The Monitor’s Discovery & Recovery

Finding the Monitor

For more than a century, the Monitor’s resting place in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” remained a mystery, despite numerous searches. Finally, in 1973, a team of scientists led by John G. Newton of the Duke University Marine Laboratory located the Monitor while testing geological survey equipment. On August 27, 1973, after identifying twenty-one possible contacts, side-searching sonar found a long, amorphous echo. The first pass of the television camera revealed iron plates; a virtually flat, unobstructed surface (the bottom of the hull); a thick waist (the armor belt); and a circular structure (the turret). With each successive series of camera passes, evidence mounted that the wreck was that of the Monitor, but it would take an intensive study of the visual evidence over the next five months to confirm it.

A second visit to the site in April 1974 positively identified the Monitor, lying in approximately 230 feet of water about 16 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras.

1945

August:

  • While testing the newly developed Underwater Object Locator (UOL) Mark IV south of the Cape Hatteras Light in North Carolina, the United States Navy detects a submerged object 140 feet in length. The location in the area of the wreck of the Monitor leads to speculation that the unidentified object could in fact be the lost ironclad. However, strong currents prevent divers from accurately identifying the wreck. Although inconclusive, the UOL operation generates enough interest for the Office of Naval History to open a “Monitor file.”

1952

  • Raynor McMullen, a retired postal clerk from Michigan, organizes the USS Monitor Foundation of Washington, D.C. McMullen offers a $1,000 reward to anyone who can locate and salvage the Monitor.

1953

September 30:

  • The Secretary of the Navy officially abandons the Monitor, surrendering all claims by the United States Navy to the ship.

1955

  • Corporal Robert Marx, USMC, originates a “shallow water” theory concerning the location of the wreck. Marx claims to have met a sea captain who showed him an old family journal with an entry for January 1865 that detailed a family picnic at Hatteras where the “Yankee Cheesebox” was visible in the surf near the lighthouse. Marx claims to have discovered the Monitor in 45 feet of water and to have put his name in a bottle and placed it on the wreck. The wreck is not located during subsequent searches.  

1967

  • The State of North Carolina passes legislation requiring anyone engaging in salvage operations within state waters to obtain permits from the state.

1970

  • Captain Ernest W. Peterkin of the Naval Research Laboratory begins an exhaustive study of navigational information from the USS Rhode Island.

1973

May:

  • The USS Monitor Foundation and Underwater Archaeological Associates claim to have found the Monitor’s turret using sonar. A buoy left at the site is later destroyed by a passing ship.

June:

  • The USS Monitor Foundation unsuccessfully attempts to relocate the site of the turret.

July:

  • Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy formulate a plan to search the area off the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse using a magnetometer. The search is canceled due to adverse weather conditions.

July 17:

  • A U.S. Navy RP-3D, using a highly sensitive magnetometer, conducts a four-hour, low-altitude search of the area around the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

August:

  • Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), National Geographic, and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources participate in an expedition using Duke University’s Research Vessel Eastward. The expedition has two objectives: a geological study of the continental shelf and a search for the Monitor using the track and log of the USS Rhode Island. Twenty-one sites are identified as vessels other than the Monitor. On August 27, the last scheduled day of the expedition, side-scan sonar records a “long amorphous” echo. Three additional days are spent collecting data at the site. Faulty cameras record fuzzy images of a flat surface that appears to be iron plate, and a “circular protrusion” similar to a turret. An underwater camera designed by Dr. Harold Edgerton of MIT snags on the wreck and is lost.

September:

  • “Project Cheesebox” is organized at the Naval Academy. A full investigation of the Monitor’s plans, historic records, logs, etc., is combined with information concerning the recent wreck discoveries by various organizations. This information is included in a study conducted by midshipmen specializing in history, engineering, oceanography, ocean engineering, and international relations.

October:

  • As part of their study, the Project Cheesebox participants develop a test tank model of the Monitor in order to study possible sinking scenarios.

November-December:

  • In late 1973 plans are developed for an expedition to revisit the site located by the Eastward using the Alcoa Seaprobe.

1974

March 8:

  • After extensive examination of evidence recorded in August 1973, a formal announcement is made that the Duke University team has located the wreck of the USS Monitor.

March 11:

  • A planning meeting is convened at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. Several organizations present their findings and conclusions concerning the location of the Monitor. It is decided that the first site to be examined during the proposed April expedition using the Alcoa Seaprobe will be the site located during the August 1973 Eastward survey.

April 1 – 7:

  • Using side-scan sonar and video cameras, the Alcoa Seaprobe expedition verifies that Duke University has indeed found the wreck of the USS Monitor. The wreck is located in 220 feet of water lying upside down on the bottom with the after section of her deck resting on the displaced turret. Remote 35mm cameras are used to photograph the wreck. These photographs are later assembled into a photomosaic of the wreck by the Naval Intelligence Division. Further examinations of the site are canceled due to adverse weather conditions.

August 12 -16:

  • The U.S. Coast Guard conducts an underwater search experiment at the Monitor site. The Coast Guard successfully locates the unmarked wreck without using “precision navigation equipment.” The CGC Chilula performs a standard search for locating distressed craft and locates the wreck site in approximately four hours. Additional plans to film the wreck are canceled because of strong bottom currents.

August 19 – 22, 26 – 28:

  • A team from Duke University, aboard the research vessel Beveridge, attempts to obtain 35mm “side shots” of the Monitor for a profile photomosaic. Underwater TV cameras are used to help position the “vertical” camera. Strong underwater currents and technical problems prevent the 35mm camera from being used.

September 26:

  • The Governor of North Carolina nominates the wreck of the USS Monitor as the nation’s first marine sanctuary.

1975

January, 30:

  • The Monitor is designated the nation’s first national marine sanctuary under the management of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

1984

January 30

  • On the anniversary of the designation of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, ceremonies are held at the U.S. Naval Academy, where the red signal lantern recovered in 1977 is displayed for the first time. The lantern is currently part of a permanent Monitor exhibit at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

1986

June:

  • The wreck of the USS Monitor is designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service.

July 24:

  • After undergoing almost three years of conservation, the Monitor’s anchor is unveiled during ceremonies at East Carolina University. The anchor is now permanently displayed at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

1987

March 9:

  • The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, is designated the principal museum for the Monitor collection of artifacts and historical and scientific data.

1998

April 1998:

  • Charting a New Course for the Monitor, NOAA’s long range management plan is approved.

May 24 – June 25, 1998:

  • The 1998 research expedition to the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was extremely successful. The primary purpose of this expedition was to complete numerous tasks that must necessarily precede the stabilization of the hull and recovery of hull components. The highlight of the 1998 expedition was the successful recovery of the Monitor’s 9 foot cast iron propeller and 11 feet of shaft on June 5th.

1999

June 6 – 28, 1999:

  • NOAA and the US Navy returned to the wreck site for a data gathering expedition aboard the USS Grasp to pave the way for hull stabilization and engine recovery.

August 3 – 17, 1999:

  • The second research expedition in the Monitor Sanctuary got underwater on August 3 with an expedition sponsored by NOAA, the Cambrian Foundation and the National Undersea Research Center/University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Detailed measurements were made along the port side between the raised armor belt and the sea bed.

2000

April 3 – May 12:

  • Teams from NOAA, the Cambrian Foundation and the National Undersea Research Center/University of North Carolina at Wilmington (NURC), and East Carolina University (ECU) began survey and small artifact recovery operations on April 30.

June 21- July 2:

  • Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute returned to the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary to conduct submersible operations with NOAA.

June 30 – July 28: NOAA/NAVY:

  • The main goals of the expedition were to place grout bags under the raised are of the port armor belt and to position the Engine Recovery System (ERS) over the stern of the wreck.
  • Navy divers also recovered an additional segment of the Monitor’s propeller shaft and the stuffing box and on July 28, the last day of the NOAA/Navy expedition, the rudder support skeg was recovered.

July 17 – Aug. 10: NOAA/NURC/ECU/Cambrian Foundation:

  • The main goal for this phase of the expedition was the final archaeological mapping of the engine in situ. Divers recorded all areas of the engine and remaining structure of the engine room.

March 25 – August 17, 2001: Engine Recovery:

  • NOAA/USN/NURC/ECU/Cambrian Foundation/The Mariners’ Museum

March 25 – April 11: NOAA/NURC/ECU/Cambrian Foundation:

  • The main goals of this expedition were to make an assessment of the work site for any potential issues that might have occurred since the Engine Recovery System (ERS) was placed over the wreck in July 2000. Divers recovered a variety of artifacts from two concentrated areas that were going to be impacted by the work on the engine.

April 22 – May 7: NOAA/USN:

  • Working off of the USS Grapple Navy divers install the final components on the Engine Recovery System (ERS) and replace the lifting chains.

June 17- August:

  • The D/B Wotan arrives in the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and is positioned in an 8 point moor. Step one was to expose the engine by removing the remaining exterior hull plating.
  • An incredible variety of artifacts were encountered during the excavations around the engine including several fragile glass pieces including a working engine room thermometer.

July 16:

  • At 11:56 AM on July 16, less than a month after they began, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists and scores of U.S. Navy divers raised the 30-ton steam engine from the wreck of the USS Monitor.
  • The engine was loaded onto a transport barge and taken back to Virginia to be placed in a conservation tank at The Mariners’ Museum.

July 17:

  • The NOAA/NURC/ECU dive team returns to the Sanctuary. To assist the Navy and to document the changes that are being made to the wreck site.
  • Navy dive operations regroup after engine recovery to cutting through the Monitor’s armor belt over top of the turret. Divers begin removing an area of 5 layers of 1-inch thick armor plating to gain access to the wood backing in the armor belt.

July 18:

  • The Monitor’s steam engine arrives at the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard and is transferred to conservators at The Mariners’ Museum.

July 26 – August 17:

  • The Navy Phase of the expedition ends but the NOAA dive team continues working on site. Divers survey the engine hole for additional artifacts and begin mapping the area to document the site changes.

June – August 2002 :

  • Turret Recovery  NOAA/NAVY/NURC/ECU/HOBI/TMM

June 26:

  • The D/B Wotan arrives in the Sanctuary on and establishes an 8 point moor over the wreck site. Dive stations are set up and diving begins at first light on the morning of the 27th.
  • The first task was to clear the debris on the deck covering the turret. Surface supplied divers began removing tons of coal and debris depositing it in salvage baskets for removal from the work area. Saturation divers began working on the cutting the armor belt away from over the turret.

July 5:

  • The work of clearing the decking and removing a 45-foot long section of armor belt was completed, completely exposing the turret. Divers begin clearing debris from around the outside of the turret and excavating the inside the turret to expose the cannons and carriages.

July 12:

  • Excavations in the turret expose the inverted gun carriages and gun muzzles.

July 26:

  • At 9 AM, bones proving to be human were encountered adjacent to the starboard cannon. Operations ceased until archaeologist surmised the site and were able to direct the safe removal the remains from the gun turret.

August 5:

  • After waiting out a bout of bad weather and swift Hatteras currents, the Monitor’s rotating gun turret was safely lifted to the surface and landed on the deck of the D/B Wotan at 5:47 PM.

August 9:

  • The derrick barge Wotan escorted by the USS Chinook, NOAA Research Vessel Ronald Brown, and a host of pleasure craft. As the small flotilla passes Ft. Monroe, the US Army fires a 21-gun salute with field cannons.
  • The barge pulls into the city docks at approximately 9:30 am and a crowd of over 1,000 was there to greet the turret.

August 10:

  • The turret arrives at The Mariners’ Museum. An estimated crowd of over two thousand watch as the turret slowly comes up river to be landed on the beach and trucked up to the Museum and placed into a specially made conservation tank.

August 17:

  • The field work for 2002 is completed. Divers from NOAA, NURC and ECU had been working cooperatively with the Navy during turret recovery and remained after the barge departed to perform a site assessment and document the changes made to the wreck site.

August 23 – December 13:

  • Once the turret was safely in its tank at The Mariners’ Museum and the NOAA phase of the field expedition ended. The archaeology team regrouped and began completing the interior excavation of the gun turret. The turret excavations revealed many unknown details and an abundance of artifacts many of which are already conserved and currently on display at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.