Antebellum wreck identified off NJ coast
Some four decades after being discovered off the coast of New Jersey, scientists have finally been able to attach a name to a ship that sank more than 150 years ago.
The Robert J. Walker, a US Coast Survey vessel, sank in 1860 after being struck by a 250-ton commercial schooner. Twenty men aboard the Robert J. Walker lost their lives.
The accident was the worst in the history of the US Coast Survey or its successor, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The wreck was discovered 10 miles off the coast in 85 feet of water by fishermen in the 1970s.
However, its identity was a mystery until June when a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship conducting surveys for navigation safety in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy made a positive identification, according to Reuters.
“It’s estimated there are 3 million shipwrecks in the waters of the world,” said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office of national marine sanctuaries. “You can’t go out and look for every one, but sometimes the situation arises when you have an opportunity to do that. This was a perfect convergence of opportunity.”
Scientists used the wreck’s location and unique features such as rectangular portholes and engines to make the positive identification.
The Robert J. Walker was commissioned in 1847 and was one of the first iron-hulled steamers in the United States.
The ship was used by the Coast Survey to chart the Florida Keys and the area around Mobile, Ala., according to LiveScience.
With the War Between the States looming, the Coast Survey had stepped up its efforts to map harbors that would be strategically important during the war, the science news website added.
The ship had just finished surveying the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York on June 21, 1860, when the commercial schooner Fanny slammed into it about 10 miles off the New Jersey Coast. The ship sank in half an hour, and 20 of the 66 crew members died, according to Reuters.
In a newspaper interview, the Robert J. Walker’s quartermaster described the scene as the steamer sank within about 30 minutes.
“The men stayed by the steamer until she was sinking, and then, without confusion, such of them as could took to the boats,” Charles Clifford told the New York Herald. “Many of the crew went down with the steamer, however, clinging to the spars and portions of the wreck. … The captain stayed on board until the steamer went down, and just before she disappeared from sight jumped into the water, and was picked up by one of the boats.”
Speculation is that the U.S. Coast Survey didn’t conduct an inquiry into the cause of the collision or assign responsibility because of the impending Civil War, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted.
“Before this identification was made, the wreck was just an anonymous symbol on navigation charts,” Rear Adm. Gerd Glang, director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Coast Survey, said in a statement. “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.”
(Top: The Robert J. Walker, by W.A.K. Martin, 1852.)