Sunday, June 21, was World Hydrography Day, a day set aside to recognize the important work of hydrographers. Measuring and describing the physical features of oceans, seas, and coastal areas is essential not only to the safe navigation of the everyday mariner, but to our nation’s economic development, security and defense, scientific research, and environmental protection.
On June 21, 1860, the Robert J. Walker was hit by a commercial schooner while transiting from Norfolk to New York after months of surveying in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship sank 12 miles offshore, as they were heading to the Absecon Lighthouse after they were hit. Coast Survey lost twenty crew members that night, and another man died from his injuries the next day, in the largest single loss of life in Coast Survey and NOAA history.
Steve Nagiewicz, co-director of the Robert J. Walker Mapping Project, recognized a dozen private citizens who assisted with the project, as he talked about the importance of collaborative efforts in conserving the nation’s maritime history.
“With this memorial duly dedicated, we are assured that future generations will know what happened off these shores,” Glang said. “They will remember the sacrifices made to make our nation’s coasts safe. And they will give these crew members a permanent honor that was so long denied.”
On the grounds of the Absecon Lighthouse you will now find a memorial consisting of a NOAA commemorative geodetic marker, as well as a plaque honoring the lost crew members, placed in a compass rose on the grounds outside the lighthouse entrance. The plaque is an iconic image that was proposed by NOAA Corps Basic Officer Training Class 102, in a design project headed by Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Shoup.
In expressing NOAA’s appreciation for all involved in the project, Glang thanked two people in particular. First, he noted the persistent efforts of Skip Theberge, our NOAA historian and a retired NOAA commissioned officer.
“I would dare say that very few people in NOAA even knew about the Robert J. Walker until Captain Theberge told us about this tragic event,” Glang said. “It is because of his knowledge — and especially his persistence in telling the story — that NOAA made the effort to find and identify the Walker.”
The Robert J. Walker was positively identified in 2013 after NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson set aside a day to survey the site while it was in the area conducting operations after post tropical storm Sandy. The ship’s physical scientists were guided by historical accounts in the 1860 Coast Survey Annual Report. Then, using the Thomas Jefferson data and armed with additional information from researchers and archaeological advisers, divers pinpointed the exact location and confirmed the ship’s identity.
NOAA would like to express our appreciation to U.S. Coast Guard Station Atlantic City (in particular, Seaman Philip Zinna and Fireman Apprentice Christopher Barreras) for presenting the colors at the event.
Today, June 21, is World Hydrography Day. Hydrographic offices in over 80 maritime nations observe this day every year, since 2005. It is our special day to tell the public what hydrography is, and how it is employed to make navigation safer. Simply, hydrography is the science we use to obtain the data needed to create nautical charts. NOAA’s 200-year history is proof positive that those charts – and therefore hydrography – are a national investment that pays off daily with navigation safety, efficiency, and coastal protection from accidents at sea.
But today’s observation of World Hydrography Day is more profound. It is personal to every person who works in or supports hydrography in the United States.
It was 153 years ago, to the day, that the U.S. Coast Survey experienced the largest single loss of life in our history. In the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, on stormy seas, the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Robert J. Walker was hit by a commercial schooner when she was transiting from Norfolk to their homeport in New York, after surveying in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship sank quickly, and twenty crew members died. Another man died from his injuries the next day.
Today, we honored the lost crew members of the Robert J. Walker for their service to the nation.
The NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson is currently working near where the Walker sank. They are taking a couple of hours to survey the area, with multibeam and sidescan sonar, as part of a NOAA Maritime Heritage effort to pinpoint the exact location and confirm the identity of the Walker wreck. (While NOAA nautical charts show a seafloor obstruction, we have not positively identified the Walker.) For the survey, Thomas Jefferson commanding officer Larry Krepp welcomed two “wreck experts” on board: Joyce Steinmetz, a nautical archaeology and maritime history expert from East Carolina University, and Vitad Pradith, the technical director with Coast Survey’s Navigation Response Branch.
Honoring the memory of the 20 USCS crew members who perished the morning of June 21, 1860, the Thomas Jefferson’s newest hydrographer, Ensign Eileen Pye, laid a memorial wreath on the waters above the sunken wreck of the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Robert J. Walker.
At the same time the Thomas Jefferson was memorializing the crew at sea, NOAA employees gathered at NOAA offices in Maryland. Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, led the ceremony and reminded the assembled group, “With leadership comes an obligation to honor these men who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the nation.”
David Moehl, a senior survey technician on the NOAA Ship Ferdinand R. Hassler, rang an historic hydrographer’s bell, once for every man who died that day, as Cheryl Oliver, the president of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Historical Society, read each man’s name.
Rear Admiral Michael Devany, director of NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, talked of connections. “Despite the time that has passed, today’s NOAA employees, mariner and non-mariner alike, share a unique connection with these sailors. The common heritage of love for the sea and sky bond us with the men of the Robert J. Walker regardless of time.”
“The sacrifice paid by these 20 men reminds us of the dangers intrinsic with operations at sea,” Devany said. “We cannot go back and undo the events that took the Robert J. Walker and her crew from us, but I believe they would be honored to know the work they set out to accomplish over a century and a half ago continues today by NOAA ships and the people of NOAA.”
David Kennedy, deputy under secretary for operations at NOAA, spoke to the heart of the accident: the need to honor all federal employees. Kennedy explained that the men who died were not the scientific or naval elites: “They were the the guys working below deck.”
“At NOAA, we celebrate the science, we tout the satellites and the surveys — and, above all, we are always mindful that we are a team. The stewards and cooks and firemen from 1860, and the technicians and support staff today, are the reasons we are able to accomplish what we do.”
“The crew of the Robert J. Walker, and the people who have followed them on hundreds of thousands of hydrographic surveys since, have served the United States government in our many hours of need. Their work – your work – has improved the welfare of our people over the centuries, as our hydrographic missions improve the safety of navigation.”
“Today, we thank and publicly honor the crew of the Robert J. Walker for their service to the nation. And, in that,” Kennedy told the NOAA hydrographers, technicians, and support staff, “we honor and thank you all as well.”
Two other federal programs are also involved in the nation’s hydrography. We were very pleased that representatives from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency attended the NOAA event. In a show of solidarity, the hydrographic office of the U.S. Navy held their own simultaneous ceremony at their location in Stennis, Miss.
Rear Adm. Glang also read from a letter that Admiral R.J. Papp, Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard, wrote to Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA’s acting administrator. “I want to add my tribute to the memory of the sailors who perished in that accident, ” Papp wrote. “Coast Guardsman are always saddened by the loss of life at sea and especially so when those lost were working to make the lives of other mariners safer by charting the waters of the United States.” (Read his full letter, especially for more about the history of the Walker.)
In honor of the strong ties — historical and contemporary — between NOAA and the Coast Guard, a USCG Honor Guard proudly posted and retired the colors for the ceremony.
Back in 1860, the U.S. Coast Survey never published the names of the lost crew members. However, the New York Times, on June 23, 1860, wrote about the accident and published this list.
“The following list of the missing crew has been supplied by Mr. CHARLES GIFFORD, Quartermaster on board of the Walker, to whom we are also indebted for the particulars of the collision:
Marcus (or Marquis) Buoneventa, ward-room steward.
There’s a fascinating story behind (literally) the painting of the Walker. See A Good Story, from the Mariners Museum blog.
UPDATE: AUG 28, 2013: NOAA announced that a wreck located off the New Jersey shore has been positively identified as the Robert J. Walker. This summer, a private-public collaboration sought to find the Walker, as experts zeroed in on where the Walker was reported to have gone down. Those experts included Joyce Steinmetz, a maritime archeology student at East Carolina University, who briefed NOAA staff on government records and newspaper accounts she had unearthed in her studies. Capt. Albert Theberge (NOAA, ret.), from the NOAA Central Library, brought his research of the early years of the U.S. Coast Survey, including correspondence between various Coast Survey officials and the ship’s officers. James Delgado, director of NOAA’s Maritime Heritage program, added his expertise gathered from years of discovering and documenting wrecks. Vitad Pradith, a physical scientist with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, provided technical expertise in using NOAA’s multibeam and sidescan sonar systems — onboard the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson — to locate and image underwater structures. (Thomas Jefferson was in the area conducting post-Sandy hydrographic surveys.)
“Before this identification was made, the wreck was just an anonymous symbol on navigation charts,” said Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of Coast Survey. “Now, we can truly honor the 20 members of the crew and their final resting place. It will mark a profound sacrifice by the men who served during a remarkable time in our history.”
NOAA’s intent is not to make the wreck a sanctuary or limit diving, but to work with New Jersey’s wreck diving community to better understand the wreck and the stories it can tell.
“We want to enhance the dive experience and support the dive industry with enhanced access to this wreck,” said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “New Jersey is home to some of the most accomplished wreck divers who not only understand history and wrecks, but who have also been in the forefront of wreck exploration. We look forward to working with them on the Walker.”