The Columbus' rare prize remains on bay bottom after series of mishaps

BID TO LIFT SHIPWRECK'S ENGINE RUNS OUT OF STEAM

August 28, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

POINT LOOKOUT -- A mechanical failure and a bureaucratic deadline forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to scrub yesterday a mission to lift a 142-year-old ship's rare steam engine from the vessel's wreckage on the bottom of Chesapeake Bay.

Attempts on Wednesday to pull a massive steam chest and cylinder from the wreck of the steamship Columbus had failed after an iron cradle holding the engine components broke.

Project officials were forced to scramble late into the night to find ways to repair the specially-made device, and by mid-afternoon yesterday corps officials from the Baltimore District temporarily suspended the effort.

Compounding the mechanical problem were additional obstacles presented by the Army and nature. The Army reserve unit manning the huge crane and barge needed to lift the engine was scheduled to head back to Baltimore early today, and storms were predicted for the lower Chesapeake area.

Although the main part of the engine remains under water, the project's crew was able to raise the engine's paddle wheel hub late Wednesday evening.

The failure to lift the engine itself has ended for the time being a spectacular scene on the hot and hazy bay this week. Two Army tugs, a landing craft converted to a dive boat, a barge and a tall crane -- all painted battleship gray -- lay anchored around the wreck site off the mouth of the Potomac River. The flotilla was joined by a corps vessel and a private dive boat hired by underwater archaeologists working on the Columbus project.

The iron-and-copper engine was one of the earliest steam power generators used extensively by Chesapeake Bay vessels. Most of the engines, which represented a fleeting stage in the evolution of steam power, were refitted and strengthened in the mid-19th century.

The 220-foot Columbus, built in Baltimore in 1828, was chugging south in the bay near the mouth of the Potomac River on Nov. 27, 1850, when it caught fire and sank in 50 feet of water.

Nine of the 15 people on board, including the ship's captain, John Hollingshead, either died in the flash fire or drowned. The Columbus sank about eight miles east of Point Lookout, where 3,400 Confederates died in a Union prison camp 14 years later.

Aside from its intrinsic value as a piece of Maryland's maritime history, the side-wheeler Columbus offers what may be the only surviving example of a crosshead engine in the country.

Earlier this week, the Columbus team was joined by Herbert Bump, a Florida conservator specializing in preserving metal. When the engine is brought to the surface, it is likely it will be off-loaded in Curtis Bay, where it will be shipped by truck to the International Artifact Conservation and Research Laboratory Inc. of New Orleans.

Plans are to have the metal pieces cleaned and stabilized during a three-year process similar to electroplating. The corps intends to give the engine to the Maryland Historical Trust. Eventually, the crosshead will be displayed at the Christopher Columbus Center planned for the Inner Harbor.

The corps and the Maryland Port Administration are sharing the $348,000 cost of recovering and preserving the engine.

The Columbus was one of three shipwrecks noted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during recent surveys conducted for the deepening of Baltimore Harbor and its approach channels. While removal of the engine has attracted attention for its historical significance, the project also was to remove a potential navigational hazard.

For the past three weeks, divers have been performing on-site tasks designed to facilitate the removal of the engine components andprepare the wreck for archaeological excavation.

Fifteen Army Reserve divers using surface-supplied air have visited the site daily in the past week. The military divers have spent long hours underwater, making it necessary for them to lie inside a hyperbaric or recompression chamber aboard the Army dive boat Commando to avoid bends and other physical problems.

Another eight divers from a private archaeological firm have been using scuba gear during non-decompression dives to measure the wreck in anticipationof an active artifact recovery effort.

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