successfully the 9-foot propeller in 1998, a 10-foot shaft section in 2000 and the 40-ton engine last year.

Now, the huge gun turret is poised for recovery. On July 5, Navy divers cut away a 30-ton section of hull and armor that had pinned down the turret, exposing it for the first time in 140 years.

Then, on July 17, a mechanical claw was lowered into the depths. The tips of its eight fingers were slowly positioned under the turret.

Navy divers excavating the Monitor's gun turret in preparation for the lifting found two long bones, which appear to be human. If so, they will probably eventually be buried with full military honors.

Up the coast, in Virginia at the Mariners' Museum, conservators are using 12 large tanks to treat items already recovered. An octagonal tank 14-feet high and 32-feet wide awaits the turret.

Its transport from Carolina waters to Newport News will be a race against time. Once recovered from the sea, salt-encrusted iron can form iron chloride crystals. If an artifact is exposed to air too long, the crystals can multiply and split the iron.

At the museum, the parts are lowered into large vats that hold water laced with chemicals like sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide that let the solutions conduct electricity. Conservators then run mild currents through the recovered metallic parts, breaking up the corrosive iron chlorides. The process also loosens marine encrustations.

It can take years for a crusty iron artifact to be restored. In the case of the engine and turret, the process may take 10 years or more, experts said.

But insights are already accruing, especially from artifacts made of metals other than iron, which in some cases suffer less damage from sea water. For instance, the copper face of the engine register has yielded its testament to the wreck's identity.

Glass items displayed

Easiest of all to conserve is glass. Bottles can often be cleaned and readied for exhibition in days or weeks, and some of the Monitor's are on display at the museum.

Recently, Navy divers found glass hydrometers from what had been an instrument chest before it disintegrated. The devices measured the specific gravity of liquids, especially seawater used in the boilers, conservators said. Still preserved in the hydrometers, even broken ones, were delicate paper scales.

The hydrometers helped the crew keep boiler water from becoming too briny, a problem that would raise its boiling point and cut heating efficiency, forcing the Monitor to take on coal more often.

"This is great stuff," Peterson, the museum conservator, said. "It means you had to be good to do this."

In a recent letter, President Bush praised the museum for preserving the remains, calling such work "an important service in these challenging times."

The museum recently announced that in collaboration with the federal ocean agency it planned to build a $30 million center in Newport News to display the Monitor artifacts and house related scholarly materials. It is to open in 2007.

Naval experts say a total of perhaps 20 percent to 25 percent of the Monitor may eventually be displayed.

Pieces of the center are falling into place. Last year, the museum obtained the papers and letters of Isaac Newton, an engineer on the ship. They complement the already acquired letters of George S. Geer, a fireman.

"To have the engine and the letters of the people who ran the engine, that's cool," said Josh Graml, the museum's librarian.

The experts resurrecting the Monitor hope to learn more about the revolutionary ironclad as the restorations move ahead.

"A lot of this machinery is heavily concreted," Mr. Johnston of the Monitor sanctuary said. "Hopefully, through conservation, its secrets will be revealed."

History of the ironclad Monitor, 1861

Aug. 3: U.S. Navy places ads in Northern newspapers inviting designers to submit plans for ironclad warships. Swedish inventor John Ericsson writes to Abraham Lincoln, offering to build a vessel "that within 10 weeks after commencing the structure I would engage to be ready to take up position under the Rebel guns at Norfolk."

Oct. 4: Ericsson contracts with the Navy to build the Monitor for $275,000.1862

Jan. 30: On its launch day, most bystanders ridicule "Ericsson's Folly," expecting it to sink. To their surprise, it floats, and to within 3 inches of his designed water line.

March 8: Monitor arrives near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay with orders to protect the Minnesota, which had run aground trying to help victims of an attack by the Confederacy's ironclad, Virginia.

March 9: The two ironclads clash. The Confederate ironclad carries more guns than the Monitor, but it is slow, clumsy and prone to engine trouble. The Monitor is faster and more maneuverable. Neither ironclad seriously damages the other in their four hours of fighting, though the Virginia is prevented from attacking any more of the Union's wooden ships.

May 11: Josiah Tattnall, the commander of the Virginia, orders his ship run aground at Craney Island and destroyed. Tattnall felt his ship couldn't get around Union forces on the Virginia and Carolina coasts or make it up the James River to Richmond.

Christmas: Monitor Commander J.P. Bankhead receives orders to move his vessel south. The officers and crew welcome the chance to end the boredom of blockading a secure harbor.

Dec. 31: A storm sinks the Monitor off Cape Hatteras.1973

August: A Duke University team announces that the Monitor has been found in 240 feet of water, about 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, spurring enthusiastic proposals for raising it. Government officials wrestle with how to protect it.1975

Jan. 30: The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary is created to protect and preserve the wreck.1977

July, August: NOAA performs its first expedition to the site using an untethered, four-man submersible.1998

June: With help of Navy divers, the propeller (which is 9 feet in diameter) and an 11-foot portion of its wrought-iron shaft are recovered.2001

July 16: The ironclad's 36-ton steam engine is raised to the surface by a crane. The engine had been weakened by 139 years of corrosion, so all its components - cylinder, valve chest, shafts, rods and levers - had to be secured by dozens of cables and straps.2002

July, August: A team works to recover the famous turret and its two Dahlgren cannons. The turret, with the cannons inside, is estimated to weigh nearly 150 tons.2007

A $30 million Monitor Center will open at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va. It'll be a showcase for artifacts from the wreck. - The Virginian-Pilot

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