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NOAA Identifies Shipwreck as 19th Century US Coast Survey Steamer

Aug 27, 2013 04:43 PM EDT

Government and maritime archaeologists have identified a shipwreck first located in the 1970s as the Robert J. Walker, a steamer that served in the US Coast Survey mapping the nation's shores until a violent collision with a commercial schooner off the shore of New Jersey sent it to the bottom of the ocean more than 150 years ago.

Initially discovered by a commercial fisherman, the wreck's identity was confirmed in June as part of a private-public collaboration, including a NOAA Maritime Heritage diving team, which recognized the ship based on its size, layout, unique engines, rectangular portholes, location of the ship and the fact that it was pointing toward the Absecon lighthouse -- the final destination of the crew.

Twenty sailors died when the Walker sank just 10 miles off Absecon Inlet on the New Jersey Coast during the early morning hours of June 21, 1860. According to a NOAA statement, the crew had finished its latest surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York when it was hit by the schooner, resulting in the death of 20 sailors.

Two days later, the New York Herald reported on the event, saying that a "heavy sea was running, and many of the men were doubtless washed off the spars and drowned from the mere exhaustion of holding on, while others were killed or stunned on rising to the surface by concussion with spars and other parts of the wreck."

First established in 1807 by President Thomas Jefferson, the US Coast Survey is NOAA's oldest predecessor organization. Tasked with producing the nation's nautical charts, activity for the institution ramped up during the months approaching the Civil War as the government sought to create surveys of harbors strategically significant to the war effort.

According to Admiral Robert J. Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard, the Walker holds a historical significance as well as far as its representation of the transition from sail to steam for government vessels, which, he says, reflects "the enduring need of the United States to harness the power of new technology to promote its maritime interests."

"Before this identification was made, the wreck was just an anonymous symbol on navigation charts," said Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA's Office of Coast Survey. "Now, we can truly honor the 20 members of the crew and their final resting place. It will mark a profound sacrifice by the men who served during a remarkable time in our history."

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