Hidden Histories: The Quest to Put Names to Our Past

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Construction on the arcade of the Library wing, February 1935.

It began a few years ago with a handful of old, unlabeled photos. Images of workers who placed the bricks and the cinder blocks for the Museum’s walls and also installed the statues on Lions Bridge and in the Park. They were literally part of the very foundation of our Museum. Then the questions began. What were their names and their stories? Why were they so important to our Museum, but we didn’t know who they were? What we found, and are still finding, has evolved into one of the most interesting, impactful, heartbreaking, joyous, and eye opening projects we have ever worked on. A project we named “Hidden Histories.”

The earliest beginnings of the project actually started from several other initiatives. A quest to gather as much information about our Park and grounds as possible, and a look forward to our 100th Anniversary coming up in 2030. The emphasis on our Park is part of a long term project focused on issues like conservation, sustainability, ecology, preservation and the history of the area. This work has helped with the formation of our new Park Department which was announced earlier this month. The 100th Anniversary project is taking a look back at our history and also a look forward to see where we are headed in the future.

Both projects led to the discovery of photos showing the men who did the construction on our Museum and Park. As well as a number of images showing members of our Museum team dating from the 1930s and beyond. The photos are part of our Institutional Collection that documents what happens here. They include famous visitors, parties, exhibitions, large artifacts arriving, personnel photos, and just about anything else related to our day to day activities. While we knew what types of photos we would find in the collection, we didn’t anticipate finding out what we didn’t have. The men’s identities and a realization that despite our Museum’s focus on inclusion and connections within our community, we hadn’t made a connection with ourselves. In the 91 years since the first of those photos were taken, we hadn’t made a connection with the men who were the very foundation of our success. And the hard truth is that because of who they were, no one in the 1930s thought it important enough to label these images and ensure they would be known by their names and faces. The time was way overdue to correct this.   Read more

Gosport Navy Yard: Before the Storm

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Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, ca. 1840. Historical Recollections of Va, Henry Howe, 1852. Library of Congress.
Gosport’s Beginnings

Gosport Navy Yard, located in Portsmouth, across the Elizabeth River from the busy port of Norfolk, Virginia, was one of the largest shipyards in the United States. Norfolk merchant Andrew Sprowl established the yard in 1767. Sprowl remained a loyalist when the Revolutionary War erupted. The yard was confiscated by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and then burned by the British in 1779.

The yard remained inactive until 1794, when the property was leased by the United States. Captain Richard Dale served as the superintendent for this new government shipyard. When the US Navy was formally established in 1798, it assumed operation of the yard and designated it as the Gosport Navy Yard.

The frigate USF Chesapeake, commissioned in 1799, was the first warship constructed at Gosport. The yard was purchased from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1801 with Captain Samuel Barron as its first superintendent.

America’s Finest Navy Yard

Gosport Navy Yard reached its peak during the late 1850s, employing more than 1,400 workers. The completion of the steam screw frigates USS Roanoke and USS Colorado in 1859 proved the yard’s capabilities to construct modern warships for the US Navy.

Despite all these successes and improvements, the sectional crisis of 1860 cast a spell of gloom over Gosport Navy Yard. The workforce had dropped to fewer than 700, and little work was accomplished. Only 75 men were repairing USS Germantown, and construction of the new ship house had virtually stopped.

Almost a dozen ships could be found at the yard, either placed in ordinary or awaiting various types of repairs. These United States vessels included:  Pennsylvania, 120 guns; Columbus, 74 guns; Delaware, 74 guns; New York, 74 guns; United States, 50 guns; Columbia, 50 guns; Raritan, 50 guns;  Merrimack, 40 guns; Plymouth, 22 guns; Germantown, 22 guns; and Dolphin, four guns.

Many of the United States warships in the yard were dismantled or in various states of repair. The Pennsylvania was stuck in the mud,  serving as a receiving ship, while Delaware and Columbus were in the “Rotten Row” section of the lower wharf, deemed basically worthless.

Gosport in Confusion

By early 1861, Gosport was in “disorder and confusion,” according to Federal Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Considering the impending crisis in Charleston, Welles ordered USS Cumberland, already anchored near the yard awaiting repairs and under the command of Flag Officer Garrett J. Pendergrast, to remain in Hampton Roads to protect Gosport and Fort Monroe. Welles believed that Cumberland’s 24 guns could act as a deterrent to any secessionist move against any nearby Federal facilities.

One reason for the unprepared state and utter confusion at Gosport Navy Yard was its leadership. The problem primarily rested squarely on the shoulders of the yard’s commandant, Flag Officer Charles Stewart McCauley. McCauley had served in the US Navy since he was 15 years old. He fought on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812.

In 1834, McCauley was given command of his first ship and promoted to captain in 1839. McCauley’s career included: command of both the Pacific and Atlantic squadrons; command of the Washington Navy Yard during the Mexican War; and later, served as commander of the Home Squadron.

McCauley was appointed commandant of Gosport Navy Yard in 1860, and it appeared to be a wise choice. However, the 67-year-old officer was rumored to have taken to drink, and was often ridiculed for being too old for active command. During the tense days of April 1861, many would question his decision-making abilities.

The Navy-Yard at Norfolk, Virginia. Harper’s Weekly, March 16, 1862.

Gosport’s Importance 

Gosport Navy Yard was recognized as a key naval resource by the North and South alike in early April 1861. While most of the older and outdated ships in ordinary were of limited value, it was the yard itself— its machinery, shipbuilding assets, supplies and armaments, coupled with the steam screw frigate USS Merrimack — that was seen as the valued asset that would enable creating or breaking any blockade possible. In spring 1861, all eyes looked greedily upon Gosport; however, poor Union leadership would result in the Confederates securing the wherewithal to build a navy.

Excerpted from CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender, John V. Quarstein. (Charleston, SC: The History Press), 2012. Available in the Museum’s Web Shop: https://www.google.com/url?q=https://shop.marinersmuseum.org/sink-before-surrender-pb.html&sa=D&source=hangouts&ust=1587055613966000&usg=AFQjCNGlDlDHoLEWTXRLO71bPBmtARqV5A

Scraps of the Past

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Click on the picture to read the text! From The Mariners’ Museum collections.

Hello readers and welcome back to the Library bog. Some of you may remember a previous Director of The Mariners’ Museum named William Wilkinson, who served from 1973 until 1991. When Wilkinson passed away in March of 2010 he left behind a grand legacy to the Museum, which includes the Chesapeake Bay gallery, recognition of the Mueum as a prestigious museum, and a beautiful treasure: a scrapbook on the SS United States.


Wilkinson’s scrapbook contains a wide variety of material, from articles and photographs to souvenir logs and even meal menus. The largest collection of items is a series of articles covering a range of topics that are almost entirely comprised of newspaper clippings. These clippings report on the launching of the ship, her attainment of the transatlantic speed record, and many other notable features the ship possesses. After the articles, the most numerous type of object is a series of meal menus. These menus detail some of the exquisitely prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner options available to the passengers. Some of the options make ones’ mouth water, but others – like Smoked Ox Tongue and Boiled Pig’s Knuckles from the July 20th 1957 Luncheon Menu – force your eyes to quickly dart away before your appetite spoils.


There are a host of other pieces in Wilkinson’s scrapbook – a postcard, photograph booklets, passenger list and even a handwritten note. The care and attention given to the preservation of all these items, particularly the articles, shows just how much the SS United States meant to Wilkinson. The pieces span years of time and cover such a wide range of possible items that one can’t help but be awed by the collection. Exploring the scrapbook is almost like going back in time: you get a hint at what it must have been like, seeing the same newspaper clippings, pictures and meal options as people back then did. And isn’t that part of what makes scrapbooking special? The ability to access such intimate, firsthand relics from the SS United States is truly a treasure worth having.

A Byte of History

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People who remember traveling on the great ship have bought bits of the places that were special to them, like the Promenade Deck pictured above. From The Mariners' Museum Collection.

Hello readers, and welcome back to the Library blog. Julie Zauzmer, a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, posted an interesting article on Philly.com today (article HERE). The SS United States Conservancy has created a virtual copy of the SS United States in order to raise money for the conservation of the real ship. Donors can purchase virtual pieces of the vessel for the price of $1 per square inch, and use that space to display things like photographs and messages. Creating a virtual ship like this is an interesting step not just the SS United States, but for museums in general: when you need to quickly raise funds or awareness for a project, what better way than by using the internet? The Conservancy has given an electronic version of the ship to the people, and let them run with it.

Financially, the project is off to an admirable start. The Conservancy needs $25 million to renovate the ship and convert its interior into a museum, and has raised $6 million already. The catch is that their current allotment of money will only allow them to hold on to the ship until November of this year. After that, the SS United States will be sold for scrap metal. A poor end for the flagship of the American merchant fleet and the world’s fastest transatlantic passenger ship.


I think the SS United States needs help. Selling space a dollar at a time may not seem like much, but I get the feeling that the Conservancy is hoping that engaging the public with a virtual ship will garner them enough publicity to raise the bulk of the funds they need. Perhaps enough publicity for a few large-scale donors, even. After all, they say that big things have small beginnings: give the virtual ship a look at http://www.savetheunitedstates.org/ and see if you feel like being part of something grand.

Second article HERE.

Sketching History

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The bow of the ship takes form behind a thin veil of scaffolding. From The Mariners' Museum Collection.

Hello readers and welcome back to the Library blog! I have a special treat for you today: a glimpse at the birth of the fastest ocean liner ever built, the SS United States! Launched in 1952, the United States was at that time the largest passenger ship ever constructed in the United States.  She served in a place of honor as her namesake nation’s crown jewel for 17 years. Although retired in 1969 and currently in a state of disrepair, the United States deserves recognition for not just the people it ferried across the Atlantic, but for the engineering prowess and detailed specialization with which it fulfilled its role.


In a series of black and white pencil sketches, the artist C. E. Parkhurst captures the construction process of the United States as each piece of her frame – funnel, keel, stern, bow and propeller shaft – slowly comes into being. The pieces are shown individually at first, as each sketch focuses on a different aspect of the ship’s construction. By just looking at the sketch out of context, the individual pieces seem rather commonplace. It’s when one gets to the last of his sketches that one can see the pieces assembled into the whole, with the now-recognizable ship standing ready to sail into history.


The individual sections of the United States contribute to a unified ship that is far greater than any of its parts. In a way, the legacy of the United States can be interpreted in much the same way. When one comments on the ship being the fastest ocean liner, or the biggest liner built in America, or the crowning engineering marvel of its day, one does not see the whole picture – it’s when you take these facts and mold them together that you can understand the whole story of the United States. If you want to explore this story for yourself, The Mariners’ Museum Library has a lovely collection of books, pictures and records on the United States, including photographs of her construction and launching, as well as a hefty record of the plans to convert the SS United States into a troop transport. For more information on that particular record, stay tuned for more postings from the Library blog!