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Shipwreck discovered in 1970 off New Jersey identified as 19th-century steamer

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 28th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Discovered off the shores of New Jersey in 1970, a 19th Century shipwreck had long perplexed historians and marine biologists. That mystery has been solved: the ship, known as the Robert J. Walker was a steamer used to map the United States coastline. It sank below the ocean waves on June 21, 1860 after a commercial vessel slammed into it.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The ship was commissioned in 1847 and was one of the first iron-hulled steamers in the U.S. The Walker was used by the Coast Survey, commissioned in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson to chart the nation's coastline and produce nautical maps.

Surveying the Florida Keys and the area around Mobile, Alabama, the Coast Survey stepped up its efforts to map harbors that would be strategically important during the looming Civil War.

The Walker had completed surveying the Gulf of Mexico. Sailing to New York on June 21, 1860, a commercial schooner slammed into it about 10 miles off the New Jersey Coast. The ship sank in half an hour. Twenty of its 66 crewmembers died in the wreck.

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," The New York Herald reported.

The Walker was discovered by a commercial fisherman in 1970 about 85 feet below the surface. Its identity remained a mystery.

Wreck divers collaborated with NOAA researchers and maritime archaeologists to identify the ship. Using sonar to map the dimensions of the ship, the divers mapped the wreckage location and pored over historical records.
 
"Before this identification was made, the wreck was just an anonymous symbol on navigation charts," Rear Adm. Gerd Glang, director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Coast Survey, said in a statement.

"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."

The location of the wreck made it likely it was the Walker. It was even pointing toward Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City, N.J., where the ship was heading as it desperately tried to stay afloat.

Divers then spotted unique features, such as rectangular portholes and engines, which positively identified the ship.

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