Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
Rediscovering the Robert J. Walker

HISTORY OF THE ROBERT J. WALKER

Robert J. Walker was built in the first half of the nineteenth century in a time when the United States Government was beginning to expand its role in the surveying, marking, and control of its coastal waters. It was also a time, with the Industrial Revolution, in which steam technology as well as iron hulls were being adopted in the maritime and naval communities. Britain's Royal Navy adopted steam as a means of propulsion in the early 19th century, although interest in the technology dated to the end of the last century. American interest paralleled Britain's, with the first steam paddle warship in America, Robert Fulton's Demologos, a single, central paddle-propelled craft, being briefly tested and abandoned in 1815. These early steamers were wooden-hulled; it would not be until 1820 when the first all-iron hull, the British steamer Aaron Manby, would be built.

AN EPISODE INVOLVING AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN MEMBER OF THE CREW OF ROBERT J. WALKER

Walker's crews were diverse and included naval and merchant marine veterans, immigrants, foreign nationals, and a racially diverse crew which often included African-Americans. Walker figured in an incident involving one of its black sailors while in Charleston in what seems to have been late 1858. The sailor, G.E. Stevens, explained in a letter to J.C. White from Pensacola on early January 8, 1859 that:

My duty on board this ship required that I should go ashore. The laws of South Carolina forbade my doing so. The day after I arrived I was ordered ashore and obeyed. When walking up King Street I was seized and arraigned before the Mayor. Fortunately for me, a young gentleman, a friend of Captain Huger (the Capt. of the Walker) saw the arrest and informed him immediately. The Captain rendered securities and I was released.

The original letter from Mr. Stevens to Mr. White is in the archives of Howard University. The incident is recounted in Dorothy Sterling's 1973 book, Speak Out in Thunder Tones: Letters and Other Writings by Black Northerners, 1787-1865.

Commercial vessels, not naval, became the primary means by which steam technology advanced, but official (and naval) interest continued the monitor developments, and in 1821, Britain launched its first paddle vessel for the navy, the steam tug Comet. The 1830s and 1840s were a period of continued adoption of steam, and experiments in design of the hulls, machinery and propulsion. Britain ordered its first iron-hulled steamer in January 1843.

Iron hulls did not weigh as much as a comparable wooden hull (about 20 percent less) and with smaller frames and bulkheads possessing about 20 percent more internal space, and being a rigid structure were "better able to resist vibration" from steam machinery than wood. While not always favored because of the brittle nature of wrought iron, improvements in metal technology and steam machinery in the 1850s and 1860s and the battle success of ironclads in the Civil War ultimately led to the abandonment of wooden-hulled warships as well as merchant steamers.

Built for the United States Revenue Marine for the enforcement of customs, Walker was one of eight transitional iron-hulled steamers constructed in the 1840s by the United States Government to "naval designs" and to test through practical application various theories of construction and propulsion - in the latter, different types of paddlewheels as well as propellers. There was enthusiasm in the ranks of the Revenue Marine for iron hulls, Captain William A. Howard writing that not only would iron-hulled steamers be stronger than wood, but that they would also not rot, be damaged by marine borers, and would cost 50 percent less to repair over a 20-year time period than a comparable wooden ship.

The U.S. Navy was at the same time also building iron steamers; one, the gunboat USS Michigan, was built expressly for service on the Great Lakes (Rodgers 1996). While this was a period of steady adoption of iron in shipbuilding, it remained highly individualistic as various yards and builders experimented.

monitor
The launching of the USS Monitor on January 30, 1862 from Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, N.Y. Harpers' Weekly, September 1862. (Monitor Collection, NOAA)
The Revenue Marine proceeded with an initial request for bids to construct six iron steamers in April 1843, and soon had contracts in place to build the steamers Spencer, Bibb, Dallas, and McLane, with an experimental paddlewheel invented by naval officer William W. Hunter, and two steamers, Legare and Jefferson, with helicoidal propellers designed by inventor John Ericsson, who would later design and launch the famous ironclad warship USS Monitor.

The contracts for the six steamers were followed by contracts for two sidewheel steamships, Polk and Walker, in December 1844 and January 1845. While work on the last two setamers progressed - slowly - the Hunter wheel-propelled vessels proved to be failures. They were leaky, slow and inefficient in their consumption of coal and in excessive wear and tear on their machinery which necessitated expensive repairs and cost overruns. Ultimately, some of the vessels were refitted with new propulsion systems and were ultimately transferred out of the Revenue Marine.

Polk was completed at Richmond, Virginia in March 1847. Meanwhile, work on the last of the iron steamers, Robert J. Walker, slowly progressed. Named for United States Senator Robert John Walker of Mississippi (1801-1869), who served as Secretary of the Treasury in the cabinet of President James K. Polk from 1845 to 1849, Walker was built at the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania shipyard of Joseph Tomlinson in 1847. Tomlinson and his business partner Samuel Stackhouse were ship and engine-builders of considerable reputation. Tomlinson, in addition to ships and engines later built rail cars and constructed two ironclad river monitors for the U.S. Navy at the end of the Civil War.

The contract to build Walker was issued in 1846, but work did not commence until March 1847. Delays in obtaining the iron from the mill and bad weather delayed the start of work. Tomlinson finally launched the 358-ton Robert J. Walker on November 27, 1847. Richard Evans, the Commandant of the Revenue Marine and also serving as Walker's master, called the steamer "the finest iron vessel ever built in this country."

After being rigged (Walker carried two masts with a brigantine rig) and being fitted with its 32-pdr. guns and ammunition, the steamer left Pittsburgh on December 14 for New Orleans and thence to its home port of Mobile on December 14, 1847. Soon after arrival, instead of heading to Mobile, Walker was transferred by the Revenue Marine to the United States Coast Survey at New Orleans on February 11, 1848. The reason for the quick transfer was explained in 1852 by Benjamin Isherwood, Chief Engineer of the United States Navy:

    The experiment tried by the Treasury, of substituting steam for sailing cutters, having signally failed from the too large size of the steamers, the expense of maintaining them, and the abortive character of their machinery and propelling instruments, they were either turned over to the Coast Survey, or otherwise disposed of. Of the eight, only three now remain in the Government service, viz: the Legarè, the Bibb, and the Walker, and they are employed as Surveying Steamers.

The United States Coast Survey, established in 1807, was expanding its coastal surveys under an energetic new Superintendent, Alexander Dallas Bache, appointed in 1843 to succeed the first Superintendent Ferdinand Hassler, who had initially led the Survey from 1816-1818, and then resumed his post when the Survey was reauthorized and commenced duties again in 1832. Robert J. Walker, incidentally, was a brother-in-law of Alexander Dallas Bache, who now had a vessel in his fleet named for a family member.

The U.S. Coast Survey's officers had watched the arrival of steam with considerable interest, and advocated the use of steamers in survey because of the "independence of steam against wind and tide:"

    Having the means of going in any direction, the surveyor is able to make a comprehensive and careful project of his work, and to carry it out with certainty; while, with sails only, he is obliged to accommodate his traverse to the direction of the wind and the course of the tide, and generally much time is lost in retracing his steps to windward to obtain a suitable position...the most favorable days for sounding are those on which the sea is calm, and then the steamer will accomplish the best work, both in amount and quality; but the sailing vessel lies idle for want of motive power. When sounding in deep water, it is often necessary to lessen the speed in order to get the depth accurately, and to ascertain the character of the bottom. The steam vessel docs this easily, without diverging from her track; the sail vessel must change her course and lie to. By this, time is lost, labor is increased, and the continuity of the lines is broken.

Therefore, while the Revenue Marine was less than happy with their new steamers' failure as armed vessels patrolling and requiring fast response time, this was not a requirement for a survey steamship, and as the poorest part of the government's sea services, the Coast Survey was willing to accept the Revenue Marine's cast-offs.

The United States Coast Survey was also a sister agency of the Revenue Service, and both operated under the auspices of the United States Treasury Department. The Revenue Service temporarily reverted to sailing vessels while the Coast Survey embraced steam technology, particularly for offshore operations. The first of these vessels was Bibb, followed by Walker, Legare, and Jefferson. An additional steam vessel, Hetzel, was transferred from the Army quartermaster department while a small steamer, Active, was procured on the Pacific coast, following the loss of Jefferson on the coast of Patagonia while in transit to San Francisco.

As Historian Albert Theberge notes, Walker also joined the Coast Survey at a time when, under Bache the

    Coast Survey experienced a remarkable expansion in its operations and responsibilities. Geographically, the coasts of Texas, Washington, Oregon, and California were added to the United States. New projects were begun and old functions expanded. The coastal triangulation network was continued north into Maine and south to Cape Hatteras, while beginnings of survey work were made in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Survey crews were sent to the western coast, although work did not begin there in earnest until 1850. Studies of the Gulf Stream were commenced in 1845 by the Coast Survey in a project that heralded the beginnings of modern oceanography. Many improvements were introduced in instrumentation and methodology that greatly improved the efficiency and accuracy of the work. The project to determine the differences of longitude between prominent points on the eastern seaboard of the United States and European observatories continued. The major hydrographic accomplishment of this half decade was the survey of Nantucket Shoals. These few years marked the period when Bache placed his indelible stamp upon the Coast Survey and were halcyon days with discoveries, inventions, and increased responsibilities coming one after the other (Theberge 1998:144)

After transfer from the Revenue Service, Walker was assigned to the portion of the United States coastline designated Section VIII by the Coast Survey. This section extended from Dauphin Island to Vermillion Bay including the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The primary working area of Walker remained Section VIII for the next eleven years. The ship was turned over to the Coast Survey on February 11, 1848, and placed under the command of Lieutenant (Commanding) Carlile P. Patterson, destined to become the fifth superintendent of the Coast Survey. As the previous month Patterson had used the schooner Forward for survey work in the vicinity of Mobile Bay entrance and continued the work in Walker, the basis for a direct comparison of the cost of sail versus steam for surveying purposes was established. Patterson reported that for a given unit of hydrographic surveying production in offshore waters where the steamship was the primary surveying platform, it was 40% less costly to operate than a sailing vessel. This report helped assure the growth of the steam vessel fleet in the Coast Survey.

In its first year, Walker finished surveying the offshore approaches to Mobile Bay and the approaches to Cat and Ship Islands. The work accomplished by the vessel also helped to determine the somewhat unique nature of tides in the Gulf of Mexico. Because of the small range of tides in the Gulf of Mexico coupled with the great influence of winds on the tidal levels, it was a triumph of perseverance and analysis to discern that the tides in this area were composed of only one high and one low per day as opposed to the twice daily tides of both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Studies of shifting channels, accreting and eroding barrier islands, and appearing and disappearing islands, all issues in the Gulf of Mexico today were first noted in the 1848 report. In addition, the commercial significance of the survey of Mobile Bay and entrance was not lost on the Mayor of Mobile: "...We trust sir, that the labors you are about to bestow upon Mobile Bay will fully confirm our present anticipations, and establish beyond controversy, the fact that our bay and harbor are capable of affording at least equal facilities with any other southern port to shipping of any description." (Appendix No. 17, 1848 Report. P. 107.) Although plans were in the making for a Mobile and Ohio Railroad, it was necessary to assure that Mobile Bay would be able to handle deep draft vessels if the railroad was to be successful.

June 24, 1848 marked the end of Walker's first season, and it returned to New York on July 29th. The Coast Survey's annual report gave no statistics for the cruise other than the vessel and crew had acquired 2,000 lineal miles of hydrographic data. Over an 11 year period, an average of 47 miles per hydrographic mile was made. Extrapolating, the ship made approximately 100,000 soundings in 1848.

On January 16, 1849 Patterson and the crew went from the Schooner Phoenix to Walker. Work commenced in Mobile Bay on February 26. During this season, the ship surveyed 145 square miles in Mobile Bay, obtained 71, 745 soundings, and ran 1,160 lineal miles. Work ended July 3rd. Patterson recommended the placement of numerous buoys and fixed aids to navigation in Mobile Bay, Cat Island Harbor, and Ship Island Harbor. Notable on this cruise was the death of Passed Assistant Surgeon Silas Holmes, who was lost by drowning on May 21st.

In 1850, James Alden replaced Patterson as the commanding officer. Walker was apparently left in the Gulf of Mexico, probably the naval base at Pensacola, and was used by another, unnamed agency (an unauthorized use according to Bache which "deranged" plans for work in Section 8.) The ship was not ready for use by the Coast Survey until March and there were also delays caused by being unable to crew the ship. However, Alden did do a reconnaissance of Cedar Keys, Florida, and reported the existence of a shoal extending out eight or ten miles from Sea Horse Key and recommended establishing a light at the end of the shoal.

Alden completed a survey of Mobile Delta and almost completed the survey of Mobile Bay. In all, the ship and crew gathered 25,096 soundings in a shortened season with a 536 mile run in the bay. After closing work in the section, Walker proceeded to Key West and Norfolk where the ship was turned over to S. P. Lee for work offshore of the Virginia Capes and Maryland. This was one of the few occasions when Walker conducted work anywhere but in Section VIII. Under Lee, Walker obtained 22, 029 soundings in the offshore areas and 31,117 soundings by boat in bay areas. 1,115 sounding miles were run in outside work and 518 miles by boat in the bay. In late September, the vessel was returned to Alden.

In 1851, Walker was occupied in offshore work south of Dauphin Island and Petit Bois Island, and in in-shore work north of the same islands, and in special examinations of Pass Christian Harbor and the mouths of the Mississippi. A steam-launch, specially constructed for inshore and harbor work was lost in a storm off the Chandeleur Islands in May. In the early part of the season, James Alden was in command and finished the survey of Bon Secours Bay, the southeast corner of Mobile Bay. After this Benjamin F. Sands took over as commanding officer and commenced the work described above. As noted earlier, Sands would remain commanding officer of the vessel until 1858. Walker worked off the Mississippi Delta, where "the marshes have made out seaward, mud-lumps have been washed away, and other formed." Alden's work encompassed 13,760 soundings and 223 miles of sounding line while Sands' work included 28,244 soundings and 688 miles of sounding. Walker was relegated to a repair facility at the end of the season and received new boilers.  According to Benjamin Isherwood, “During the present year, the Walker has been refitted with new boilers at the works of Messrs. Merrick & Son, Philadelphia” (Isherwood 1852:50).  This machinery remained in place for the remainder of Walker’s life.

Following the repairs, in 1852 Walker continued surveying in Mississippi Sound from Dauphine Island to the longitude of Round Island including Horn Island Passage,made outside soundings (ten miles to sea) from the middle of Petit Bois Island to the middle of Horn Island, conducted a reconnaissance to the South and Southwest Passes of the Mississippi Delta, and made a survey of Naso Roads at the north end of Chandeleur Island.  65,362 soundings were taken over 1,486 miles of sounding line.  Sands’ executive officer this year was Charles Manigault Morris, who would during the Civil War be the last commander of the raider CSS Florida.  There is no mention of whether the ship returned north or was laid up at Pensacola this season.  Other notable events involving Walker’s crew that year included the deaths of the second and third assistant engineers in a fever epidemic.

In 1853, Walker, under Sands’ command, engaged in checking for changes to hydrography in the vicinity of Ship Shoal , Horn Island Pass, and Chandeleur Islands at the beginning of the season in response to the Great Mobile Hurricane of 1852 (a precursor of modern work in clearing channels and checking for obstructions in the wake of every great coastal storm).  The ship then began work in Mississippi Sound.  The crew made 69,079 soundings over 1,430 sounding miles.  The ship was laid up in Pensacola following the 1853 season, probably sometime in June.  Following the season, the crew laid up Walker in Pensacola.

In 1854, there was difficulty procuring crew so the field season did not begin until mid-march.  The season began with searching for a shoal at 27° N 89° W south of the “Belize,”(the east pass of the Mississippi River).   Deep sea soundings and temperature measurements were made as far south as 26° 40’.  “What is not a little curious is, that the bottle thrown overboard in latitude 28° 58’, in the longitude of Mobile, where the surface temperature was 69 degrees, was found near Jupiter Inlet, on the eastern coast of Florida, having found its way to, probably by wind and counter-currents, into the comparatively warm current of the Gulf Stream.”  This observation is perhaps the first indication of the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current.   The bottle was thrown over on April 8, 78 miles south of the west end of Dauphin Island and found two months later on June 6 by a Mr. Douglas Dummet near Mosquito Inlet.  The bottle had traveled over 750 miles if it had taken a straight course over the 59 days.  Total statistics included 11,943 soundings obtained over 1,167 miles.  11,602 of those soundings were made outside of Horn and Ship Islands.  The season was closed on June 1st with Sands taking Walker to Philadelphia for repairs and he in turn reporting to Washington for office work. 

The ship apparently left Philadelphia in December 1854 and attempted to run a line of deep sea soundings from Key West to the Mississippi Passes, but poor weather made it impossible to sound in waters deeper than 250 fathoms.  January 1855 ended up with a succession of gales that were repaired in February during periods of foggy and hazy weather.  Work continued on the Mississippi coast and offshore islands and ultimately the year’s work was the most productive of Walker’s career with 105,591 soundings acquired over 2,319 miles of sounding line.  Sands invented a bottom sampling device during this season that worked on all attempts except one, which failed when it seemingly encountered a hard rocky bottom.  Sands ran soundings in the Gulf Stream while running north at the end of the season and then in October ran the section south from Nantucket, one of the more difficult sections run in the past because of its length. 

In 1856, Walker attempted to leave Philadelphia early in the year but was detained by ice on the Delaware River.  It attempted to leave in the middle of March but the ice damaged its paddlewheels necessitating further delay at New Castle for repair.   A stormy passage south allowed for no deep sea soundings until reaching the latitude of Cape Fear.  From there Walker ran soundings to Cape Canaveral.  From Key West it ran deep sea soundings north to the Mississippi Delta.  Walker reached Pass Christian on May 1 but proceeded to Pensacola for provisions as the weather was inclement for surveying.  On May 5th, operations commenced and continued till closing the season on June 11.  62,434 sounding were observed during the short season and 1,716 miles of sounding line.

Walker left Philadelphia on November 19, 1856 for the 1857 season and attempted deep sea soundings but poor weather in vicinity of Cape Hatteras stopped those efforts. Gales and boiler repairs at Key West delayed the arrival of Walker on its working grounds from Key West to Pensacola, finally departing from Pensacola on February 1. Despite the delays, Walker had a successful season working as far west as Bay St. Louis and then Chandeleur Sound.  The ship and crew ran a line of deep sea soundings from Pass a’l’Outre to Key West.  The deepest sounding observed was 1511 fathoms and brought up blue mud.  75,529 soundings were obtained during the working season over 1,832 miles of sounding line. The ship then returned to Philadelphia for winter lay up.

Walker left Delaware Bay on January 4th, 1858, having been detained due to shortage of officers. On January 20, 1858, Walker’s crew, as well as that of the nearby Coast Survey steamer Varina turned to help combat a major fire ashore at Fort Pickens while off Pensacola.  The Annual Report of the Coast Survey noted:

    While detained at Pensacola, assistance was rendered by Commander Sands, with the men and boats of the steamer WALKER, on the occasion of a fire which happened at Fort Pickens on the night of the 20th of January. On the day following the accident, a communication was addressed to him by Captain John Newton, corps of U.S. engineers, commanding the harbor of Pensacola, in acknowledgment of the obligation to the officers and crew, who, in conjunction with the hydrographic party in the C.S. schooner VARINA, had promptly repaired to the scene of the disaster (Coast Survey 1857:93)

Walker’s survey party commenced work in Atchafalaya Bay on February 6.  In March Walker conducted a hydrographic examination of the western end of Lake Borgne, with an additional 2,152  soundings made and  over 37 miles of sounding lines. Near the end of the season, Walker proceeded on a line of deep sea soundings from Southwest Pass to the Tortugas.  The deepest sounding ever obtained by the sounding was obtained on this line at 1710 fathoms.  The season ended on May 3, by which time the crew had obtained 75,951 soundings over 1,117 sounding miles.  Walker arrived in Philadelphia in early June.  Commander B. F. Sands was detached and Lieut. Cmdg. Thomas B. Huger became the next commanding officer of Walker in September, 1858 (Coast Survey 1858:106). 

Under Huger’s command, in 1859 Walker arrived on the west coast of Florida in early January and conducted an investigation of the channel into Cedar Key, Florida, with the crew making 15,102 soundings over a 166 mile run.  Walker then proceeded to Pensacola for provisioning and departed for Atchafalaya Bay on January 15, 1859.  On that run, 69,447 soundings were observed over 743 sounding miles.  During the survey work, Walker was primarily used as a hotel ship because of shallow waters in the working area.  The ship conducted deep sea soundings on the trip south to Key West and then ran a section of Gulf Stream from the Tortugas to Havana while on the way north.  In Philadelphia, Lt. Cmdg. John Julius Guthrie was assigned as Walker’s commanding officer on October 10, 1859.  He had served in the Navy continuously since 1834.

The 1860 season began on January 20th and continuing to the middle of February, as Walker conducted a thorough examination of the Cedar Key area on its way to the Gulf.  41,811 soundings were made and 467 miles of sounding run.  The work included 13,072 soundings 244 miles in Chandeleur Sound, and 34,916 soundings, 612 miles of sounding run on the Mississippi Passes, line although both Chandeleur Sound records and Mississippi Passes records were lost in the sinking of Walker.  Upon return to the Northeast in June, Walker stopped at Norfolk and thence planned to continue on to New York although the vessel was sunk on the night of June 21, 1860. 

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