One hundred and thirty-nine years ago, powerful Atlantic Ocean waves swamped the Union Navy’s ironclad USS Monitor, and extinguished the flames of the engine’s boiler, stranding the battleship in a fierce gale that sent the battleship 240 feet to the ocean floor.
Yesterday, strapped to a 90-ton brace and dripping seawater, the 30-ton steam engine was slowly raised by a massive crane on a 300-foot floating barge, 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C.
The engine breached the sea’s surface at 11:56 a.m. before being placed on a smaller barge, by a Navy crew of riggers, divers and heavy-equipment operators.
The historic Civil War prize then began a 20-hour, 4-knot journey to the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., where it will be restored and displayed.
“It is a very unique engine. one of the first successful propeller engines. It powered the first modern warship,” said Curtiss Peterson, the museum’s chief conservator.
The crew and others on the barge cheered when the engine swaddled in an enormous netting more than two stories tall and affixed by yellow straps to the metal frame was safely placed on the barge.
The Navy divers have been working around the clock since their arrival in late June to separate the heavy, encrusted engine from the rest of the wreck.
The successful engine recovery was the culmination of a joint effort by the U.S. Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Va., to recover portions of the Monitor. The project was paid for by the Defense Department’s Legacy Grant, which provided $4.9 million for this year’s efforts.
When the barge and its weighty cargo reach Newport News today, the engine will be placed in a tank holding about 92,000 gallons of fresh water, so no more damage is done to the trophy. Throughout the journey, the engine will be constantly sprayed by more fresh water to prevent salt crystals from forming and expanding the cracks in the metal.
The Monitor gained military and naval fame on March 9, 1862, when it repulsed the CSS Virginia, a Confederate ironclad built on the hull of the USS Merrimack in a battle at Hampton Roads, Va.
Built in less than 100 days, the Monitor was the first to be solely powered by a steam engine and to use a rotating gun turret. Ridiculed as a “cheesebox on a raft” because of its odd design — its deck was only a foot above the surface and its engine and crew quarters were completely submerged — the ship fought the Confederate ship to a draw in battle and upheld the Union’s naval blockade.
Cleaning it, restoring it and polishing it up will take up to 10 years. It will be like putting a giant puzzle together, only harder. “You can’t rely on when you’re taking it apart. You more or less have to start from scratch and piece each part of the puzzle together. It’s incredible,” said Justin Lyons, spokesman for the Mariners’ Museum.
The Monitor’s propeller and hundreds of smaller artifacts have already been recovered from the wreck. The gun turret will be recovered next year.
“In the past two months, a large number of people coming in the door are asking, ‘Where is the Monitor?’” Mr. Lyons said. “The first thing they ask is where it’s coming. And it’s coming here. Without a doubt, we’ve seen an increase in people who are coming to the museum to see the Monitor.”
This article is based in part on wire service reports.