The USS Monitor Center Blog

120-ton Wrought Iron Beauty

Good morning to all our readers. We’ve been very busy in the Batten Conservation Complex inside the USS Monitor Center over the past few weeks preparing to drain USS Monitor‘s 90,000-gallon revolving gun turret treatment tank for assessment.

Well guess what? The tank is now drained and Monitor‘s gun turret is visible in the open air for the first time in over three years. The excitement in the lab is palpable, and we have an ambitious two-week (July 27 – August 7) work window within the lab.

Monitor Turret out of alkaline solution

USS Monitor‘s revolving gun turret, July 27, 2015, as viewed from a work platform inside the conservation lab. Image courtesy of Jonathon Gruenke, Daily Press

We have already received a few e-mails from the general public asking us to post pictures of our work this week. I can promise you that we will be going that.  But in the meantime, I’d like to share some links to the latest media stories, including pictures and videos.

Monitor Turret in view

View of USS Monitor‘s gun turret from the visitor viewing windows inside the USS Monitor Center. Image courtesy of Adrin Snyder, Daily Press

The Daily Press (Mark St. John Erickson, Adrin Snyder, and Jonathon Gruenke) spent a few hours with us in the lab while we drained the turret tank. Mark wrote a great story and Adrin and Jonathon produced some amazing images and video, including a time-lapse video of the tank draining. Very impressive work.

The Richmond Times Dispatch (Alexa Welch Edlund) also visited the lab yesterday. Alexa posted a photo series and there is a video and interview with USS Monitor Foundation director John Quarstein on their website. I had trouble pulling a link for the video, but simply scroll down their web page and you’ll see the video.

Happy Conservator

Kate’s reaction is priceless after she opens the watertight door to the turret treatment tank and sees Monitor‘s gun turret in the open air for the first time since she was hired. Tina is also there to share the moment. Image courtesy of Jonathon Gruenke, Daily Press.

These links are a great place to start to learn more about what is happening inside the USS Monitor Center at The Mariners’ Museum. But even better would be for you to plan a visit to the museum between now and midday August 7 to see for yourself what all this great historical fuss is about! I promise you will not be disappointed.

Pay no attention to that turret behind the curtain…..or, door!



Today marks the beginning of the USS Monitor Center’s  two-week turret survey! The largest tank in  the Batten Conservation Complex is now drained and will stay that way until August 6th.

While the conservation staff is giving the turret some TLC, visitors are welcome to tour and explore all the facets the USS Monitor Center has to offer and to take a once-in-a-lifetime tour of the Wet and Dry Labs.

The USS Monitor Foundation is offering tours with our Chief Development Officer, John V. Quarstein. These tours will last approximately 1 hour and will grant visitors access to spaces rarely seen by museum guests. John has the un-matched story telling ability to bring the USS Monitor Center’s renowned exhibit, Ironclad Revolution, to life and will be showing visitor’s artifacts still too fragile for display. This chance should not be passed by! For a donation of $100, this chance could be yours. Space is limited and tours must be booked in advance. For more details, or to schedule a tour, please call 757-591-7721 or email

You can also view the conservators in action from the viewing platform in the USS Monitor Center, or from your own home, via webcam feeds found at




Oaktoberfest (Sort of…) and a Toast

A few years ago, one of our former conservators Elsa posted about the successful effort to disassemble the port gun carriage excavated from inside USS Monitor‘s gun turret. And last summer, Kate added a post about long-term efforts to stabilize the wooden internal components from the carriage.

One of my favorite pictures from the earlier posts shows former staff guru Gary hoisting an oak gun carriage side from the Wet Lab’s overhead crane for documentation and photography. Here it is in case you missed it:

MNMS-2002-001-469BD35 BT1

Gary with his hard-earned trophy.

Kate is back at it again. She is in the midst of efforts to perform further mechanical cleaning of the oak sides in preparation for the removal of iron bolts that run through the wood. The bolts firmly hold together the massive oak timbers that form a large portion of each gun carriage. Here is a series of X-rays we produced that show the iron bolts overlaid on a copy of the original plans for the gun carriages:

MNMS-2002-001-469BD35X-Ray copy

Composite digital image of an oak gun carriage side.

Unfortunately the wrought iron bolts and oak timbers are highly incompatible when it comes to our ongoing treatment method and these components must be separated for individual treatment followed by reassembly.

This morning Kate hoisted an oak gun carriage side from its desalination tank in preparation for a round of deconcretion and mechanical cleaning. I climbed the ladder above the treatment tank and took a series of pictures of Kate using the overhead crane to move the oak timbers to a treatment platform in another area of the Wet Lab. And yes, that is indeed a remote control for our overhead crane. Pretty cool, right?!

Kate lowering the remote-controlled 5-ton crane hoist.

Kate lowering the remote-controlled 5-ton crane hoist.

Kate rigging the hoist to the oak gun carriage side support platform.

Kate rigging the hoist to the oak gun carriage side support platform.

Kate adding tension to the lifting straps.

Kate slowly lifting the oak gun carriage side above its stainless steel treatment tank.

Kate sizing up her next move with the crane.

Kate sizing up her next move with the crane. She’s in the zone.

Kate with the oak gun carriage side fully removed from its treatment tank.

Kate with the oak gun carriage side fully removed from its treatment tank.

The last picture is my favorite. Kate is an extremely positive and pleasant person at all times. But she made it quite clear without saying a single word that I needed to put down my silly camera, get out of her way, and find something useful to do!

So please join me in a toast on this “Oaktoberfest” in July to celebrate all the honest, industrious, no-nonsense marine archaeological conservators past, present, and future who have and will make a difference in the long-term fate of the amazing collection of artifacts recovered from USS Monitor!

Rolling right along

After spending last week with the Monitor’s main steam engine, we are turning our attention to her condenser this week. Today we drained the tank and removed the anodes and reference electrodes.  Like the engine, the condenser just keeps looking better and better. Unfortunately the condenser isn’t really visible from our viewing platform, but it can be seen via our webcams. You will have no trouble seeing the turret from the viewing platform or the webcams once its tank is drained on July 27.

Peeking around the door of the condenser tank.

Peeking around the door of the condenser tank.

Just a quick snapshot of what you seeing looking into the condenser tank through the doorway. Official photographs will be taken tomorrow. Happy Monday.

An Oldie, But a Goodie

This week we’ve been very fortunate to spend some quality time with one of our oldest and dearest friends: USS Monitor‘s vibrating side lever steam engine. Much like our favorite ironclad, this salty lady is over 150 years old but keeps looking better every year.

We took the following pictures on Monday. Please remember that the engine currently sits upside down in the treatment tank.

Engine Forward

Monitor’s main steam engine is perched on its treatment rig within the 35,000-gallon treatment tank. The valve chests are visible on the lower left and lower right, reversing gear eccentrics are positioned dead center and top, and the engine’s cast iron support bed spans the entire top portion of this picture.


This view is taken aft, looking forward. Again, the engine is upside down. Note the massive nine-inch diameter wrought iron propeller shaft extending from the rear of the engine. Believe it or not, another 20-feet of propulsion shaft and packing seal extended from this nub before connection to the cast iron propeller.

This view is taken aft, looking forward. Again, the engine is upside down. Note the massive nine-inch diameter wrought iron propeller shaft extending from the rear of the engine. Believe it or not, another 20-feet of propulsion shaft and packing seal extended from this nub before connection to the cast iron propeller.

Here's a view of the port side of Monitor's engine. Simply massive.

Here’s a view of the port side of Monitor’s engine. Simply massive. Note the heavily corroded and almost wood-grain appearance of the wrought iron components. And that odd looking appendage extending on the upper left side of the picture was connected to the ship’s steam condenser.

Here she is from the starboard vantage. Dealing with the huge yet fragile main cylinder will be one of our most challenging aspects of this particular multi-decade conservation process.

Here she is from the starboard vantage. Dealing with the huge yet fragile main cylinder will be one of our most challenging aspects of this particular multi-decade conservation process.

This picture shows the original bottom of USS Monitor's engine support bed. This massive casting supported the engine and rested above a series of wrought iron cross-braces or supports. Note the two similar round holes in the engine bed. Navy divers created these in order to effectively secure the engine to its custom-built recovery rig prior to removal from the ocean in 2001.

This picture shows the original bottom of USS Monitor’s engine support bed. This massive casting supported the engine and rested above a series of wrought iron cross-braces or supports. Note the two similar round holes in the engine bed. Navy divers created these in order to effectively secure the engine to its custom-built recovery rig prior to removal from the ocean in 2001.

USS Monitor‘s main steam engine treatment tank will be drained through approximately mid-day Friday, June 19. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see the heart of the famed Union ironclad once again. She may be old, but we’re breathing new life into her at The Mariners’ Museum.

More Than Mere Leftovers in Our Fridge

The USS Monitor Collection at The Mariners’ Museum consists of nearly 1,500 individual artifacts that collectively weigh over 200 tons. That’s a very significant collection in terms of number and weight. Most people imagine heaps and stacks of wrought iron and cast iron when they hear these figures. Heck, the term ironclad makes it difficult to imagine any other construction material. But did you know that the USS Monitor Collection consists of many materials other than just wrought and cast iron?

In terms of metals objects we have copper, brass, bronze, lead, tin, silver, gold, and other alloys in addition to iron. We also have scores of organic objects like wood, rope, leather, wool, cotton, foodstuffs, rubber, bone, oil, canvas, and other unique materials. We can safely move metal artifacts through wet treatment in ambient conditions with varying temperature and humidity. But our organic materials require cool and dark conditions for optimum storage and treatment. Therefore, we store them in a large walk-in cooler at approximately 40-degrees Fahrenheit.

Why? Sensitive and fragile organic materials are more prone to problems when not properly stored and treated. Warm temperatures and bright light will promote degradation; cool dark temperatures will inhibit or minimize problems. So we seek to maintain conditions that promote more effective preservation.

Think about it this way: most people utilize a refrigerator in their home or apartment to extend the life of their food. The cold, dark conditions inside a refrigerator slow the growth of micro-organisms (bacteria, yeast, mold, etc.) that ultimately lead to the decay of the food. This principle is no different than what we experience in our lab. Our organic artifacts are essentially composed of cells, much like the composition of the food we eat. And keeping these fragile objects cold and dark minimizes the growth and proliferation of those nasty things that could ultimately consume and degrade the artifacts.

We survey the USS Monitor Collection on a regular basis to keep track of the conditions of all artifacts in active storage and undergoing treatment. Recently, Kate Sullivan and Mike Saul completed a comprehensive survey of the contents of our large walk-in cooler in the conservation Work Room. Believe it or not this giant fridge contains 513 organic artifacts recovered from the wreck of USS Monitor including rope, wooden gun tool heads, fragments of furniture, remnants of personal garments like a silk scarf, and other material. Some items were recovered individually from the wreck site; others were excavated from heavy layers of sediment within Monitor‘s revolving gun turret after it was removed from the Atlantic Ocean and transferred to The Mariners’ Museum.

Organics Survey 1

The picture above shows Kate and Mike inside the conservation lab Work Room, adjacent to the walk-in cooler (back left). They have removed a large section of breaching tackle from the walk-in cooler to assess and document its present condition, photo-document the artifact, and determine what steps are required next in the conservation process. The information is recorded via laptop (lower right) in a custom database used to track the necessary variables. This massive, thick rope was used to help minimize the recoil of USS Monitor‘s XI-Inch Dahlgren guns and maneuver them within the tight confines of the revolving gun turret. NOAA archaeologists removed this section of breaching tackle from the turret during initial excavations.

Organics Survey 3

In this picture, Mike is loosely attaching a new stainless steel tag containing the artifact’s official accession number around the artifact with a plastic zip-tie. These modern materials are particularly resistant to decay in wet conditions commonly found when conserving marine-recovered artifacts for long periods of time, which is important when keeping track of nearly 1,500 individual artifacts that actually break down into tens-of-thousands of sub-components. Imagine placing labels written in marker on 200 tons of artifacts only to find that the ink faded over the course of a year in wet storage or treatment — it would be a nightmare to accurately and specifically identify many of the artifacts which are nearly identical in appearance without durable, long-lasting labels containing all pertinent collection accession information. Our stainless steel labels with stamped numerals and letters are attached with chemical-resistant plastic zip ties and they eliminate that concern.

Organics Survey 4

Note the significant iron staining that covers this particular length of breaching tackle and the large PVC cradle that we use to support the artifact. Obviously organic rope does not rust, but this heavy layer of iron staining resulted from exposure of the breaching tackle to the rusty conditions inside USS Monitor‘s corroding wrought iron gun turret at the bottom of the ocean. Iron oxide (rusty corrosion gunk) penetrated nearly every object on the wreck site, subsequently turning everything from its original color into various shades of red, orange, and brown. Removing this problematic layer of iron staining is just one of a dozen future critical steps that a conservator must handle in order to arrest decay and promote long-term preservation of the breaching tackle in a stable exhibit environment.

Kate is bubbling with excitement now that she and Mike have completed the organics survey and she wants to share her enthusiasm and many amazing pictures with you. Keep an eye open in the near future for her aptly titled series of upcoming posts, “Things We Found in the Fridge”. It’s gonna be cool…


Powerful New Evidence Against Anthracite Coal

USS Monitor‘s engines were powered by steam generated by boiling water. Water was boiled by burning massive quantities of anthracite coal. Tons and tons of anthracite coal. Even when Monitor was under tow by the Rhode Island during her last hours afloat, coal was the driving force behind the movement of both vessels. Here is a picture of a small piece of anthracite coal excavated from the interior of Monitor‘s gun turret in 2002.

Coal 1

Original letters penned by crew members of Monitor and modern-day books describe loads of coal as fuel. Archaeologists confirmed this information with their discoveries of coal at the wreck site within the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. But have archivists, historians, and archaeologists led us astray?

Most recently, new evidence has come to light that suggests a different form of power for our favorite Union ironclad. And dare I say — the evidence is strong.

Van 2

Was USS Monitor a pioneer in the development and use of 87 octane gasoline? Have the experts been wrong for the past 153 years? What do you think? We may need to re-write the history books…

Ask a conservator

Last week a group of 5th graders from a school in Chesapeake came to visit The Mariners’ Museum and took part in the Clash of Armor program. They wanted to know if we are going back to the wreck site of the USS Monitor. 

This is a great question, and as a matter of fact the underwater archaeologists from NOAA are going to be diving on the Monitor site this summer. They will be mapping the site. They are not planning to recover any more of the vessel. Thanks for the question. I hope you enjoyed your visit to the museum!

Looking from forward to aft on the USS Monitor. It will be interesting to see how different the site looks this summer.

Looking from forward to aft on the USS Monitor. It will be interesting to see how different the site looks this summer.

I’m hoping to create more Ask a Conservator posts, answering questions from visitors and school groups. If you have a question you would like to see answered on the blog you can email us at  just put “ask a conservator” in the subject line.


Another part of the story

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.

MNMS-2001-003-042F04-05 BT

Copper alloy valve before treatment.



Tiny block letters spelling out JOHN POWERS NEW YORK


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.



The advertisement for John Powers’ business


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.

Bells Across the Land

This is a photo of USS Monitor‘s engine room gong after conservation at The Mariners’ Museum. We briefly rang this gong in 2012 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the sinking of USS Monitor and to remember the lives of her crew lost off Hatteras, NC in 1862.

Engine Room Gong

On Thursday, April 9 at 3:00pm, staff and visitors at The Mariners’ will be joining the National Park Service’s Bells Across the Land initiative to commemorate 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, which represents the symbolic end of the Civil War. We will host a ceremony aboard the USS Monitor replica outside the USS Monitor Center, hear brief remarks from speakers, observe a moment of silence, and ring the replica’s bronze bell.

Monitor Replica at Museum

This special event is free with paid admission and free to Museum members. Please click on this link for more information. We look forward to commemorating this historic anniversary with you and the rest of the nation. Let bells ring across the land.