Blog of the Collections Department

Fun Fact Friday – Museum Building

After our charter was put into place in June of 1930, a lot of exciting plans were made for our property.  As cultivation began on the park, lake, and dam (Lion’s Bridge), plans were also being drawn up for the proposed museum building.

original location of museum

The above image (dated February 27, 1931) shows the spot where the founders had originally intended for the main museum building to placed.  It was a spot on Lake Maury overlooking Lion’s Bridge and the James River.  Several plans and sketches were drawn up showing an impressive, rectangular building.


The above is just one of many sketches showing the building from various angles.  Although it is a giant rectangle, the front looks like the bow of a ship with the statue (which presumably would have been done by Anna Huntington) as the figurehead.  There would have been two main entrances, one on either of the short sides, and both would have bronze doors.

So why did this imposing structure never become reality?  Because Archer Huntington did not think it was the right fit for the museum.  He stated in a later dated April 4, 1931 that “My idea for the museum is a structure built not by architects but by engineers, and I think we can do this in the Yard.  The moment you attempt to produce an art building on the usual Greek or Roman lines, you have made something which will clash entirely with the exhibits, which are purely scientific and mathematical.”

Hence we ended up with a structure resembling buildings more of science and engineering, such as those in the shipyard.  As to why the museum ended up where it is today rather than on the lake, I don’t really know, but it is interesting to think about.

Way Back Wednesday

Robeson House 01-20-1932 (3)

This large house belonged to Edward John Robeson, Jr., an employee at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company who went into politics upon his retirement from the shipyard.  This image was taken January 20, 1932.  The house stood on a hill overlooking Lake Maury, Kettle Pond, and the James River, where the statue “Conquering the Wild” by Anna Hyatt Huntington now stands.Robeson House Demolished to Foundations, 08-1934

In August of 1934 the beautiful house was torn down to make way for the statue.

Conquering the Wild being prepared for shipment from NJ to TMM, 1934 (6)

These last two photos show “Conquering the Wild” being transported from NJ to The Mariners’ Museum in 1934.  Quite a task as that is a very large and heavy statue!Conquering the Wild being prepared for shipment from NJ to TMM, 1934 (1)

Artifact of the Month – Commonwealth Model

This month’s artifact is one of my favorite pieces in the collection.  It is a music box model of the steamboat Commonwealth.


Commonwealth was built in 1854-1855 by Lawrence & Foulkes in Greenpoint, Long Island, NY for the Norwich and New London Steamboat Company.  She was built for service between New York and Connecticut, and was commanded by Captain Jerome Wheeler Williams until 1864.  In 1860 she was acquired by the Stonington Line, and then by the Merchants Navigation and Transportation Company in 1863.  December 29, 1865, a fire at the wharf where Commonwealth was docked caused the ship to be destroyed by flames.

Print ca 1855 showing steamboat Commonwealth

Print ca 1855 showing steamboat Commonwealth

Captain Williams stayed on as Captain of the ship until his retirement in 1864, when he was presented with this music box model by the Norwich and New London Steamboat Company as a thanks for his service (lucky, lucky man!).  None of the boats under Captain Williams’ command ever had any serious accidents, which was pretty amazing back then.  This makes it pretty ironic that the year after he retired the boat caught fire and was destroyed.

The model was built ca 1863/1864 by John Dean Benton, a silversmith with Tiffany & Co.  It is made of gold and silver and houses a music box that plays ten tunes of the 1860’s, including ‘By Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon’ and ‘Nellie Bly’.  While playing the music, the paddlewheels and walking beam engine move.  It was exhibited in the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris where it, along with other items from Tiffany & Co., won bronze medal.  It was also quite damaged at this exposition with many of the pieces on top having been broken off and stolen.  It was repaired upon return to the US by Denton himself.

Water pitcher used on board Commonwealth with Captain Williams' name on one side. Given to the museum in 1948 by his granddaughter.

Water pitcher used on board Commonwealth with Captain Williams’ name on one side. Given to the museum in 1948 by his granddaughter.

What is also interesting to note is that while we did not purchase the model until 1947, The Mariners’ Museum became aware of the piece in 1929 at the New York World’s Fair.  Our buyers were visiting the fair and came across the model.  The owner, the granddaughter of Captain Williams, would not sell the piece as it meant a great deal to the family, but she promised to tell the museum if she ever did decide to sell.  Sure enough, a letter arrived to the museum in 1947 stating that the model was being sold at auction, and we jumped at the opportunity to purchase the piece.

Since that time, the Commonwealth model has become a favorite piece for many visitors although it hasn’t been on display for many years.  In September we pulled it out for our Gallery Crawl event and it was a hit!  The only unfortunate part is that the music box parts are too fragile to play, but we recently found an old recording of the music and are hoping to be able to digitize it (fingers crossed the old recording hasn’t been corrupted).

A special part of the presentation at the Gallery Crawl involved taking an endoscope to two small cabins on the model that are furnished and very difficult to see because they are so small.  They include chairs with actual fabric cushions, a table with wine and goblets, and carpet.


These images show the cabins in the front and rear, respectively.  Although a little difficult to see, the cabin in the rear has a line of sofas running around the outside wall.  It’s fun to compare these images to an actual image from the ship, which you can see here, on Wikipedia.  It appears that Benton may have actually been on the ship as the carpet and furniture seem similar to what is seen in the stereoscope.

Snap_009 Snap_013

The cabins weren’t the only surprises waiting for us.  Upon researching the model, I discovered an article that mentioned pennies from 1863/1864 being used for the axles in the paddlewheels.  I pulled out my flashlight and, sure enough, there they were!  Unfortunately they are very difficult to photograph, so I have the two photos showing one of the pennies and then what little text I could get to show up.

It is truly a fascinating piece and one of the gems of our collection.  I will definitely post again if we are able to digitize the old recording and post that for everyone to hear.

Life Magazine

Earlier this month I posted a picture of the cover of Life Magazine from 1955 showing our beautiful Lancaster Eagle.  Last weekend I just happened to be browsing in the Clifton Forge Antique Mall and saw stack upon stack of Life Magazine’s.  Sifting through them, I managed to find a copy of the one with our eagle.  Even though we already have one in our library, I went ahead and picked it up to put in our object file so anyone looking through the file for research will have quick access to it.


It’s really fun to see a colored shot from that time period as we mostly have black and white images.  I also enjoy trying to see if I can recognize the other pieces in the background.  The figurehead directly behind the eagle is Semiramis (ca 1894-1930) from the steam yacht Narada (ex. Semiramis).  The figurehead on the wall to the left is Merrie Monarch, attributed to the ship Merrie Monarch built in 1859 by J.H. Martin in St. Martins, New Brunswick.  Also to the left is a model of the Dollar Line representing two of their ships, President Hoover and President Coolidge, both of which began service in 1931.  It was the first model authorized to be built by our shipmodel builders in the early 30’s.  On the back wall of the gallery can partially be seen a half-model with a blue background.  This piece, ca 1939, is of the ship Great Britain and was built for showcase in the New York World’s Fair.  She is one of five half-models in our collection built for the New York World’s Fair.

A True Tale of Loss, Return and Thanks

IMG_2100Welcome back Blackfish Dart, object number WH 38!!   Returning to the museum after a 58 year vacation that had you traveling from Newport News, Virginia to Tennessee and then back again!!!

In 1957, WH 38 left the museum by hiding in the pants pocket of a young boy who visited the facility with a scouting group. The child accomplice assisted the dart’s escape by removing the piece from a display. In those days, the museum exhibits consisted of items spread across tables and pieces of plywood that were held up by wooden sawhorses. So escape was easy, and in the case of a number of artifacts, inevitable.

Despite the efforts of a scout leader who noticed the child take the dart from the display, insisted he put it back on the table and then watched him do so, the child and the dart were determined. They tried again and finally managed the escape when no one was looking. The liberation of WH 38 was discovered some time after the museum visit and the scout leader, being the honest and upstanding individual he was expected to be, swore he would someday return the dart to its proper home. But alas, the leader’s youthful age, lack of travel funds and uncertainty about the best way to return the object delayed his task.

A few days ago, the now not as youthful, not lacking in travel funds and not as uncertain scout leader set out on a trip from Tennessee to Virginia. His goal was to visit several deceased family members who reside in a nearby cemetery. But since he was already going to be in the area and since he was determined to honor the pledge he made long ago, the leader formulated a plan for the return of WH 38. He enlisted his wife’s help to prevent further escape attempts and the dart was confined to a securely closed compartment inside her purse for the trip back to the museum.

When they arrived, the scout leader confidently informed the young woman at the Admissions Desk of his intention and she summoned a member of the Collections Department from the depths of the museum storage areas out into the light of day to receive the object.   They listened as the leader shared what he knew about the dart’s escape and history as a fugitive from the museum and offered apologies on behalf of the anonymous child accomplice.   Instead of being angry, the museum staffers were delighted to see WH 38 return and exclaimed words of joy.  For this wasn’t the first time they had heard a similar story or had an object return from a vacation outside the museum walls.

After the official exchange of WH 38 for a heartfelt thank you and a few laughs, the honest and determined scout leader and his wife drove off into the sunshine with the satisfaction of having done a very good and honorable deed.

Artifact of the Month – Maple Leaf Carvings

This month’s artifact choice is a set of 9 maple leaf carvings that I have been researching the last few weeks.  When I first came across them I noticed that there was writing on the back regarding their particular histories, which for some reason was not in our computer system.  The story of the leaves starts with the man who carved them, Gilbert Nickerson of Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia.


He was known as the “Old Chairmaker” and collected wood from ships to make into chairs, maple leaves, and other interesting pieces.  In one of his chairs he is even reported to have used a piece from Titanic.  The southern area in Nova Scotia where Nickerson lived was rather treacherous for ships and so a great number of them were stranded or sank, causing lots of wood to drift ashore.

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The text on the above leaf says “This leaf is from wood from the American Ship Columbia, stranded in the spring of 1866 on Duck Island, near Bon Portag. She floated off, and finally came around on Prospect Island Shag Harbour where she was broken up. There is no record of her. This leaf was carved by the Old Charmaker, Shag Harbour.”  On the front of the leaf is a picture of Nickerson himself.  I’m not sure why he put a picture of himself on the leaf, but we have two like that and another one can be seen in the National Maritime Museum’s collection, here.

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This second leaf says “This leaf is from wood from the S.S. Carthagena stranded on Baccaro date not known, coal laden bound west. Her History not known. Leaf Carved by the Old Maple Leaf Carver. Shag Harbour. Call and see him.”  So it is clear that while Nickerson probably got a lot of joy out of carving these pieces, they were also used as advertisements to show his work.

Nickerson spent his whole life in Shag Harbour and died there on March 2, 1945.  He is buried at the Chapel Hill Cemetery.  His legacy continues to live on through his fantastic work.

Artifact in the Park update

Every seen a cannon fly?  Today I did and it was awesome!


Although I haven’t updated about it in a while, the Artifacts in the Park project is still ongoing.  For those who haven’t caught one of my earlier posts about the project, people can sponsor an object in our collection, generally cannons and anchors.  These objects then get cleaned up, repainted and put out in the park with a plaque for visitors to enjoy.  We have a number out already and more being worked on.  The objects can be seen here.

The cannon that flew today was being moved to a spot where it could more easily be worked on.  It is a 32-pound Naval Alger Cannon from 1847, made by C.A. & Co. (Cyrus Alger & Co., Boston, Mass.).  Hopefully it won’t be too long until this beauty is able to go out into the park.

Way Back Wednesday

1940 Hole in Great Hall-A

A couple of years ago I posted a similar picture showing this boat and hole from the outside.  You can see that here.  This is an interior shot showing our Portuguese fishing boat being moved into the building.  The boat is very large at over 50 feet long and 13 feet wide and so the only to get it into the building was to bust a hole in the wall.

Breaking ice on Deer Park Lake, 12-20-1932

This shot shoes men on the lake at Deer Park breaking ice, December 20, 1932


This image shows our courtyard, which at the time was used as gallery space (and is now mostly rental space).  There were items that people could interact with, including the hand-operated bilge pump from USS Hartford.  Dated 1965.

Life Magazine Photographer's Taking Pictures of Lancaster Eagle, 03-1955MDS00356

In March of 1955, Life Magazine came out to photograph the Lancaster eagle figurehead (carved by John Haley Bellamy) for the cover of their April 18th magazine.


Way Back Wednesday

Museum building with snow, Mar 9, 1947

To make everyone appreciate summer, here is a shot from March 9, 1947 of snow by our front entrance.  That clearly didn’t stop operations as there are a number of tire tracks on the roadOutdoor restroom in park July 1953

Proof that we did at one point have bathrooms in our park.  Unfortunately, park and trail visitors now only have port-a-potties to use.  Dated July 1953.

Deer Park, swan ducks geese turkeys 1938 - photo taken from blind on nesting island

Image of deer feeding and drinking at Deer Park, 1938.  To get the shot, our photographer hid in a blind on a nesting island.Joel Barlow barometer collection, January 1972

A great barometer display in 1972 from the Joel Barlow collection.  He later donated several barometers and other objects to the museum.

Artifact(s) of the Month-Bathing Suits

The museum has a large and varied collection of artifacts, which surprisingly includes bathing suits. This is a small sample of the types of bathing suits we have in our collection that have been worn throughout the past century.


This picture is from 1893 and was in a magazine advertising fashionable ‘bathing costumes’. Yes, this is actually what women wore to the beach during that time. Anything less was considered inappropriate.



On the right is a women’s and on the left is a men’s bathing suit from the 1920’s. Both are made of wool.


A women’s and men’s bathing suit from the 1940’s.


A women’s and boy’s bathing suit from the 1950’s.

As you can see there has been a significant change in bathing suits through the years, and the bathing suits in our collection highlight that. It is always interesting to see the different types of artifacts that our collection has!