Shipwreck from 1860 off Atlantic City to become historic site

Wool blankets still litter the area of the Robert J. Walker's forward coal bunker, where the crew frantically tried to plug a hole in the steamer after a collision off the New Jersey coast in 1860.
Wool blankets still litter the area of the Robert J. Walker's forward coal bunker, where the crew frantically tried to plug a hole in the steamer after a collision off the New Jersey coast in 1860. (MATTHEW LAWRENCE / NOAA)
Posted: April 15, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY - In their last desperate moments, with winds howling and waves crashing around them, crew members rushed below decks and frantically pushed blankets and bedding into the leaking hull.

They hoped to keep the steamer Robert J. Walker afloat long enough to make land near Absecon Inlet Light, but were overwhelmed by the rushing waters of the Atlantic in 1860.

More than a century and a half later, the Walker is still pointed toward the lighthouse and the blue wool blankets the crew used are still lying in the bow, in a murky, emerald green world 85 feet down.

They are eerie reminders of the 21 who struggled and died after the vessel collided with the schooner Fanny during a stormy night about 12 miles off Atlantic City.

The shipwreck was identified last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), listed this month on the National Register of Historic Places, and will be mapped for the first time this summer, giving recreational divers and history buffs a clearer picture of the site.

The work will be undertaken by the New Jersey Historical Divers Association, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Black Laser Learning, the Edward Marsh Library in San Diego, and local recreational scuba divers in partnership with NOAA.

They will gather data, photos, and drawings that will be displayed in coming months at museums and on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Waterproof site maps will be produced for divers touring the wreck.

"There was no Coast Guard" to save the crew in 1860, said Steve Nagiewicz, co-leader of the expedition, science teacher at Atlantic City High School, and former executive director of the Explorers Club. "There was no radar and no radio.

"If they didn't save themselves, they were going to die," he said. "After all these years, we're going to tell the story of what happened."

The deteriorated ship, one of the first iron steamers built for the U.S. government, is scattered across the ocean floor, NOAA officials said. Parts of its metal frame and iron-plated hull are embedded in the silt, along with the anchors, a large steam engine, and hubs of the side-mounted paddle wheels. The bow lies about 100 feet from the rest of the wreck.

In between, divers have found bits and pieces of the 19th century: "Mason's" ironstone china, a single cannonball, and unusual rectangular brass portholes.

But the wreck is more than a historic site, said James Delgado, director of Maritime Heritage of NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. It's the final resting place of 20 men, lost when the ship went down on June 21, 1860. Another died the next day from injuries.

"These were real people like you and me who got caught up in something bigger than themselves," Delgado said. "They were ordinary folks when fate came up and smacked them.

"History, to me, is more than big names and big events," he said. "It's about the guys on the Walker, and [the wreck] is their grave site."

The 358-ton ship, launched in 1847, was used by the U.S. Coast Survey - NOAA's predecessor - to survey the depths of ports to facilitate maritime commerce.

One of its crew, Peter Conway, was waiting for the Walker to leave Hampton Roads, Va., on June 12, 1860, when he penned a last letter to his "dear Wife" Ellen, who had just delivered their daughter.

"Try and take good care of your self till I get back and then I will try and take care of you by way of giving you a resting spell," he wrote. "May God send his choicest blessings on you and your dear infant is in the prayer of your affectionate and devoted Husband."

On June 21, as the Walker steamed toward New York in a gale, the executive officer, Joseph Seawell, spotted the approaching Fanny, carrying 240 tons of coal to Boston.

Though both ships were clearly lighted, they somehow collided at 2:15 a.m., with the Fanny's bow anchor striking the Walker's bow with "considerable force," opening plates and destroying two lifeboats, Delgado wrote in a report on the collision. Some crew members tried to plug the hole and others used axes to chop down the mainmast for use as a floatation device.

Conway was among the dead. Seawell, his wife, and Capt. John McMullen survived along with more than 40 others. They were rescued by another passing schooner, the R.G. Porter, and the Fanny limped into Cape May.

"It's almost bone-chilling to know I had a relative" on the Walker, said Lise Sulley, 56, of Cranford, Union County, whose great-great-grandfather Timothy O'Connor was lost in the disaster. "I was in my 30s when I first heard about it, and it means something to me today, even though it's so many generations away."

The Walker's location was unknown until the 1970s, when the wreck was discovered by fishermen who didn't know the identity of the ship. It became a destination for divers and was positively identified by NOAA in August.

That month, Delgado gave a talk on the Walker at the N.J. Shipwreck Museum at the InfoAge Science Center in Wall Township, Monmouth County, and asked Dan Lieb of the N.J. Historical Divers Association whether he'd help map the site.

Lieb, now expedition co-leader and head of the survey, plans to produce a detailed illustration of the site by the end of the summer.

The privately funded work will begin in June with underwater imaging. Vince Capone of Black Laser Learning, and Steve Evert, manager of Stockton's Marine Science and Environmental Field Station, will use side-scan sonar equipment to map the ocean bottom.

"When the divers do the detailed mapping, they'll have a base map to work from," Capone said. "The ship is not an intact vessel sitting on the bottom, but there is a fair amount of it left.

"It's a fantastic find and a rare opportunity to document the remains," he said.

Evert will be accompanied by four to six Stockton undergraduate students who will assist in the research. "There is so much history off the New Jersey coast," he said. "We're one of the richest coasts for shipwrecks, but few of them have the 'oh-my-goodness' factor, like this one."

In August, divers will descend to the site twice a day for four to five days.

"We're going out there in the spirit of camaraderie - to put the finishing touches on research that's been done up until now," Lieb said. "I've been on a lot of mapping and archaeological expeditions.

"Some were before the rebuilding of a bridge or a traffic tunnel under a body of water," he said. "This is an opportunity to approach this from a more purist angle on a historic site that won't be destroyed by construction."

When the tour map is completed, divers will have a better idea of the site. "We ask people not to take things from the wreck," Delgado said. "Anything that has been taken should be treated, restored, and put in a museum."


ecolimore@phillynews.com

856-779-3833 InkyEBC

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