The Port of Call Blog

10,000 Items Catalogued (cont.)

Here is our final guest blog post, from Alex, who worked with us this past summer during the big drive to the finish line. Alex, yours is the last word:

Memo from Irwin Berent to John Newton, ca. 1980, MS0164, Irwin M. Berent Collection

Memo from Irwin Berent to John Newton, ca. 1980, MS0164, Irwin M. Berent Collection

Hello Readers! I am an intern at the Library this summer working on materials under the Battle of Hampton Roads Grant, mostly with materials from the Irwin Berent and Ernest Peterkin Collections. I have found the experience very worthwhile and it has been an intriguing glimpse into the world of Archival and Library Science. I wanted to share with you all one of the documents that I personally found to be the most compelling while I was cataloging.

This letter, from the Irwin Berent Collection, is actually written by Berent himself to John Newton. The letter is requesting the possibility of Berent being hired as an archivist if and when there is some type of Tidewater Monitor – Merrimack Museum, Library, and Archives created. Although Berent worked under Newton, they seemed to be good friends as they shared many interests, especially the Monitor and Merrimack. As such, the letter is written in a rather informal fashion and, if you take the time to read through it, some parts are quite funny. This letter gave me the most insight into the kind of young man that Berent was and therefore helped me to get to know him better. Since I was working through a lot of material created by him, documents like this one were priceless in that they helped me to better comprehend and analyze other materials by Berent.

I found this letter in particular very easy to relate to since I am a rising senior at CNU and will soon be seeking employment. Almost two-thirds of the letter is just Berent listing his achievements, somewhat awkwardly in my opinion. I often feel the same way when promoting myself for a position or internship. Although I know that self-promotion is healthy and necessary, it is reassuring that others, such as Berent, have taken the same plunge as I will and aren’t ashamed of listing their every achievement and ability to pursue their dreams and goals.

Thanks, Alex. All of us wish that you and your colleagues may pursue and achieve your dreams and goals, the way that Berent did. For those of you interested in how Irwin Berent has fared in the last 34 years, please have a look at his online bio. He has been a very busy man!

10,000 Items Catalogued (Cont.)

Here, readers, is another post from Allie, a student volunteer whose work helped us this past summer. Allie, the floor is yours:

Page 1 of Letter from Fran DuCoin to E.W. Peterkin, MS390, Series 6.1

Letter from Fran DuCoin to E.W. Peterkin, MS390, Series 6.1

Page 2 of DuCoin letter

Page 2 of DuCoin letter

Hello readers, this summer I spent the months of June and July interning at the Mariner’s Museum Library in Newport News and working on the Battle of Hampton Roads Grant. As a history major, I am looking into various career possibilities and working with archives is one of those options. I worked with a great many fascinating items over the summer but my favorite piece by far was a simple letter written from a man named Francis DuCoin to the main collector of the documents I was dealing with, Ernest Peterkin. The letter was the one piece that really struck me because I think that it captures the real purpose and importance of having an online catalog of the materials in the archives.

Francis DuCoin was a man living in Jensen Beach, Florida in 1984 and who had a passion for the U.S.S. Monitor. He wrote to Peterkin often, passing along information he had gathered through studying the ship and asking Peterkin for any news or material he had gathered himself. In the letter I have chosen DuCoin writes that it has been a year since they last wrote to one another and that he has had no real news on the Monitor apart from a small newspaper article and a segment on nightline. He asks if Peterkin ever published any of the books he was working on and for the results of an expedition to the ship’s site. DuCoin goes on with detailed questions about the expedition and asks for measurements of the ship in order to build a model.

The reason this letter was my favorite piece to work with was because it really shows why having an online catalog is so important for people like Francis DuCoin who live far away and do not have the ability to come view documents in person. This gives real meaning to the work I spent doing throughout the summer. By cataloging and helping in the effort to digitize the numerous records available in these collections, the Library is expanding the number of people who will be able to view the documents and people like Francis DuCoin will have all the information at their fingertips. Most of all, the document shows how different access to information has become over the thirty years since DuCoin wrote this letter.

What Allie didn’t know is that Fran DuCoin was, and is, a great friend of the Monitor and continues to come and help with the work nearly every summer.

10,000 Items Catalogued (Cont.)

So how, you might ask, does a small Library and even smaller Photographic Services staff undertake and complete the digitization and cataloguing of 10,000 items in the space of 12 months? We may have declared victory, but victory belongs as well to a veritable army of interns and volunteers we found when the crisis was upon us. Twenty-two young men and women from around the Commonwealth came to our aid when we most needed them. They gave us anywhere between 12 and 162 hours apiece of their service. Considering how detail-oriented and repetitive the work can be, even 12 hours is grueling.They added not only much-needed labor but also a great spirit of camaraderie and good humor to the place. We are so grateful to them! And we hope they learned something about archival and library science in the mix.

I have asked a few of these volunteers to write in and tell us which piece they remembered most and why. What you will see are their own words. Here, then, is what Ashley wrote:

Sailing Orders

“CSS Virginia Orders for Observers of Battle of Hampton Roads Reenactment” from MS0164, Irwin M. Berent Collection.

The “Sailing Orders” was the first item I catalogued…ever. I’ve done some basic data entry before but nothing as precise as cataloguing. This was my first real taste of the precision it takes to make these records. Until I started working on this record I didn’t realize that everything we were working on would eventually be put online for everyone to see. I still wasn’t completely sure how to do everything and I was pretty nervous about making mistakes. Then I thought about it and remembered every record goes through numerous checks before the librarians declare them “complete.” After that I dove right in and started creating my first record.

The first part of making records, at least when you’re new like I was, is creating stub files. Stub files are incomplete records that don’t have the description or the “aboutness” tags. So after I created the stub file for this item and the other items in the box I had to go back and create the full records. One thing I realized after going back was how much easier records are when you have more information. I had no context for the “sailing orders” or Richard Curtiss and didn’t know a whole lot about the Battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. When I went back to make the full record I realized the “sailing orders” were for a historical reenactment of the Battle of Hampton Roads that occurred during the 125th Anniversary Commemoration Celebration. Suddenly everything made sense and came together.

As a native of Hampton Roads, I was born and raised in Chesapeake before I went to college; I grew up learning about the Civil War and the “Battle of the Ironclads.” We even have a tunnel we call the Monitor-Merrimack. It was great learning about the people involved in the battle and seeing what they had to say. I also became really familiar with fans and researchers of the Battle. Irwin Berent spent a decade researching the battle and its participants and helped to organize a “reunion” for the descendants of the participants that included speeches and a historical reenactment. I feel like I’ve accomplished so much this summer and I’m super excited that something I created will be used for years to come. And to make the icing on the cake even sweeter, I’m taking a Civil War class this semester and I feel like I could teach the class period that covers the Battle of Hampton Roads!

10,000 Items Catalogued (Cont.)

In my last post, I said that the Library had just completed a massive cataloguing project of items related to the U.S. Steam Battery Monitor and the C.S. Ironclad Virginia. These items came from 59 different archival and research collections. Among them are extremely rare photographs collected by an early Monitor “groupie” in the 1880s by the name of Frank Pierce, letters from sailors aboard Monitor and from witnesses to the Battle of Hampton Roads, both Union and Confederate, unique plans and drawings of Monitor, and receipts from vendors for materials used in her construction. There are also research notes of people who did important historical work on the two ironclads and genealogical work on their officers and crew. Here, then, is an annotated summary of some of the collections we have catalogued. Enjoy!

Virginia's ram

Virginia‘s ram

  • MS0006, Elwin Eldredge Collection on John H. Morrison – Research notes on the development of armored vessels, including great manuscript sketches of Virginia‘s bow.

  • MS0008, William de Rohan Papers – Admiral Dahlgren’s wayward brother whose concept drawings of turreted warships were part of the Zeitgeist that created Monitor.
  • MS0010, George S. Geer Family Papers – Wonderful letters to his wife Martha from Monitor, written from the enlisted man’s point of view.
  • MS0013, Isaac Newton Jr. Family Papers – Ranging collection of materials from the son of the founder of New York City’s Citizen’s Line of steamers, who became first engineer on Monitor.
  • MS0014, William Monegan Letters – Letters from this soldier of the 10th New York Volunteers who witnessed the Battle of Hampton Roads and other battles of the Peninsular Campaign.
  • MS0016, John L. Worden Collection – Document collection and stunning photograph album of the officers and crew of both Monitor and Virginia, put together by Frank Pierce.
William De Rohan ironclad design

William De Rohan ironclad design

  • MS0080, Samuel Gilbert Webber Letters and Sketch – Letters home to his sweetheart from the surgeon on the steamer Rhode Island, the ship that towed Monitor on its last voyage.

  • MS0334, Arthur B. Upshur Transcript of a John Cary Letter – Transcription of a letter from officer John B. Cary, probably of the 32nd Virginia Infantry, to his sister with details of the Battle of Hampton Roads from the Confederate viewpoint.
  • MS0335, Battery Associates Records on Monitor Design and Construction – Receipts for materials and payments kept by John Griswold, treasurer of the group of investors that, with John Ericsson, built the Monitor.
  • MS0363, Jacob Nicklis Family Letters – Small collection of letters to his father from a crewman who died on Monitor.
  • MS0376, Thomas F. Rowland Collection – Original plans and an original contract from the man whose company, Continental Works, built Monitor.
  • MS0385, Willie Anne Wright Photographs – Modern pinhole photography, some of which is abstract, of the Museum’s Monitor evocation and of re-enactors on her deck.
  • MS0555, Collection of Battle of Hampton Roads Ships Plans – Plans of Monitor, Merrimack and Virginia, including 3 original John Luke Porter plans of Virginia.
Martha Geer

Martha Geer

Thomas Fitch Rowland

Thomas Fitch Rowland

Monitor's deck, past/present, by Willie Anne Wright

Monitor‘s deck, past/present, by Willie Anne Wright

Monitor's Propeller

Monitor‘s Propeller

Concept drawing of what will become Virginia by J. L. Porter

Concept drawing of what will become Virginia by J. L. Porter

10,000 Items Catalogued

Almost exactly one year ago today, staff member Aya Eto brought to your attention a project we had then just begun in earnest, a project to catalog 10,000 items relating to the construction, service, destruction, legacy, and research on the U.S. Steam Battery Monitor and the C.S. Ironclad Virginia. You can read what she wrote here and see a few of Jacob Nicklis’s letter’s home to his father. Nicklis died in the foundering of Monitor off Cape Hatteras in 1862.


IMLS logo

You might recall from Aya’s post that this project was funded in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The IMLS, as it is called in the biz, has funded a several Mariners’ Museum initiatives in the past and we have been very fortunate to have their continued support for this one. According to the terms of the grant, then, we are to photograph and catalog 10,000 items for our own catalog, and send as many of those to WorldCat as are worthy of going up. I’ll talk more about WorldCat in a subsequent blog entry.

Well folks, the unofficial news this morning, almost 1 year to the day after Aya wrote that blog entry, is that we have finished! There is some normal clean-up to do, records to review and correct, items that are waiting to upload to WorldCat, that sort of thing, but we are declaring VICTORY! The photography is complete, the catalog records have been created and the photos attached.

You’ll hear a good bit about how we did what we did and what it all means for you, maritime lovers and Civil War history buffs, in the coming days and weeks. We’ll have some guest blog entries from volunteers and staff members who helped us along the way. We’ll give you a list of the collections we catalog, and some tips for searching our catalog for them. And we’d love to hear from you, once you’ve seen the results, and see what you think.

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 million 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.