May 10th, 2016
Conservation of the 120-ton revolving gun turret of the USS Monitor, raised from the protected wreck site off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on August 5th, 2002, is ramping back up this month after years of painful budgetary restrictions that saw the conservation staff reduced by half and left the massive remnant of the ironclad vessel in limbo. A year-long fundraising push has generated $1 million in donations which has allowed USS Monitor Center conservators to start a two-month campaign on the turret.
The gun turret is kept in a 90,000 gallon tank in the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, filled with an alkaline solution of sodium hydroxide to preserve and desalinate the metal. Every Monday until the middle of July, the tank will be drained (it takes four and a half hours to drain the whole thing) so conservators can work on it. They will clean it thoroughly, inside and out, using small chisels, hammers, dental drills and air scribes (miniature compressed air jackhammers) to remove layer upon layer of concretions.
Conservators will also attempt to remove the nut-guards, shields that covered the nuts to keep them from flying out should the turret be subject to artillery fire. The exposed walls will then be excavated for small artifacts pinned there when the ship capsized and sank on New Year’s Eve, 1862. A number of discoveries have been made before behind the shields, including a monkey wrench, a bone-handled knife and a silver table spoon with the initials “SAL” engraved on the handle that researchers believe belonged to Third Assistant Engineer Samuel Augee Lewis, one of 16 crewmen who went down with the ship.
Once the cleaning and archaeological work have been completed, the turret’s newly exposed interior and exterior walls will be scanned through a 3-D photogrammetry process in order to record the progress of the electrolytic reduction and descaling treatments.
The sensitive images also may enable the conservators to uncover hidden clues imprinted on the turret’s exterior during the Monitor’s milestone clash with the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads in March 1862, as well as its confrontation with Confederate shore batteries at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River two months later.
So discerning is the data gathered by the technique that it could provide the exact depth and circumference of both seen and unseen indentations made by enemy shot, bolts and shells, Hoffman says.
The tank will be filled up every Friday to preserve the turret over the weekend, then it all starts over again Monday. When this project is completed in mid-July, the tank will be filled back up for another long-term treatment. In total, conservators expect treatment to take 15 years before the turret can be safely exhibited in the museum without the protection of its tank, fresh water and alkaline solution. The $1 million raised is a fraction of the projected total cost of the full conservation. That’s more along the lines of $20 million, so the museum is continuing to raise funds.
One brilliant fundraising approach will be taking place over the next few months while the tank is empty during the week. For a price of 100 tax-deductible dollars a person, the USS Monitor Center’s director, historian John V. Quarstein, will lead visitors through the museum exhibition and the Batten Conservation Complex, the largest marine archaeological metals conservation lab in the world which contains the three largest pieces of the USS Monitor encased in massive conservation tanks: the vibrating side-lever steam engine, two XI-inch Dahlgren shell guns and their gun carriages, and the largest and most famous of them all, the gun turret. Visitors will have the chance to handle some of the artifacts recovered from the turret, and best of all, they’ll be allowed to go inside the drained turret tank. Waterproof boots at least eight inches high are required. Now that’s a killer gift idea for the history nerd who has everything. To schedule a tour (15 people at a time, max), contact Hannah Piner at hpiner@MarinersMuseum.org or call (757) 952-0465.
To follow the conservation project as it proceeds, check out the USS Monitor Center’s outstanding blog with entries written by the conservators doing the work. The museum’s website also has webcams trained on the three tanks so you can see the conservation as it happens.