The USS Monitor Center Blog

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.

Remembering USS Monitor, Her Designer, and Their Arch Rival

In October of 1862, USS Monitor was at the Washington Navy Yard for some maintenance and repairs. A commemorative inscription was stamped onto the breech of both of Monitor‘s XI-Inch Dahlgren shell guns at this time to celebrate the Battle of Hampton Roads by recognizing the important men and vessels that participated in the conflict.

The port Dahlgren was inscribed: “WORDEN. MONITOR & MERRIMAC.”

John Worden commanded Monitor during the 4-hour battle against the Confederate ironclad, was temporarily blinded by an exploding shell, and was forever beloved by his crew. His name stamped in the cast iron Dahlgren forever marks his place in ironclad history.

It is also interesting to note that the Union shipbuilders included the commonly mis-spelled name Merrimac rather than Virginia. USS Monitor never battled against the Merrimack, a Union wooden frigate that was later converted into the CSS Virginia by Confederate shipbuilders. Nonetheless, the addition of the vessels’ names was a significant way to recognize the importance of the battle and its participants and perhaps was an intentional snub of the famed Virginia.

What about the starboard Dahlgren’s inscription, you ask? Check this out:

IMG_2267 - 2

The mighty Swedish engineer John Ericsson designed USS Monitor. His name embellishes the starboard breech in close proximity to his ironclad and MERRIMAC. Also note that the weight of the Dahlgren (15,617 lbs.) appears clearly to the left side of the engraving.

Senior Conservator Will Hoffman took this incredibly detailed photo of the badly graphitized cast iron surface of Monitor‘s starboard Dahlgren shell gun. The inscription rests on the outboard side (facing away from the center of the turret) of the gun roughly midway between the right trunnion and cascabel. We are extremely fortunate that this beautiful inscription survives to this day because the surfaces of both guns corroded severely during 140 years of exposure to the warm, salty, and oxygenated waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Stream.

We will share a photo of the port Dahlgren inscription at a later date. In the meantime, please enjoy this decorative historical footnote from USS Monitor.

Help Identify a Mystery Artifact

Over the past 13 years, NOAA archaeologists and Mariners’ Museum conservators have discovered hundreds of amazing artifacts within USS Monitor‘s revolving gun turret. Some artifacts, like the Dahlgren guns, gun carriages, and gun tools, are undergoing conservation as I type this blog entry. Others have already been fully conserved and are now on display within the USS Monitor Center at The Mariners’ Museum or have been loaned to other institutions around the country to help share Monitor‘s fascinating stories.

However, there are handful of artifacts that continue to mystify us in the lab, particularly those that have been fully conserved but not properly identified. It may sound strange or surprising that in the last 13 years we have not successfully identified every single artifact from the turret. But this is often the case when many materials are excavated from an archaeological setting.

Please examine the following pictures of a mystery artifact:


Picture2Picture3What do we know about this artifact? It was excavated from USS Monitor‘s gun turret, thoroughly embedded in layers of thick concreted sediment. It was not attached to anything. It is made of a copper alloy, likely bronze or brass. It is the shape of a 5-point star with rounded edges. Each point has a small dimple. The artifact is approximately 3/4″ tall x 3/4″ wide. Threads have been cut into the artifacts indicating that it was likely screwed onto the end of another object. It appears decorative but could also be utilitarian. It could have been attached to a component of the turret, or it could have been part of another object that was carried into the turret the night Monitor sank off Hatteras, NC.

What is this artifact? What purpose did it serve? How was it used? Why was this found in archaeological sediment inside the gun turret? We don’t have any of these answers and we need your help to solve this historical mystery. Please help us identify this Mystery Artifact.

Foul Weather and Ironclads Don’t Mix Well

I’m sad to say that our 2014 Civil War Lecture Series is winding down.


Our good buddy and ironclad guru, Jay Moore, PhD, will be sending us off in style. Please join us this Saturday, December 13, at 2:30pm in the Explorers Theater at The Mariners’ Museum as Jay presents “The Gale that Sank the Monitor“.

This isn’t your average presentation about the loss of USS Monitor. No sir, nothing average about it. Jay seamlessly combines history, geography, meteorology, the ocean, and our favorite ironclad in a tumultuous mix. I promise you this is not your great-great-great-grandfather’s type of history (even though it actually is).

Additionally, our 2015 Civil War Lecture Series kicks off January 17 at 2:30pm. Start the New Year with Conservator Kate Sullivan as she explores lesser-known Global Current Events in the 1860s and how they influenced the American Civil War. And vice versa.