The Port of Call Blog

One Man’s Trash….

Well, you know the old saying. But here’s a story from Cornwall (England) to get Lego enthusiasts making vacation plans for the southern UK beaches. Read the full story from the BBC here

Lego octopus

Lego octopus from Devon, England. Courtesy of the BBC

Seems that a rogue wave hit the container ship Tokio Express back in 1997 and washed off several containers about 20 miles west of Land’s End. One of the containers was chock-a-block with Legos, about 5 million of them. 17 years later, they’re still washing up.

And not just in England. One of them has been identified as far away as the beaches of Victoria, Australia!

The interest in all this to me is that some of this flotsam is actually considered quite rare and valuable. Here’s a quote from the story:

“These days the holy grail is an octopus or a dragon. I only know of three octopuses being found, and one was by me, in a cave in Challaborough, Devon,” [writer Tracey] Williams told the BBC. “It’s quite competitive. If you heard that your neighbor had found a green dragon, you’d want to go out and find one yourself.”

Do you readers recall the exhibit Message in a Bottle from 2009 at The Mariners’ Museum on beach and ocean pollution? The Lego story reminded me very strongly of the wonderful student sculptures outside the Museum and those fantastic photos of trash on the beach by Andy Hughes. I’ll leave you with one of those photographs. While such trash certainly is not treasure to me, it was to Andy Hughes and to the student sculptors. In the eye and hand of the artist, miraculous transformations do take place.

GWITHIAN BEACH, WEST CORNWALL, ENGLAND, by Andy Hughes, MS0383, Andy Hughes Photographs, The Mariners' Museum Library

GWITHIAN BEACH, WEST CORNWALL, ENGLAND, by Andy Hughes, MS0383, Andy Hughes Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library

Concordia Flies the Blue Peter!

For the first time in over 2 years, the raised hulk of the Costa Concordia hoisted the Blue Peter, the flag now simply known as Papa that indicates a ship is ready to sail. And so, tugs rotated her and headed nor’nor’east and away from the coast of the Isola del Giglio. Exceptional photographic coverage of the moment can be found here.

It is strange coincidence that led to our cataloguing a book just yesterday on the Concordia that was published in 2006. Entitled simply Costa Concordia, this lovely book by Tiziana Lorenzelli gives the reader a great sense of the splendor of the liner just after it was launched. It was clearly the pride of Costa Crociere, the cruise ship company that had the liner built. This book is rather haunting to me in the same way our Titanic materials are. People died aboard this ship, and it is hard to square the beauty of it with its terrible fate and the tragedy of 32 lives confirmed lost.


Papa (formerly known as Blue Peter), courtesy of


While not everything that glitters is gold in a shipwreck, one particular wreck that has been widening eyes and dropping jaws since 1988 is back in the news. That is the wreck of the SS Central America, a Pacific Mail steamer sunk in a hurricane off Hatteras in 1857. This past week, the side wheeler was back in the news with word from US District Court in Norfolk that the salvage company’s operational reports and an inventory of the the magnificent treasure of gold pieces could be made public. See a detailed report at

SS George Law

SS George Law, later known as Central America, in The Mariners’ Museum collections

The reason the salvors were in court in the first place is a tale of treachery. The marine engineer who found the hulk in 1988, a man named Tommy Thompson, worked to salvage a hoard of gold bars and gold coins. The Central America, it seems, carried a cargo of $2 billion in gold, now worth orders of magnitude more. It appears that the gentleman took some of the salvaged gold worth about $50 million, sold it, spent some or all of it on legal wranglings, and walked away without paying his investors a red cent. There is a warrant out for his arrest, and he is considered a federal fugitive (see the story here).

SS Central America

Engraving of SS Central America in Frank Leslie’s, 1857

The story of Central America‘s sinking was reported in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on Sept. 26, 1857. A violent gale hit on Friday, Sept. 11. The storm sail set to keep the vessel into the wind blew out, the vessel heeled and fell off into the trough of the sea, and setting more canvas was useless, as it just blew out. Passengers started to bail, and bailed all night and into the next day. By that point the brig Marine was in place to rescue passengers, but of the only 5 lifeboats on a ship carrying nearly 600 people, at the end only one was serviceable. The ship sank under them around 8:00 that evening. Only 166 passengers and crew were saved.
The loss of that much gold at this point in the Republic’s history was enough to set off a financial panic. The Panic of 1857 had a number of causes, from waning demand abroad for American goods to a collapse in land prices and railroad stocks domestically to the political upheaval caused by the Dred Scott Decision and the nullification of the Missouri Compromise. The loss of the cargo of SS Central America was enough to push the country over the financial edge. It never fully recovered until after the Civil War.

Foundering of SS Central America

Final moments of the SS Central America, woodblock print in The Mariners’ Museum collections.

SS Central America

A great model of SS Central America. Photograph in the Elwin Eldredge Collection at the Library.

She Floats!

Well, actually, she doesn’t. The Costa Concordia, that is.

We have been covering the shipwreck and massive salvage operation of Concordia since almost the very beginning of our Port of Call blog. Bill Edwards-Bodmer brought it to our attention in a short post on January 16, 2012 (see it here). At that point, no one knew that 2 1/2 years later, that ship would still be off of the island of Giglio.

It has been a very long road, but this morning crews pumped enough air into the sponsons welded onto the sides of Concordia to float the hulk about 6 ft. off the underwater platform where it had been sitting on its bottom since last September. The sponsons are floating, and they are carrying the ship up with them. The BBC has an excellent time-lapse video at their site now up that shows the entire operation, from refloating to moving the wreck about 30 meters further away from shore, where they have moored her with heavy chains to the sea floor.

With no evidence so far of any quantity of the toxic soup sloshing around inside the hulk leaking out, engineers and the entire island are breathing a sigh of relief.

Now the end is in sight. The National Post reports that towing to Genoa, where Costa Concordia was built and where she will be broken up, will begin next week. Stay tuned!

Charles W. Morgan sails again!

While we are on the subject of important Number 2′s (see our July 2 post here), I’ve been watching with fascination the re-launch of the Charles W. Morgan, the second oldest ship in America, and her 38th voyage around ports in the Northeast. Built in 1841, the whaler Morgan is the last of her kind and is only junior to the USS Constitution in terms of age. She is the oldest commercial ship afloat in the US. See her itinerary here.

Charles W. Morgan

An engraving of the Charles W. Morgan by Charles Wilson, in the collections of The Mariners’ Museum

Many of our readers have probably been to Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and been aboard Morgan for a tour. You may remember her in the days before 1974 when she was partially buried at her dock to preserve the hull. If you have been to Mystic in the past few years, you will be very aware that the Morgan has been undergoing careful restoration work since November of 2008. This has been a massive undertaking for the museum and would have never been possible without the support of a number of committed program partners and individuals. To all those organizations and individuals, we at Mariners’ thank you for supporting our country’s maritime heritage.

Now, here are a few photos from our collection of the Charles W. Morgan during what was thought to be her last voyage afloat, on her way from Dartmouth, MA to Mystic in 1941. Photographs by Joseph Gordon. Enjoy!

Charles W. Morgan

Photo of ship on her last voyage afloat, New London to Mystic, Conn. Nov. 8, 1941, in Fisher’s Island Sound

Captain Sinclair Tucker

Captain Sinclair Tucker of Fairhaven, Mass., manned the pumps on last trip.

Crowds during last voyage

As Morgan goes through a drawbridge, crowds watch. A Bob Hope film is playing at the movies!

Charles W. Morgan at Mystic

Charles W. Morgan at Mystic, close to her new permanent berth.

Captain Tripp and Carl C. Butler

At end of journey Captain Tripp presents ship’s registry papers to Carl C. Butler, curator of Mystic Museum.

Morgan in permanent berth

Charles W. Morgan, detail of stern, November 1950.

Puget Sound in the News

Those of us living around the Chesapeake Bay, the largest marine estuary in the United States, are generally not used to thinking about the existence of the second largest marine estuary in the country, Puget Sound.  The Sound is massive and has incredible bio-diversity, and is a fitting Number 2 to our Number 1. While organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and their allies in and out of Congress have been staunch defenders of the Bay for many years, less national attention has been given to Puget Sound.  Today, however, members of Congress from the Washington State delegation are announcing their support for a new initiative to create a National Heritage Area in 13 counties along the south side of the Sound.  See the article in the Washington state newspaper ”Olympian” here for details.

The designation of a National Heritage Area was new to me, so I had to look it up. According to the National Park Service’s FAQ on them, “National Heritage Areas (NHAs) are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape.” They differ from many such areas in that they are not publicly owned. They are managed generally by public-private partnerships or organizations whose mission is the stewardship of the area in question. Evidently we have one National Heritage Area in Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District. It is managed by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.

It is remarkable to me that areas of the Chesapeake do not have this designation. Personally, I’d love to see any and all approaches to saving the Bay exploited to their fullest.

Puget Sound ferry Kalakala

Puget Sound ferry Kalakala, from the Harold Huey Collection

New exhibit: “Imagined Depths: Sea Monsters in Cartographic History”

Good afternoon, Readers!

I wanted to share some great news with you today. Do you recall this post from January, “Rare Maps & Sea Monsters“? Well Mariaelena DiBenigno has been very busy since then curating, “Imagined Depths: Sea Monsters in Cartographic History”, an exhibit that is now on display at The Mariners’ Museum Library.

I welcome you to come and play a little “Where’s Waldo” so you can see all of the mythical and fantastical creatures that decorate our rare maps and books from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. If that’s not enough to draw you in, take a peek at the artifacts on display that incorporate the sea creature motif into their design.

My favorite piece so far has been, “Cuba insula. Hispaniola insula.“, Gerhard Mercator, 1611. Mariaelena managed to find a sea creature that awkwardly makes eye contact with you…

Learn more about these sea monsters and the role they played by stopping by! We are open to the public Monday-Wednesday, Friday, 12p-5p, and on Thursday from 12p-7p.

Let’s Take a Dive

Good morning, readers!

I wanted to share a few interesting photographs with you today to show you some of the pieces we have on the early diving suit because they weren’t always so sleek and appealing. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you ran away if someone happened to bring out one of these “antique” suits displayed below on your tropical scuba diving excursions…


PSKR381              PSKR382              PSKR386
                      1.                                                                 2.                                                            3.

1. Dunn Diving Head
MS163, Box 16
By Robert G. Skerrett; Submarine Photo. Co.

Side view of the underwater helmet.


2. Repairing Shoe Using Dunn Diving Head
MS163, Box 16
By Robert G. Skerrett; Submarine Photo. Co.

The diving head in action.
Written on verso: Repairing shoe using Dunn Diving Head. Submarine Photo Co. Miami, Fla.


3. The Dunn Diving Hood Makes Diving Easy
MS163, Box 16
By Robert G. Skerrett; Submarine Photo. Co.

A diver getting into the water.
Written on verso: Going down on short notice to untangle a line in a boats propeller.

P924                           PSKR371
                                           1.                                                                                        2.

1. Up from the Bottom
By Daily Press, Inc.

A diver in full diving suit holding onto the steel cable, standing on diving platform.


2. Underwater View of Diver on Platform Being Lowered
MS163, Box 16
By Robert G. Skerrett; Submarine Photo. Co.

View showing diver on platform being lowered underwater alongside a ship.




Frontal view of Leavitt all metal deep water diving suit
MS0163, Box 16
By Robert G. Skerrett; Submarine Photo. Co.

Written on verso:
A frontal view of the Leavitt all-metal deep water diving suit. The only connection with the surface is a special steel cable by which the diver is lowered and raised. This cable has in its core a telephone circuit which permits the diver to maintain vocal communications with person on the salvage craft. This particular suit is equipped with heavy rubbers gloves which could be used up to 150 feet. At greater depths the suit would be fitted with pincers or tongs operated from within sleeves of the armor.

Can you identify this building?

Good morning, Readers,

Today I am hoping that you can help me with something that has been driving me crazy…

As you know, we have been working hard on our IMLS grant that is allowing us to catalog and digitize our archival resources that involve the Battle of Hampton Roads. One piece in series 13.5, the Jerry Lee Harlowe Collection of the Monitor Collection Associated Records (MS0390) has quite a lot of people stumped:

Monitor float
It’s a postcard with an image of the Monitor parade float, but what I have been trying to figure out is where this event took place. Knowing the geographic location will enhance the catalog record that I am trying to create for this piece, so if you know, please leave a comment!

Underwater Photography in 1913

Lately, we’ve been having 70° days here in Newport News and I can’t help but daydream about the beach.
Today, I wanted to share a few of the images that we have on underwater photography, specifically MS0175, the collection of John E. Williamson Photographs.

Collection MS0175 consists of photographs taken by John Ernest Williamson, a photographer for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot until 1913. Williamson is recognized as the first person to successfully photograph under water and actually went on to work on feature films such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island. Below I’ll show you some images that were taken to chronicle a dive on the wreck of a blockade runner in the Bahamas.

I hope that this post will make you want to take a dip… Or, at the very least, come by for a visit sometime soon to view the rest of these images in person.


P5000WILLIAMSON              P5013WILLIAMSON

Left:                                                                               Right:
Cutaway view illustrating how the diving  bell  was              Underwater diving bell used by John Ernest
used for underwater photography                                Williamson for underwater photography
MS0175.027                                                                     MS0175.038

Charles Williamson, a sea captain from Norfolk, Virginia, and father of John E. Williamson, invented a deep-sea tube made of a series of concentric, interlocking iron rings, which facilitated easy communication and plentiful air down to depths of up to 250 feet. Originally intended to be used for underwater repair and for ship salvage, his son realized that his father’s mechanism could also be used to obtain undersea photographs.

Above left, an exterior view of the diving bell is illustrated in order to reveal how an operator could use an early movie camera by sitting inside. Above right, a photograph of the diving bell on land.



Underwater wreck of confederate blockade-runner
By John Ernest Williamson and Virginia Ferguson

Written on verso:
Wonderful depth to this. Top of reef is fully 75 feet away from the chamber. Have a fine panoramic view of this in movie with thousands of fish darting around past camera in schools.






Underwater scene taken from a diving bell
By John Ernest Williamson

A peaceful underwater scene taken from the diving bell during the dive on the wreck of a blockade runner in the Bahamas.








Underwater Scene
By John Ernest Williamson

A view of the sea floor as seen from the interior of the diving bell.