When we speak of the story of the USS Monitor and the people involved in that story, more often than not we are referencing the crew. There is however, another group of people who played a key role in the history of the Monitor and their stories are not always heard. I am referring to the people who built her; the craftsmen who actually created the parts that were brought together to build the USS Monitor. In the process of conserving artifacts recovered from the wreck site, we do from time to time encounter maker’s marks. Researching the people who created those marks tells a whole other side to the Monitor story.
I am treating a copper alloy valve that was removed from the front of the condenser. One of the first steps in treatment was the removal of the concretion still attached to the artifact. The removal of some concretion near the handle revealed a name and a place stamped in tiny block letters: John Powers New York. This is a name we had heard before as it also appears on a manometer. Our curator at the time, Anna Holloway, was able to find a reference to John Powers in an 1875 Goulding’s Business Directory of New York City. This was like finding the Yellow Pages’ ad for his business. John Powers is listed as the proprietor of the Manhattan Brass Foundry located at No. 438 East Tenth Street near Avenue D, New York. The entry states that the company does castings in brass and composition and that “All kinds of Ship and Boat work made to order” and “Repairs to Marchinery, etc punctually attended to.” Now having a name, address and an approximate date it was possible to use city directories and census records to put together the story of the life of John Powers.
John Powers was a pattern maker and machinist who lived in Manhattan in the mid nineteenth century. His wife’s name was Louisa. She had come to the United States from England with her family when she was a little girl. John and Louisa married young and had nine children. Five of whom were still living in 1900. The names of six of those nine children were Caroline, Julia, Franklin, Leonder, Alanson, and Jesse. Louisa’s mother, Susan Alexander, lived with the family when the children were young. I sincerely hope that John liked his mother-in-law as she lived with the family for at least five years. Two of the boys, Frank and Jesse, became machinists like their father when they were grown. Julia married a man named George White. He worked for the Board of Education as a clerk and later was the Secretary of the National Wall Paper Company. Julia and George had two daughters, Louisa and Adelle. Louisa became a school teacher.
John seems to have been an enterprising young man who did well for himself and his family. He started his own business before he was thirty five, a brass foundry and machinery. It is because he started this business that parts bearing his name ended up on the USS Monitor. I found two references to the brass foundry operated by John Powers in the 1890s. The first is from the Tenth Annual Report of the Factory Inspectors of the State of New York in 1896. There is an entry for a Brass Foundry and Machinery run by John Powers at 438 East 10th Street. He is listed as having 20 men working for him and having 58 hours of labour by minors. The entry also includes the fact that the business operated for eight hours on Saturday or Sunday. He received one citation from the factory inspectors; he was required to post a law. The second reference is from a publication called The Foundry from 1898. There is an entry that states “The Brass Foundry operated by John Powers at 438 East 10th Street New York City was damaged to the extent of $1000 by a fire June 18.”
The last reference to John and Louisa Powers that I could find was in the 1900 United States census. They were living with their daughter and son-in-law, Julia and George White. John was nearly 80 and said he was a merchant. John and Louisa told the census taker that they had been married for 53 years. They both lived long lives, and I hope they were good lives.
In all likelihood John Powers never set foot on the USS Monitor, but because of the work he did, his life is part of the story. It is a story with many moving parts that we will continue to learn about, but I think it is a story well worth telling.