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May 2003 Feature: NOS Sanctuaries Protect Nation’s Maritime History
monitor's crew on deck

The crew on the deck of the USS Monitor. Members of the crew were lost when the Monitor sank in 1862. Human remains recently were found when the newly recovered turret was excavated last summer. (Monitor Collection, NOAA)

Marine archaeology allows us to unravel the mysteries and riddles of shipwrecks and clarify our history. Each fragile wreck is a time capsule of our past. The remains of sunken vessels and their contents provide a distinctive window into the history of the ships and the lives of its passengers and crew. Using state-of-the-art technology, such as sonar and remotely operated vehicles, marine archaeologists are now able to conduct advanced explorations and create accurate depictions of wreck sites.

The National Ocean Service’s National Marine Sanctuary Program plays a pivotal role in the exploration and preservation of the nation’s maritime history. By protecting oceanic treasures within a sanctuary, marine archaeologists are able to uncover and preserve invaluable information and artifacts. Shipwrecks discovered in the sanctuaries, such as the USS Monitor, Portland, and those in Thunder Bay, are essential to understanding the importance of maritime history.

USS Monitor

Undiscovered for more than 100 years, the USS Monitor was found in 1973 off the coast of North Carolina by scientists from Duke University using sidescan sonar technology. In 1862, this famous Civil War ship’s battle with the Confederate ironclad Virginia revolutionized the war at sea, and marked the end of an era of wooden-hulled sailing warships. The Monitor was the first of a class of low-freeboard, turreted war ships developed during the Civil War. Its revolving turret revolutionized naval warfare, and other features of the Monitor foreshadowed the future of naval technology.

turret above water

The Monitor's turret broke the surface during the summer 2002 expedition —the first time it had done so in 140 years.

The Monitor is more than an era frozen in time. Its dedication in 1975 as the first national marine sanctuary opened the door to advances in maritime archaeology and historic preservation. Since its discovery, numerous research expeditions have been conducted to study and recover the wreck. One of the most recent was in the summer of 2002. With the help of a claw-like structure known as the spider, the turret of the Monitor was recovered. Human remains also were found during the excavation of the turret in 2002. More than 100 artifacts also have been retrieved from the wreck, including the ship's anchor, condiment bottles, dinnerware, and a portion of leather bookbinding. These artifacts are now part of The Monitor Collection, which is housed in The Mariners’ Museum Research Library. More information about the USS Monitor is available from the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

Portland at Stellwagen Bank

portland sonar image

A sonar image of the Portland, taken in 2002.

The coastal steam ship Portland, which rests on the sea floor of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, sank Nov. 27, 1898, during the infamous "Portland Gale of 1898." All 192 passengers and crew were lost. With the help of state-of-the-art technology, the sanctuary obtained three new side-scan sonar images of the wreck. The images clearly show the side-by-side smoke stacks and the diamond-shaped metal walking beam that provided power to the side paddle wheels. The Portland has yet to be fully explored, but another mission is scheduled for September 2003. During this missions, scientists will use state-of-the-art technology including side-scan sonar and remote operating vehicles for exploration. View the side-scan sonar images of the Portland that were collected last year.

Stellwagen Bank, first discovered by Captain Henry Stellwagen in 1854, was especially important to navigators when they sailed at night or in poor weather. Mariners could gauge the distance to the sea floor and, when they saw the bank, would know that they were entering the Massachusetts Bay. The wealth of sea life present in the area also allowed for centuries of prosperous fishing fleets and other economic gains.

Stellwagen Bank was designated on Nov. 4, 1992, as the nation’s 11th national marine sanctuary. Stretching 842 square miles, more than 1 million people each year visit the sanctuary. Many of them are intent on experiencing an encounter with the well-known Humpback whale.

new orleans sonar image

On June 30, 1906, the New Orleans was carrying coal when she collided with the William R. Linn. All of the crew boarded the Linn safely before the pilothouse of the New Orleans blew off and the vessel sank. This sonar image of the wreck was taken in summer 2001.

Thunder Bay

The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve, dedicated on Oct. 7, 2000, is the first freshwater and Great Lakes sanctuary. More than 100 19th and 20th century shipwrecks rest in Thunder Bay and the surrounding waters of Lake Huron. For this reason, it has earned the nickname "Shipwreck Alley." Located off the coast of Alpena, Mich., Thunder Bay’s collection of shipwrecks represents the diversity of vessels that navigated the Great Lakes, from wooden schooners to steel-hulled steamers.

These preserved vessels still have stories to tell of Great Lakes maritime history and commerce. Some of the wrecks have been broken apart and washed away, and others have recently been found and are waiting to be explored. Many wrecks are yet to be discovered but likely will be found as explorations continue. For more information, read more about surveying Thunder Bay's Shipwreck Alley in June 2001.

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For More Information

National Marine Sanctuary Program

Monitor National Marine Sanctuary

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve

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With the help of a claw-like structure known as the spider, the turret of the Monitor was recovered.

The Portland has yet to be fully explored, but another mission is scheduled for September 2003.

More than 100 19th and 20th century shipwrecks rest in Thunder Bay and the surrounding water of Lake Huron.

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