Lots of Mud, a Battleship, a Ferry, a T-shirt, High Tides, and a UFO.

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USS Wisconsin (BB-63)

What do a Battleship, 1950, mud, high tides, a Hudson River Ferry, a T-shirt, and a UFO all have in common?

To find out how they interconnect, let’s start with the Battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63). In 1950, the ship was already famous for her participation in WWII, and because the surrender that ended the war was signed on her deck. MISSOURI was nicknamed the “Mighty Mo” by her crew, but she was also known as the “Big Mo” to the public and in news reports. She would soon live up to them both names when she managed to get into a mighty big mess.

It all began on January 17, 1950. MISSOURI left Norfolk Naval Base and headed towards the Atlantic Ocean to begin a routine training cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Her Captain, William D. Brown, was new to the battleship, having just joined the crew in December. While he was an experienced naval officer, his previous commands had been submarines and destroyers and he had been on shore duty since the end of World War II. Although Captain Brown had taken MISSOURI on a few short trips off the coast of Virginia after he took command, he was essentially unfamiliar with the battleship and this would be his first time taking her out for a cruise.

The Navy had set up an acoustic range to capture the signature sounds made by ships and it was close to MISSOURI’s departure point. Captain Brown had been asked to take a previously unplanned trip through the range on his way out, and he was told that buoys had been set up to mark the area. This was important since the range was very close to shallow water.

Things started to go wrong pretty quickly. It turned out that some of the buoys had been removed and the navigational charts hadn’t been updated with that information. Not all the ship’s officers knew about the plan to take MISSOURI through the range, and some of them only heard about it just before the battleship headed in that direction. Another complication was that the range area was close to a fishing channel that was also marked with buoys.

Brown spotted what he thought was the marker for the right edge of the acoustic range and ordered the battleship to the left of the buoy. He ignored warnings by the navigator and the executive officer’s attempts to alert him, not realizing until much too late that he had made a mistake. Even though the tide was unusually high that day, MISSOURI was heading into the fishing channel and shallow water.

At 8:17 am, the “Mighty Mo” hit a sandbank in the Chesapeake Bay, about a mile and a half from Thimble Shoal Light and a mile off Old Point Comfort. The battleship, traveling at 12.5 knots, plowed 2,500 feet into the sandbar, bottoming out the ship and lifting her out of the water about seven feet above the waterline.
Now the ship was stuck just off the Army base at Fort Monroe, close to Thimble Shoals Lighthouse, the shipping channel, and within sight of the Naval Base.

Within a couple days, articles would start appearing in newspapers all across the country that “Mighty Mo” or “Big Mo” had grounded. These articles were quickly followed by reports of multiple failed attempts to free the battleship over the next two weeks. Bringing not only amusement to the onlookers and readers, but also quite a bit of humiliation to the Navy. Army personnel, finding the entire situation hilarious, discovered a new hobby. Partaking in the amenities of the Fort Monroe Officer’s Club while writing letters and composing telegrams containing suggestions on how to free the battleship. The public also got involved and sent suggestions too. The Navy was inundated with ideas, including one from a five-year-old boy in Indiana who told them they just needed to fix the bottom of the ship so she could float again.

After numerous failed attempts using a large number of tugboats, military vessels, small explosive charges, dredging, large cables, and other methods, MISSOURI was finally refloated on February 1, 1950, during another unusually high tide. Even after the ship was freed, the jokes continued. For most of 1950, anytime an accident involved a large amount of mud, the nickname “Mo” surfaced again. A situation was a “Big Mo,” like a plane that slid off an icy runway into the mud. A car that imitated the “Big Mo” or two boats that went aground in mud off New Jersey on the same day and the efforts to free them was named “Operation Big Mo”.

So now on to April 1950, the ferryboat and a point on the Hudson River in New York. There, two cities are located across from each other on the river. Newburgh, located in Orange County, and just one and a half miles away,  Beacon in Dutchess County. Both cities are about 55 miles from the New York metropolitan area. The Newburgh-Beacon Ferry system provided transport between the two cities with three commuter ferries named ORANGE, DUTCHESS, and BEACON. Usually, two of the three boats were in service at the same time, each moored at the opposite side of the river and they passed each other in the middle during their runs. The first run of the day began around 7am and it took about 15 minutes to reach the other side of the river.   Read more

The Pilot Boats of George Steers

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George Steers. Engraved by William G. Jackman and published by D. Appleton & Co. around 1870. (Accession# 1941.401.01/LE 1517)

Ever since man first set foot in a boat and headed out to sea there has been a need for pilots. Sailing in deep water is easy (as long as a storm doesn’t catch you!); navigating the shallower waters along coastlines and entering ports and rivers you aren’t familiar with is a lot more dangerous.

In mid-19th century New York the competition to provide pilotage services to an ever increasing volume of commercial traffic was fierce. Since the first pilot boat to reach an inbound vessel typically got the job the pilot’s need for a fast sailing boat was paramount. As this need increased some of the world’s most talented yacht designers and naval architects jumped into the fray and began designing some of the fastest schooners the world had ever seen.  One of these men, New York’s George Steers, ended up designing boats that changed the face of naval architecture forever.

George Steers designed his first pilot boat, the William G. Hagstaff, in 1841 when he was just 21 years old.  Built for the New Jersey pilots, Hagstaff was reputedly very fast and easily passed the boats used by competing New York pilots.  Unfortunately we don’t know anything about Hagstaff’s construction and her life as a pilot boat was short lived. In 1849 Hagstaff’s owner sailed her to the West Coast with the intention of establishing a pilotage business at the mouth of the Columbia river.  Unfamiliar with the hazards of the local waterways Hagstaff grounded on a bar in the Rogue River (sometimes even pilots need pilots!). A short time later the stranded vessel was attacked, robbed and burned by the local Tututni Indians.

Captain Richard Brown had served aboard the William G. Hagstaff and when he and a partner decided to build a new, faster pilot schooner they immediately turned to George Steers. When Steers presented Brown with his designs for Mary Taylor Brown’s first reaction seems to have been “are you sure?”.  His anxiety was justified as Steers’ design of Mary Taylor’s hull was completely different from nearly every other craft sailing of the time and a radical departure from the standard practices of the day.

When Mary Taylor was designed (1848) most sailing craft were built with wide bows (considered necessary to prevent the vessel from diving under the waves) and narrow sterns. Wide bows force a boat to push the water aside as it moves forward which creates considerable drag and slows the boat down. For Mary Taylor Steers flipped traditional design on its head and created a boat with a narrow bow and stern and its greatest width near the middle of the boat.  Her shallowest draft was all the way forward and it gradually increased to her deepest draft at the stern. The result was a supremely stable schooner that handled rough seas well and sailed faster than every other boat of her size.

Mary Taylor’s design was so good it served as the basis for Steers’ design of the yacht America.  As most of you probably know, in 1851 America beat fifteen vessels of the Royal Yacht Squadron in a race around the Isle of Wight and started the world’s oldest sailing competition—the America’s Cup.  Unfortunately Mary Taylor’s great speed and maneuverability didn’t prevent her from being run down by the US transport Fairhaven off Barnegat Bay in November of 1863. Everyone on board was saved, but the accident sent a historically important vessel to the floor of the Atlantic.

Following the success of Mary Taylor the design of Steers’ next pilot boat, Moses H. Grinnell, was even more radical. Steers gave Grinnell a long, sharp entry and a fully concave clipper bow—one of the most extreme entries seen on any sailing vessel to that point. Steers himself described the shape as “the well-formed leg of a woman” (I’m not sure whose leg he was looking at–I don’t see it!). Moses H. Grinnell was reputedly very fast. In May of 1851 Grinnell won a race around the Sandy Hook lightship and back against the new schooner yacht Cornelia (also designed by George Steers).

Moses H. Grinnell had a long career. She served the New Jersey pilots from 1850 until sometime around 1880 when she was sold to the Boston pilots. Just a couple of years later she was sold to the Pensacola pilots. In 1909 she was sold to the Mobile pilots where she worked until 1914 when she became a merchant vessel in Jamaica. She finally disappears from the register in 1924.

Grinnell’s long life is remarkable considering she suffered several terrible accidents. In October of 1863 she was very nearly run down by the 1,114-ton US Supply steamer Union but her crew managed to keep her afloat until they made it back to port for repairs (obviously the crew of Union weren’t paying much attention because the same night they ran over and sank the brand new pilot boat James Funck). A few years later in October of 1871 Grinnell collided with two foreign barques and had to be run ashore to prevent her from sinking.

Building upon the designs of Mary Taylor and Moses H. Grinnell Steers’ next pilot boat, named after himself, was considered by Howard Chapelle to be the finest pilot schooner ever built. Chapelle described George Steers as “stunning” and an example of Steers’ “mature practice.” He thought her design was an improvement over the yacht America and felt “the balance of her ends” was “quite remarkable.” Although George Steers was built for speed her depth insured she remained seaworthy and stable in rough weather—important factors that would help her survive the terrible weather she would encounter during her working life. Unfortunately even the best designed vessel can’t always withstand Mother Nature’s wrath. On February 12th, 1865 George Steers was driven ashore near Barnegat during a terrible winter gale. There were no survivors.

The perfection of pilot boat design was reached with the George Steers and most pilot boats built thereafter were similar in design.  The last pilot boat designed by George Steers was the Anthony G. Neilson. Built for a group of Sandy Hook pilots and launched in 1854 she was reputedly one of the fastest pilot schooners in New York (her only competition being her sister George Steers.) She was sold to a group of New Orleans pilots in 1859 and used until sometime around 1872 when she was sold for use as a cargo vessel.

Sadly, just two years after designing Neilson George Steers died after being thrown from a wagon. He was just 37 years old. Although we’ll never know if he was considering further refinements to his pilot boat designs his efforts up to that point had a huge impact on yacht design and naval architecture in general.

Come One, Come All and Witness The Amazing Tattooed Boy!

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From the collection of The Mariners’ Museum, Catalog Number: P0001.001-01- -P239

Throughout the years that I have been working at The Mariners’ Museum, I have compiled a list of photographs that I love. Photos that catch my eye in terms of their composition, or tone, or, often, their subject matter. One such picture came back to my attention recently when we put together a little popup exhibit for a group of local tattoo artists.

It is an image of a boy no older than 14, topless, and reclining on furs. He wears fringed shorts, ankle-high boots, and tattoos cover the young man’s exposed skin. His eyes pierce through your own while a cocky smile pulls the corners of his mouth. All the while, an older gentleman with a bushy mustache and newsboy cap presses a tattoo needle to the youth’s outer thigh. Above his hip stands a panel of tattoo flash and below that, a  small square of the image is deliberately cut away.

How could I not have questions?

Who is this tattooed boy? Why is he covered in these tattoos? Why has he posed as if on public display? How does his face show no hint of the pain he must be feeling in his leg? Who is that tattoo artist at work? What got cut out of the image?

The Breakthrough

Working for a museum has a lot of benefits. One of the most useful is having access to unbelievably skilled researchers. After I expressed an interest in this image, Patti Hinson, our former Chris-Craft Archivist, was able to find a name: Andrew Stuertz. That name was all it took, and I was off in a flash.

Early Life

Andrew John Stuertz, most often referred to as Andy, was born on June 4, 1892, to Andrew Sr. and Lizzie Stuertz. He became an orphan by the age of 6 and went to live with his mother’s family in Philadelphia. While in his young teens, he made his way to New York.

A very young, and very poor, Andy then met Charlie Wagner, an up-and-coming tattoo artist.

Wagner was a pioneer in the tattooing industry. At his best-known shop, located on Bowery Street in New York, he offered 10 and 25 cent tattooing even when other shops started charging a dollar for the same designs. It was this location at 223 1/2 Bowery that Wagner created an electric tattoo machine based on a dental plugger and electric bell. For his invention, he received the second American tattooing machine patent on record.

In addition to his innovations, Wagner garnered a reputation as the preferred artist for wannabe tattooed attractions, most of them young boys, who went on to have careers in sideshows and circuses. Wagner had numerous young people that served as living canvases and practice pieces. At the time, no safeguards prevented minors from being tattooed so long as they consented. The only law was to prevent forcing children to receive tattoos. Andy agreed to let Wagner tattoo him from head to toe.

My research into Andy also revealed a completed version of the image from the museum collection, which showed a sign that listed the address for Wagner’s Bowery studio at 223 1/2. Wagner would have likely sold the picture as a promotional item. In other existing versions, the number has been overwritten to be 208 Bowery, which was the location of Wagner’s manufacturing facility and shop. It is likely that the museum’s copy got cut out after the address changed.

Though the dates are a little unclear, records show that Andy went on to work for T.E. Caffrey’s Imperial Dog and Vaudeville Show, Gollmer Brothers Sideshow, Hagenbeck-Wallace Shows, and Barnum & Bailey Circus as The Tattooed Boy. During his time on the sideshow circuit, Andy met a fellow tattooed attraction named August “Cap” Coleman.


During his time with Barnum and Bailey, Andy met a beautiful young woman named Dagmar Franciska Hansen, a fellow performer hailing from Copenhagen. She was known for a 380-pound boa constrictor wrapping itself around her and went by the stage name “Maxine.” Andy and Dagmar married in their early 20s. In 1925 the couple had their one and only child who they named Venetia.

In his mid-to-late-20s, when the novelty of his tattoos had worn off, Andy left the circus life and became a tattoo artist himself. He eventually moved to Norfolk, VA with Dagmar and Venetia. Andy worked, for a time, with his fellow former sideshow performer, Cap Coleman. The pair realized an opportunity for booming business from the newly established Naval Station Norfolk which quickly became one of the largest naval bases in the country.

Later Life

Andy’s life gradually shifted away from the mainstream tattooing industry.

After Dagmar’s death in 1945, Andy went to live with his daughter and her young family. In an interview with Derin Bray, Andy’s granddaughter, Frances, said that she remembers Andy quite clearly, although they never discussed his days as a tattooed attraction. Over the years she saw some of his tattoos on his arms and legs but never saw them on full display.

Frances noted that Andy most often wore long sleeves and long pants and was a handsome, quiet, and reserved man. He worked for Frances’s father in a jewelry shop in Norfolk. Andy never drove, but his son-in-law would sometimes drive him somewhere early in the day and then pick him up later in the evening. Frances believes he was working as a tattoo artist at this time because he would take his flash designs with him.

Andy, unfortunately, committed suicide in 1962 at the age of 69. He is interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Norfolk, VA. The same cemetery where Cap Coleman would rest a decade later.

A Collection of Personal Stories

In researching Andy Stuertz, one of the goals of The Mariners’ Museum fully connected with me. When you take a step back, our collection is just stuff. What makes it extraordinary are the stories behind it. Andy serves as a reminder that this collection represents real people who lived, loved, innovated, explored, and grew. Their stories are what make the museum what it is; a collection of personal stories that we can reach back into and connect. All of this started because I thought a photograph was intriguing. Now I feel like I know Andy and I can carry his memory forward and share his story.

Artifact of the Month – Commonwealth Model

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This month’s artifact is one of my favorite pieces in the collection.  It is a music box model of the steamboat Commonwealth.

Commonwealth was built in 1854-1855 by Lawrence & Foulkes in Greenpoint, Long Island, NY for the Norwich and New London Steamboat Company.  She was built for service between New York and Connecticut, and was commanded by Captain Jerome Wheeler Williams until 1864.  In 1860 she was acquired by the Stonington Line, and then by the Merchants Navigation and Transportation Company in 1863.  December 29, 1865, a fire at the wharf where Commonwealth was docked caused the ship to be destroyed by flames.

Captain Williams stayed on as Captain of the ship until his retirement in 1864, when he was presented with this music box model by the Norwich and New London Steamboat Company as a thanks for his service (lucky, lucky man!).  None of the boats under Captain Williams’ command ever had any serious accidents, which was pretty amazing back then.  This makes it pretty ironic that the year after he retired the boat caught fire and was destroyed.

The model was built ca 1863/1864 by John Dean Benton, a silversmith with Tiffany & Co.  It is made of gold and silver and houses a music box that plays ten tunes of the 1860’s, including ‘By Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon’ and ‘Nellie Bly’.  While playing the music, the paddlewheels and walking beam engine move.  It was exhibited in the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris where it, along with other items from Tiffany & Co., won bronze medal.  It was also quite damaged at this exposition with many of the pieces on top having been broken off and stolen.  It was repaired upon return to the US by Denton himself.

What is also interesting to note is that while we did not purchase the model until 1947, The Mariners’ Museum became aware of the piece in 1929 at the New York World’s Fair.  Our buyers were visiting the fair and came across the model.  The owner, the granddaughter of Captain Williams, would not sell the piece as it meant a great deal to the family, but she promised to tell the museum if she ever did decide to sell.  Sure enough, a letter arrived to the museum in 1947 stating that the model was being sold at auction, and we jumped at the opportunity to purchase the piece.

Since that time, the Commonwealth model has become a favorite piece for many visitors although it hasn’t been on display for many years.  In September we pulled it out for our Gallery Crawl event and it was a hit!  The only unfortunate part is that the music box parts are too fragile to play, but we recently found an old recording of the music and are hoping to be able to digitize it (fingers crossed the old recording hasn’t been corrupted).

A special part of the presentation at the Gallery Crawl involved taking an endoscope to two small cabins on the model that are furnished and very difficult to see because they are so small.  They include chairs with actual fabric cushions, a table with wine and goblets, and carpet.

These images show the cabins in the front and rear, respectively.  Although a little difficult to see, the cabin in the rear has a line of sofas running around the outside wall.  It’s fun to compare these images to an actual image from the ship, which you can see here, on Wikipedia.  It appears that Benton may have actually been on the ship as the carpet and furniture seem similar to what is seen in the stereoscope.

The cabins weren’t the only surprises waiting for us.  Upon researching the model, I discovered an article that mentioned pennies from 1863/1864 being used for the axles in the paddlewheels.  I pulled out my flashlight and, sure enough, there they were!  Unfortunately they are very difficult to photograph, so I have the two photos showing one of the pennies and then what little text I could get to show up.

It is truly a fascinating piece and one of the gems of our collection.  I will definitely post again if we are able to digitize the old recording and post that for everyone to hear.

Returned stolen materials

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No. IIII. Stockton City (1)

And again I have another batch to share with everyone.  It is a small group of stereoviews, which are something I find very interesting as I had never heard of them before working here.   For those who are not familiar with them, they are those cards with two images.  The idea is that in a viewer, the photos line up to create a 3-D effect to your eyes, and so these were very popular when introduced.

Stockton City

Broadway Wharf and river steamers in San Francisco

Fort Lafayette, New York Harbor

Grand Central Hotel, New York

The steamboat May Queen on Lake Minnetonka,  Minnesota.

Mt. Desert Ferry Terminal, Maine