By Walter Bonora
National Marine Sanctuary Program
The ocean and Great Lakes are littered with the remains of ships that represent a storied and sometimes infamous maritime past. Many of these wrecks lie within the boundaries of national marine sanctuaries while others rest in state waters or at extreme ocean depths. Part of the sanctuary program’s mission is to document historical shipwrecks and find ways to protect these important sites and cultural resources that tell a story of our collective past.
One such story is unfolding in Alaska, where NOAA archaeologists are looking at the remains of the Hassler. Built in 1871 at a Camden, N.J., shipyard, the Hassler was the first Coast Survey vessel constructed from iron, and the most technologically advanced science vessel in the United States Coast Survey fleet. After a long career, the Hassler
was decommissioned by the U.S. government, sold and renamed Clara Nevada. The 151-foot ship came to a tragic end on Feb. 8, 1898, when it slammed into an uncharted rock in southeastern Alaska and sank, killing everyone on board. Its remains now rest in 30 feet of water.
“At the time, the Hassler represented innovation in iron shipbuilding,” said John Jensen, project lead. “The vessel was powered by an innovative compound steam engine and equipped with deep-sea dredging equipment.” Jensen, a nautical archaeologist and historian, is a professor of maritime studies at the Sea Education Association at Woods Hole.
The 2007 Hassler expedition, which followed a 2006 NOAA-funded expedition to survey shipwrecks in southeastern Alaska, accomplished several of its goals. “We are determining the extent of the wreck site,” said Tane Casserley, a maritime archaeologist with the sanctuary program and a member of the survey team, “and assessing
the site’s stability, documenting the archaeological details through still and video photography and manual sketching.”
Casserley added, “We are also compiling sufficient data to nominate the wreck to the National Register of Historic Places.”
The study of the wreck and of the Hassler’s history provides an important look at a transitional era in American shipbuilding and illuminates the U.S. Coast Survey’s role in promoting ocean science. An innovative ship with a rich history as a science and survey vessel, the Hassler was an ideal target for the expedition, which coincided with the 200th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Coast Survey.
The Hassler’s significance was also commemorated in June 2007 with the laying of the keel for the Ferdinand R. Hassler, the newest and most advanced survey vessel in NOAA’s fleet. Like its predecessor, the new twin-hulled coastal mapping vessel takes its name from the U.S. Coast Survey’s first superintendent, and it is considered among the world’s most technologically advanced research vessels.
To follow the researchers work, read more in our Hassler expedition coverage.