Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
Rediscovering the Robert J. Walker

150-year-old wreck identified as lost 19th century steamer

More than 153 years after it was lost in a violent collision at sea, government and university maritime archaeologists have identified the wreck of the ship Robert J. Walker, a steamer that served in the U.S. Coast Survey, a predecessor agency of NOAA.

The Walker, while now largely forgotten, served a vital role as a survey ship, charting the Gulf Coast - including Mobile Bay and the Florida Keys - in the decade before the Civil War. It also conducted early work plotting the movement of the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic Coast.

news headline of the loss of the walkerTwenty-one sailors died when the Walker sank in rough seas in the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, ten miles off Absecon Inlet on the New Jersey coast. The crew had finished its latest surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York when the Walker was hit by a commercial schooner off New Jersey. The side-wheel steamer, carrying 66 crewmembers, sank within 30 minutes. The sinking was the largest single loss of life in the history of the Coast Survey and its successor agency, NOAA.


In late June, 2013, the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, surveying in the area to chart post-Hurricane Sandy changes in coastal waters - an essential job to ensure safe navigation with a major part of the economy based on the movement of goods by water - transited the area where Robert J. Walker was known to have been lost and laid a memorial wreath on the water. Using the sophisticated sonar mapping technology of Thomas Jefferson, The Office of Coast Survey's Vitad Pradith, working with East Carolina University graduate student and archaeologist Joyce Steinmetz and the crew of Thomas Jefferson did a survey of the area and focused on the previously charted wreck thought to be Walker.

screengrab from underwater shipwreck
This video shows the area behind the bow and in the vicinity of the collision. The mud was recently moved, possibly by hurricane Sandy, exposing wool blankets used by the crew.

Click the image to view 10 videos taken during the expedition.
The sonar survey results and the coordinates for the wreck were then relayed to the Sanctuary Research Vessel SRVx, which was enroute to New York in response to a request to locate the Hurricane Sandy toppled remains of an historic lighthouse swept off its base and into Long Island Sound.

The SRVx crew, joined by a Maritime Heritage Program team and ONMS Director Dan Basta, and working under the direction of Chief Scientist and ONMS Maritime Heritage Director James Delgado, conducted a day and a half of systematic dives to 85 feet to study, measure and photograph the wreck in an effort to identify and assess its condition. Full report The Thomas Jefferson survey and the SRVx dives, along with the information provided by the sport divers, confirmed that the wreck
is Robert J. Walker.

Discover more about this wreck's fascinating history, some of the notable officers who served, the collision that took it down and its rediscovery and identification.

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