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2008 Papahanaumokuakea Maritime Heritage Expedition
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Mission Blog: August 12, 2008
USS Saginaw Artifact Recovery

By Hans Van Tilburg, Historian and Maritime Archaeologist
Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Pacific Islands Region

Today two very significant artifacts emerged from the ocean after 138 years on the sea floor, the bell of USS Saginaw and the ship's deep sea sounding lead.  The Saginaw, a Civil War era navy steamer, which served for ten years in the Pacific fleet, was lost at Kure Atoll in 1870.  The story of her crew, shipwrecked on a deserted island, and the heroic month-long open boat voyage of five volunteers back to the main Hawaiian Islands (four died in the rough landing on Kauai, only one remained to pass word of the distant castaways) is now a part of naval legend.  The ship's bell is symbolic of the identity of this historic side wheel steam vessel.  The heavy sounding lead, which would be cast into the sea on a line to check the depth, is associated with navigation among possible hazards, an ironic item found on a shipwreck site.  It was not being swung over the side on the night of the wreck.  The survey of the Saginaw wreck site, scattered among the twisting coral passages of the reef crest, was completed in 2006.

The Saginaw's deep sea sounding lead on the site.

The Saginaw's deep sea sounding lead on the site.

Calm weather made possible the successful recovery of the artifacts from what can be an inaccessible surf zone.  In fact, the team was able to locate new features not seen on the 2006 site survey and to pinpoint artifacts with handheld GPS units from the surface.  The copper alloy bell, retrieved from below a low overhang within the crevices of the reef crest zone, is in delicate shape.  The crown of the bell is fractured on one side, showing intrusion of multiple coral cobblestones which line the groove in the reef.  The exterior has been sanded by years of abrasion in the high energy environment...no number or name is visible at this stage.  It is possible that the years of salt water immersion have leached the alloy metal from the copper, leaving the artifact more brittle.  But archaeologists don't necessarily look for artifacts to be in perfect shape.  The Saginaw's bell shows the damage from the tragic impact with the coral reef, and the powerful influence of the marine environment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  The sounding lead, much smaller and heavier, survived the years in a more intact state. 

Cathy, Dee, and Kelly take measurements and create rough artifact sketches in the Hi'ialaki's dry lab.

Cathy, Dee, and Kelly take measurements and create rough artifact sketches in the Hi'ialaki's dry lab.

Following the work at the Saginaw site, the team dove along the northeast side of the reef crest, searching for the first signs of the British whaler Gledstanes, lost there in 1837.  Back on board the ship, divers cleanse their gear, photograph and sketch the artifacts, check scuba tanks, make plans for the following day, and...write blogs.  Add to that checking email and showering and eating dinner, the time vanishes.

Artifacts like these, when combined with the stories and images from specific events, provide a unique way to share our maritime heritage.  These pieces of USS Saginaw's story from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will be placed on display at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo, Hawaii.

To ask us questions, you can email the team at: sanctuaries@noaa.gov and we will answer your questions within the blog, or in a live internet broadcast later in the cruise. Again, stay tuned for details.

 

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