Ironclad artifacts

Artifacts: Thousands of pieces of the Monitor have been pulled from the sea.

November 06, 2003|By Mark St. John Erickson | Mark St. John Erickson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Five years after Navy divers pulled it from the seas off Cape Hatteras, N.C., the massive cast-iron propeller of the USS Monitor is nearing the end of the conservation process and being prepared for public display at the Mariners' Museum.

So, too, are dozens of pieces of machinery associated with the famous Civil War ship's steam engine, which was recovered in 2001, and numerous personal artifacts rescued from the inside of the gun turret after it was retrieved in 2002.

The increasing number of items completing the process underscores the monumental scope of the collection, which now numbers thousands of individual pieces and weighs more than 300 tons. It also demonstrates the need for the facility scheduled to be built next year as the first phase of the $30 million, 40,000-square-foot USS Monitor Center.

`Taking things apart'

"We're still very slowly taking things apart. And when we do, we still have to conserve them. We still have to document them with drawings, photographs and other records to make sure we know what we have," says Mariners' chief conservator Curtiss Peterson, holding up a half-conserved steam gauge from the Monitor's engine.

"But things are beginning to come out in greater numbers than before. And there will be a lot more to come."

Inside the museum's far-flung conservation areas, which range from 70,000-gallon treatment tanks to small rooms filled with dozens of odd-sized tubs, the sound of running water is constant.

Bacterial growth looms as a danger to the objects and the conservation process, Peterson says, necessitating a recent overhaul of the monitoring procedures and a new filtering system.

Inside its own enormous treatment tank, the Monitor's turret still lies virtually intact, waiting for the completion of smaller containers to hold its cannon. But close observation over the past 14 months has produced new insights about the design of the history-making gun platform.

Inventor John Ericsson outfitted his innovative gun carriages with brass blocks and wheels, for example, to minimize the danger of accidental sparks. He weighed out the load of the 120-ton turret so carefully that it balanced and moved around a central pivot point with the heavy, 8-inch-thick walls supported by a system of stanchions.

"The engineering was superb," Peterson says, describing the deep interior dent caused by a cannonball.

"The whole system was severely stressed when that thing hit, but it held up. It held up very well."

The human story

Smaller artifacts tell a more human story of the officers' monogrammed cutlery, a trio of soldering irons, a fitting for a fire hose and numerous personal items such as a hard rubber comb.

Among the discoveries made during the treatment process is the identity of the mysterious, indecipherable word that once emblazoned a porcelain cabinet pull.

Shaped like a shield, the white, badge-sized plate gave up its secret after careful cleaning and conservation of its long-submerged, 142-year-old surface.

Still visible in the faint ghostly outline is Ericsson's instruction for opening the door: "Push."

Mark St. John Erickson is a reporter for the Newport News Daily Press, a Tribune Publishing Company newspaper in Virginia.

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