The turret, which was pulled up with the guns, gun carriages and related parts, had been under the port side near the stern. Before it could be recovered, divers had to remove tons of coal and crusty lumps of sand and iron concretion, cut through thick layers of iron and wood from the hull, and remove a 30-ton section of hull and armor belt. The turret was lifted off the ocean floor by an eight-legged steel claw, dubbed the "spider," in which the foot of each leg slipped under the turret. Then it was placed on a platform, and, with lifting slings shackled to the tops of the legs, brought to the surface by a crane aboard the Wotan, the derrick barge above the wreck. The total lift, including the spider, amounted to 235 tons. The Wotan transported the turret to the waterfront in downtown Newport News, where, after an arrival ceremony four days later, it was transferred to a smaller barge and reached the Mariners' Museum the next day.
Almost exactly a year earlier, the 36-ton steam engine, which also will undergo conservation for 12 to 15 years, was welcomed to the Museum. The innovative "vibrating side lever" engine was recovered after four weeks of diving. "The engine is upside down on the bottom on sand bags and a support structure; it's just too fragile to turn over," says Willoz-Egnor. Until the tank was modified this summer, the 30-foot-tall frame that lifted the engine out of the water and cradled it during its transport loomed over the tank. The frame included two of the three sections of the 90-ton Engine Recovery Structure which sat on the ocean floor directly over the wreck in 2000 and 2001. The three-section tank is 10 feet tall, and when full (one section, used primarily for liquid transfers, is empty), would hold 91,000 gallons.
"Silt, sand and all sorts of crud have made their way into all the engine components," Willoz-Egnor says. "It will need to be dismantled section by section, conserved, then re-assembled. We have to pull it apart and put it back together in exactly the same way, and we can't rely on the original drawings because modifications were made during the vessel's construction. We'll probably have to fabricate parts of the engine for exhibition because the original parts will be too fragile or non-existent. A good portion of the engine is brass, as well as bronze and iron. I have been surprised at the amount of copper and brass used to construct the engine; there's a lot of brass and copper piping, and there were beautiful brass handrails down the stairs.
The propeller and shaft have been at the Museum since 1998 and were separated two years later by the same hydraulic saw that Navy divers used to remove the propeller from the wreckage. It will take another 18 months to finish the conservation of the propeller. "We had originally thought the propeller and shaft wouldn't be recovered together," says Willoz-Egnor. "The shaft is wrought iron and the propeller is bronze, and unfortunately there was no way to treat the portion of the shaft running through the propeller. The Navy had to cut the shaft on either side of the propeller and then remove the section inside the hub."
The conservation process involves electrolytic reduction, in which artifacts are "immersed in a solution of water electrolyte, such as sodium carbonate, and a low voltage current is passed through them," explains one exhibit panel. "This removes the corrosive chlorides from the interior of the metal and loosens the exterior encrustations ... When the reduction and chloride removal phases of iron conservation have been completed, the artifacts are removed from the tanks. Their surfaces are stabilized with phosphates and tannates and then coated with wax, lacquer, or paint to protect them from moisture and other damaging substances."
"That ironstone pitcher gave us the biggest scare," says Willoz-Egnor, bending over to peer into the display case where it's kept. "There was a crab nest inside the pitcher that had contained a bone, which we thought might be human. NOAA had it tested at the lab in Hawaii that identifies MIA remains, and we were relieved to find that it was pig or cow."
Until this summer, no human remains had been recovered from the Monitor. A few days before the turret was raised, a nearly complete skeleton was found pinned beneath one of the cannons. Two days after the turret was raised while the barge was taking it to Newport News the remains of another crew member were found. Also found in the turret were a U.S. Navy overcoat button, a pocketknife, and a leather boot. All human remains have been sent to the Army Central Identification Laboratory, at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.
Navy and NOAA divers have been diving at the Monitor site every summer since 1998, two years after Congress ordered NOAA to devise a specific plan of "selective recovery and stabilization." Less systematic diving had taken place since the wreck was first discovered. Even though no more big items are due to be recovered, recovery efforts will continue of personal items from the crew's quarters, officers' quarters and storage areas, says Jeff Johnston, a NOAA historian who is an expert on the Monitor's layout and construction.
"There has been an accelerated rate of deterioration," he says. "We used to measure the damage in millimeters; now it's measured in chunks. An anchoring incident at the site in 1991 cracked the back of the wreck open like an egg. We were told in the early 1990s that it would be unrecognizable as a ship in 10 years. In 2000 we slowed the collapse of the hull into the sea-bed by placing grout bags under the hull, as shoring. That also paved the way for the recovery of large items."
Willoz-Egnor said the divers have been "attaching zinc blocks to everything, which should slow down the deterioration of the iron. Iron will always corrode preferentially when it's attached to brass or bronze. Iron, wood and fabric require immediate stabilization, unlike glass or brass."