Monitor turret nearing critical step in conservation effort

For almost 140 years, the gun turret of the USS Monitor sat at the floor of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina — so what’s a little more time when it comes to the meticulous conservation effort undertaken at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News?

The turret has resided at the USS Monitor Center within the museum since it was pulled from the sea in 2002, resting upside-down on a metal support apparatus. This week the center is on the verge of what Will Hoffman, the museum’s director of conservation, calls “the most critical step in this process since the actual recovery.”

It will take years to disassemble the roof and turn the turret upright, a move that has been in the planning stages since 2008. The imminent first step is to use a hydraulic lift to raise the 120-ton turret about two inches, enough to remove the rusted metal structure and replace it with a set of newly designed support stands. The turret then will be gently lowered two inches back into place.

That two inches up and down will take a week, maybe two.

“People ask me why it takes so long, and why it has taken almost two decades to get to this point,” Hoffman said. “I think of the space program, how it went from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo and then to the moon. This is the same thing — it goes in phases, and you can’t move from one phase to the next until you’ve reached these specific benchmarks. And each time, we only get one shot, so you really have to plan to get it right.”

He was speaking at a private event on Thursday, attended by a handful of media and officials visiting from Washington, D.C., as well as from the Newport News Shipbuilding yard, which will supply the hydraulic lift and which has been heavily involved in the process.

The new support stands, about eight of them, sit next to the turret’s tank, looking like something you would buy at a neighborhood hardware store. They took about two years to complete. They were designed at the Newport News shipyard, constructed at the Colonna’s shipyard in Portsmouth, painted at Fair Lead Boat Works in Newport News and topped with a cap designed at Hampton Rubber Company.

“These were designed by a nuclear engineer,” Hoffman said. “The guy who designed these builds reactors.”

Museum officials say it is difficult to estimate the cost of the project, because much of the work done by shipyards and other outside contractors is handled as “in-kind” trades. Mariners’ Museum spokeswoman Crystal Breede said the majority of the remaining expenses are covered by grants and private donations, and David Alberg — superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary — said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has contributed about $15 million since 2002.

Tim Gallaudet of NOAA, whose actual title is assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmospheres, was thrilled to get an up close look at the gun turret that changed the history of naval warfare.

The unprecedented turret atop the Monitor allowed the crew to rotate guns in any direction to aim at adversaries. Before this innovation, the guns pointed in one direction, and the entire ship had to be laboriously turned in the right direction.

“The revolutionary technology this turret represents is just awesome,” Gallaudet said. “This was the beginning of modern naval warfare. Every technology that we see today in our battleships, you can trace it back to this turret.”

The Monitor, built in 1861 and launched in early 1862, was the first ironclad warship commissioned by the U.S. Navy — made necessary by the advent of warships equipped with cannons, and made possible by steam propulsion technology that could sustain the weight of the armor. In March 1862, it engaged the Merrimack off the coast of Hampton Roads in the “Battle of the Ironclads,” one of the most famous encounters of the Civil War.

The Monitor went down on Dec. 31, 1862, in a storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C. Most of the crew was able to abandon ship and survive, but 16 men went down with the vessel. When the turret was raised in 2002, archaeologists found one full skeleton and parts of others still inside.

Gallaudet said the conservation effort is important because it will allow current and future generations to learn from the significant relics from the past.

The USS Monitor Center at the museum also houses the ship’s propeller, as well as hundreds of artifacts recovered from the turret. Hoffman notes that still more artifacts could be discovered once the roof is disassembled to provide better access.

At a nearby work station, material culture specialist Hannah Fleming works on detailed pencil sketches of a broken glass cover that was part of a lantern in the Monitor’s engine room. She explains that the reason this glass shattered is that it was hot from the lantern’s flame; when the glass hit the cold water, it broke instantly. A similar piece of glass that had been on the deck of the ship went into the same water and remained intact.

“We do this interpretation using archaeological theory and methodology, but it’s really about getting back to the people on the ship and telling their stories,” Fleming said. “We can use the smallest artifact to tell stories about who was on the ship and who built it. The stories are what this process is all about.”

Howard Hoege, president and CEO of The Mariners’ Museum, agrees that the conservation effort is as much about preserving stories as it is about preserving physical relics.

And he notes that the work being done now actually parallels the story of the Monitor itself.

“They call the Monitor the little ship that saved the nation,” Hoege said. “The crew had African Americans and immigrants and people from all different backgrounds, working together toward a common purpose of ensuring the survival of our nation.

“Our mission is to tell that story. And to have the Newport News shipyard, and Colonna’s shipyard, and Fair Lead Boat Works, and Hampton Rubber Company all working together with us — it feels like this is about something bigger than just getting the job done. It feels very appropriate.”

Mike Holtzclaw, 757-928-6479, mholtzclaw@dailypress.com, Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.

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