Hydro on the Great Lakes: preserving American history

By Ensign Max P. Andersen

Formed by retreating ice sheets over 14,000 years ago, the Great Lakes have long represented one of the most valuable fresh water resources in North America. They contain more than one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh surface water, and the vast size is easily visible from space. From Native American hunting routes to French fur-trade exploration to influential battles in the War of 1812, the Lakes have proved a key platform for numerous historical events that shaped the development of the country.

Uniquely, these bodies of water served as the gateway to connect the booming production of an expanding population in the Midwest from 1825 to 1925. During this time, a broad range of wooden, sailing, and steam-powered ships trekked across the lakes, carrying coal, grain, and passengers. Due to unpredictable weather conditions, fire, ice, high-traffic areas, and an ever-increasing pressure to meet shipping quotas, hundreds of ships were lost in collisions and accidents. These incidents have earned this period the nickname “Shipwreck Century.” Today, the history of the “Shipwreck Century” is presented at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s visitor’s center, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, in Alpena, Michigan.

Thunder Bay is located in Lake Huron, near one of the most historically dangerous areas of navigation in the Great Lakes. The sanctuary covers 4,300 square miles. In this area, over 200 shipwrecks are known to exist, and 92 have been discovered and accurately charted. The staff provides continual archaeological monitoring to ensure the preservation of the sites.

Thunder Bay
Thunder Bay

 

Much of this archaeological work is completed aboard research vessel (RV) Storm. Storm is operated by the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and is dedicated to supporting Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Storm is suited for a diverse range of projects and is equipped with multibeam and side scan sonar for survey projects, compact crane for using remotely operated underwater vehicles, and drop-down transom for handling diving equipment. Additionally, her use of B100 fuel – engine and hydraulic oil manufactured from vegetable oils – and redesign with recycled materials qualify her as one of NOAA’s “green ships.”

RV Storm
RV Storm

 

Traditionally, the survey systems on Storm have been primarily used to provide accurate locations and high-resolution acoustic imagery of shipwrecks. Using these positions and contextual images, teams of Thunder Bay NMS archaeologists can complete dives to see the submerged cultural resources that lie beneath the surface. They share that information with the public at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center.

A side scan sonar provided this acoustic image of W.C. Franz shipwreck.
A side scan sonar provided this acoustic image of W.C. Franz shipwreck.

 

With recent increases in multibeam and side scan sonar proficiencies, the sanctuary has started a new collaboration with the Office of Coast Survey. This summer, Coast Survey physical scientist Tyanne Faulkes and Ensign Max Andersen assisted Capt. Travis Smith and maritime archaeologists John Bright and Phil Hartmeyer in a new project. The team was tasked with surveying two unique sites: an Air Force and Air National Guard live-fire testing range, and a high-traffic area that needed updated navigational charts. The teams used RV Storm as a “vessel of opportunity” (a vessel not normally used for charting surveys) to conduct surveys to charting specifications. As such, some of Storm’s survey equipment needed to be “tuned” to meet those stringent hydrographic requirements. After some trial and error, Storm’s Applanix POSMV, Reson 8101, Klein 3000, Castaway CTD, Hypack 2016 machine were operational and ready for data acquisition.

NOAA marine archaeologist Phil Hartmeyer acquired survey data for the project.
NOAA marine archaeologist Phil Hartmeyer acquired survey data for the project.

 

The survey operations were a tremendous success. Throughout the month of August, Storm completed a series of acquisition voyages – as weather permitted – including a 36-hour operation on August 17 and 18. They acquired charting data covering 28 square nautical miles, along 418 linear nautical miles.

Projects like this show the great gains for the scientific community when different partners collaborate. We are looking forward to using more vessels of opportunity to expand on nautical chart updates in the Great Lakes region.

Survey project map
The two project survey areas for chart updates are shown by the colored bathymetry. The area on the right (in blue and green) was surveyed in response to a military request.

Coast Survey finds historic City of Chester wreck, again

NOAA announced that one of Coast Survey’s navigation response teams found the underwater wreck of the passenger steamer City of Chester, which sank in 1888 in a collision in dense fog near where the Golden Gate Bridge stands today. City of Chester had just left San Francisco and was headed up the California coast to Eureka with 90 passengers on August 22, 1888, when it was struck by the steamer Oceanic. Impaled on Oceanic, which was arriving from Asia, City of Chester remained afloat for six minutes before sinking. Sixteen people died in the accident.

Navigation Response Team 6 (NRT6) found the wreck in May 2013 while they were conducting regular survey duties for safe navigation, assessing a potential pollution threat from the S.S. Fernstream, a wreck from 1952. Sonar images confirmed that the target was the 202-foot steamship City of Chester, sitting upright, shrouded in mud, 216 feet deep at the edge of a small undersea shoal, rising 18 feet from the seabed.

The City of Chester is shown in NRT6's multibeam image.
The City of Chester is shown in NRT6’s multibeam image.

This NOAA team is not the first to find the shipwreck. Last year, John Cloud (NOAA Library) discovered an unpublished manuscript chart, showing that in 1888 a U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey team used a drag survey from the tugboat Redmond to successfully locate the City of Chester after it sank. Tony Reyer (Office of National Marine Sanctuaries) geo-rectified that manuscript chart onto the modern seascape, and was able to provide NRT6 with the lat/lon coordinates.

The U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey created this chart of the wreck in 1888.
The U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey created this chart of the wreck in 1888.

“Connecting to the history of the Chester is sad in one way, but we were also connecting to scientific history on a different level,” said NRT6 team leader Laura Pagano. “Using our high-tech multibeam echo sounder to re-discover a wreck originally found over a century ago – by Coast Surveyors dragging a wire across the seafloor – is immensely fulfilling.”

“We are equally proud to have provided information on an important link to the rich heritage of the San Francisco Chinese-American community,” Pagano explained.

The rediscovery of the wreck restores an important historical link to San Francisco’s early Chinese-American community. Reports at the time initially criticized Oceanic’s Chinese crew in the racially charged atmosphere of the times. Criticisms turned to praise, however, when the bravery of the crew in rescuing many of City of Chester’s passengers was revealed. The wreck was then largely forgotten.

“Discoveries like this remind us that the waters off our shores are museums that speak to powerful events, in this case not only that tragic wreck, but to a time when racism and anger were set aside by the heroism of a crew who acted in the best traditions of the sea,” said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, whose past work has included documenting historic wrecks in California.

In addition to Pagano, NRT6 is crewed by Edmund Wernicke and Ian Colvert. Vitad Pradith also assisted on the project.

The colors of sound

One would be forgiven for thinking that measurements of the ocean floor just produce numbers. It turns out that the data acquired by sound (sonar) can be translated into some truly beautiful graphics. Check out this gorgeous digital terrain model created by Ian Colvert, a physical science technician with Coast Survey’s Navigation Response Team 6. Colvert produced the image file by processing data acquired with the team’s multibeam sonar during a recent hydrographic survey project.

The digital terrain model depicts the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank after a collision near the entrance of the San Francisco Bay in 1952. NRT6 surveyed Fernstream as part of a recent study – identifying potential polluting shipwrecks – conducted by the Office of National Maritime Sanctuaries and the Office of Response and Restoration.

This project helps agencies prioritize threats to coastal resources. It also adds to our ability to assess the historical and cultural significance of shipwrecks. And it happens to make some dazzling graphics in the process.

UPDATE, June 26, 2013: We’ve had some requests for more information about the wreck itself. Here’s a chartlet that provides that information.

NRT 6 produced this chartlet for the Fernstream wreck
NRT 6 produced this chartlet for the Fernstream wreck

Coast Survey unveils easier access to wreck information

By Lucy Hick, physical scientist, Hydrographic Surveys Division

Maintaining documentation for features depicted on nautical charts is more complicated than you probably imagine. For instance, Coast Survey maintains information on more than 10,000 submerged wrecks and obstructions in U.S. coastal waters – and it just got easier for the public to access that free information.

Coast Survey uses our Automated Wreck and Obstruction Information System (AWOIS) to help plan hydrographic survey operations and to catalog the many reported wrecks and obstructions considered navigational hazards within U.S. coastal waters. The public also has access to this rich information source. Marine archaeologists and historians, fishermen, divers, salvage operators, and others in the marine community find AWOIS valuable as an historical record of selected wrecks and obstructions.

Information contained in the database includes latitude and longitude of each feature, along with brief historic and descriptive details. Until recently, that information was available for download in Microsoft Access MDB and Adobe PDF format. However, these formats were difficult to search.

As of today, AWOIS information will no longer be available in MDB or PDF format. Instead, users can download AWOIS files in the more useful Google Earth Keyhole Markup Language (KML) format. KML is an XML grammar and file format for modeling and storing geographic features such as points, lines, images, polygons, and models for display in Google Earth, Google Maps, and other applications. (KML is an international standard, maintained by Open Geospatial Consortium, Inc.)

AWOIS record
AWOIS record

Once you download an AWOIS file, you can open that file directly in a mapping application, such as Google Earth or Google Maps. You can then navigate directly to your area of interest and obtain information about individual features. Clicking on any AWOIS item will bring up additional information, such feature type, position, and history.

I’ve provided an example, below, of an AWOIS file opened in Google Earth. On the right is an example of the information that will be displayed by clicking on a AWOIS item.

Questions? Just ask them in the comments section or send an email to Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Surveys Division at HSD.Inquiries@noaa.gov.

AWOIS in Google Earth
AWOIS in Google Earth