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2008 Papahanaumokuakea Maritime Heritage Expedition
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Mission Blog: August 19, 2008
Interpreting the Churchill Site

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

Over the next three days, the expedition blog entries will discuss preliminary site interpretation for four of the shipwrecks we have been studying over the past weeks.  With this first installment, we  examine the first site the team documented nearly three weeks ago at French Frigate Shoals, the schooner Churchill.

 The complete site reports for the schooner Churchill (1917), the Pearl and Hermes (1822), and the Gledstanes (1837) will eventually be part of a publication series from NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program.  Right now, though, with the completion of the 2008 diving survey and production of the site maps (and as the Hi’ialakai rolls southward on its three-day transit back to French Frigate Shoals), it is possible to make some preliminary observations and interpretations, and maybe even raise some new questions regarding these resources and solicit assistance as well.  Each wreck site is a window into seafaring history.  What do these shipwreck sites tell us? 

The four-masted schooner Churchill was lost at French Frigate Shoals on September 27, 1917.  After being rescued by the local sampan Makaiwa, the Churchill’s crew charged the captain and first mate with the intentional destruction of the ship.  So we have two maritime stories immediately associated with this event: 1) the role of American-built schooners in the Pacific (in this case the copra trade in Tonga); and 2) the vessel’s loss and subsequent intrigue of “espionage” charges during World War I.  Howard Chapelle’s The History of American Sailing Ships (1935) and David MacGregor’s The Schooner (1997) discuss the construction of these big vessels.  Various newspaper articles in the Honolulu Star Bulletin (Oct. 30, 1917), Oakland Tribune (Dec. 19, 1917), and the criminal court records (case no. 1309) for the U.S. District Court for the Territory of Hawaii, discuss the charges against Captain Charles Granzow.  He was discharged “nolle prosequi,” not enough evidence found to support the claim (documents courtesy of Clark Conger of Oahu). 

TFinding Order: Finding order within the chaos: can you spot the artifacts in this photo? (deadeye, chainplate, bilge pump fly wheel, wire rigging, pump crank shaft)  Image courtesy NOAA ONMS

Finding Order: Finding order within the chaos: can you spot the artifacts in this photo? (deadeye, chainplate, bilge pump fly wheel, wire rigging, pump crank shaft) Image courtesy NOAA ONMS

Is this site the wreck of the Churchill?  Strong circumstantial evidence points to this identification.  Diagnostic artifacts at the site - including parts of the hand-operated windlass, the specific sizes and estimated weights of the three large iron anchors, the double-acting hand-operated ship's pumps, and numerous iron-strap blocks, cargo pulleys, deadeyes and chain plates appear consistent with the 178-foot, 600-ton schooner and with the historic photograph of the ship supplied by Steven Priske of San Francisco.  The smaller diameter chain cable and lashing gear may have once secured lumber on deck during the Churchill’s earlier voyages. Even though the site looks somewhat like a random assemblage of materials at first, there is nothing found here that does not come from the construction of large wooden schooners, and the distribution of features on the site seem to correspond roughly to the layout of the ship’s bow and midships area. 

The emerging map: a close up of the anchor area from the current working draft of the site plan.  Image courtesy NOAA ONMS

The emerging map: a close up of the anchor area from the current working draft of the site plan. Image courtesy NOAA ONMS

With the archaeological survey and completed site plan, another story emerges from French Frigate Shoals.  While the site contains a plethora of artifacts, in reality, there should be many many more.  A four-masted 178-foot wooden vessel is constructed of literally thousands of iron and copper and bronze components.  Where are they? Usually the larger of these do not deteriorate very quickly nor move very far from the main wreck site.  Where is the heavy hardware such as the gudgeons and pintles found at the stern, or the anchor chain near the bow?  The Churchill’s Certificate of Registry indicates a donkey (auxiliary) engine and boiler to assist in raising and lowering sail, etc., not found on the site, though seen on other wrecks in high energy environments.  The answer comes from a single article in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser: “JA Cummins Sails to Salvage Copra Cargo of Churchill” (PCA November 2nd 1917). Besides the cargo of dried coconut meat in sacks, which “should pay handsomely” (in the neighborhood of $15,000), the article states that “the rigging of the stranded vessel is worth considerable, for since the beginning of the war, the prices of these sailing requisites have consistently aviated [sic].  It was rumored last night that several other vessels of the smaller fleets are preparing to sail for the scene.”  The race to French Frigate Shoals between the Oahu Shipping Company and competing salvage vessels in November 1917 was on.  The field survey indicates that much usable gear may have been recovered.  “Wrecking” or salvage cruises were once a lucrative business, supplied by the navigational hazards of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 

(A nice theory…but then, why not take the iron anchors that were left there?)

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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