Attempting to save Civil War ship

Wednesday, January 2, 2002

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Inside Curtiss Peterson's no-frills conservation lab lies a jumble of plastic dishpans strewn out on tables like hastily placed hospital stretchers.

Thin wires run from electrical transformers and then plunge into the chemical bath contained within each, pumping the encrusted iron artifacts inside with low-voltage life support.

Outside this converted trailer, Peterson's collection of treatment tanks grows in both number and scale, encompassing nearly a dozen steel-sided vats with a cumulative volume of more than 200,000 gallons. Some are converted Dumpsters. Some are monstrous, custom-welded reservoirs. And lying protected within their caustic waters is ton after ton of Civil War iron -- all of it plucked from the graveyard of the Atlantic by Navy divers.

For more than four months, Peterson and his colleagues at The Mariners' Museum have served as artifact doctors in the struggle to rescue one of the most famous ships in history. Yet now that the archaeological expedition off Cape Hatteras, N.C., has ended for the year, the campaign to preserve the signature parts of the USS Monitor -- the revolutionary warship that ushered in the age of steam and iron -- has just begun.

"We took in more than 140 pieces over the summer -- some of them weighing tons -- and these will spawn dozens and dozens of other pieces as we treat them and take them apart," Peterson said. The Monitor sank during a storm while being towed to North Carolina on Dec. 31, 1862, killing 16 people. The wreckage was discovered in 1973 and designated the nation's first marine sanctuary in 1975.

Working alongside the Navy and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary from an office on the museum grounds, the Mariners' began planning this conservation effort several years ago.

But it was hard to imagine the horde of artifacts that would be recovered this summer as Navy divers, guided by NOAA archaeologists and historians, cleared a path through the upside-down hull of the vessel and freed its pioneering steam engine.

"The Navy was recovering things so quickly -- and doing it 24 hours a day -- that we received lots and lots of extra things that we hadn't planned on or known about," Mariners' collections manager Jeanne Willoz-Egner said.

"The good thing, of course, is that so many of these things represent real 'firsts' in the history of naval design."

Speed is essential in handling the fragile, salt-contaminated iron, which can split apart if exposed too long to the air.

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