Divers Study Sunken Gunboat in Blackout Conditions
ON THE ROANOKE RIVER, N.C. — With visibility of three to four inches on good day and near-darkness when clouds block the sun, maritime studies students at East Carolina University recently practiced one of the strengths that the university’s program is known for — conducting research in total blackout conditions.
The experience, which entailed researching a Civil War vessel on the Roanoke River, was a part of ECU’s summer field school, work that could help students land prized jobs in a tough field.
“It’s exhausting work,” said Larry Babits, director of ECU’s maritime studies program. “But you can’t learn how to do this type of research without actually doing it. These conditions are some of the most challenging ones, but our students get jobs because they can handle these different environments.”
This year, as part of a summer field school, students honed their blackout research skills while exploring the last known Union gunboat of its kind, the USS Otsego. The 974-ton double-ended gunboat sank in December 1865 after striking Confederate mines on the Roanoke River at the end of the Civil War. No men were lost in the explosion that sank the boat, but two solders died on the USS Brazley, a smaller vessel, that hit mines when assisting in the rescue of the Otsego’s crew. Both ships remain in graves at the bottom of the river, north of Plymouth, N.C.
“The USS Otsego is part of a class of vessels that has already disappeared,” Babits said. “It’s the sole survivor of its class. And even if it’s broken up, it’s still important.”
The Otsego’s sand-filled cavities and rusted crevices hold a vast research site where East Carolina University students and researchers get a first-hand opportunity to explore Civil War history. As a sassacus class vessel, the Otsego was constructed to maneuver narrow, shallow and twisted waterways. As one of 22 vessels constructed, the ship is considered a national archeological resource, said Brian Diveley, a graduate student who is writing his thesis on the Otsego.
“All the other vessels of this class were either scrapped after the war or lost in the records,” Diveley said. “This is the only one that we have been able to uncover any information about in our search.”
Twelve students and seven faculty and staff members participated in the field school. Divers worked most of June exploring the wreckage of the 230-foot ship in order to map the Otsego site.
While a permit from the U.S. Navy allows the researchers to bring artifacts to the surface, divers left the vessel and its appendages below the silt-screened waters, partly due to the cost of conservation. Babits estimated that it would take $300,000 to raise the ship properly to avoid the deterioration surface exposure inevitably invokes.
“It’s not really an option,” he said. “To bring it up would be criminal if you didn’t have a way to preserve it.”
While the vessel sank 140 years ago, the ECU field school participants are not the first humans to interact with the ship since its demise. In the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dragged the ship from its original wreck site and deposited it into a 60-foot hole about a half-mile south of Plymouth. The dredging cleared up the river for navigation, but made the first archeological visit to the site a bit more of a challenge, said Nathan Richards, a professor in maritime studies who described the L-shaped site as “an unarticulated mess.”
Despite the messy wreckage and the fact that union solders salvaged the ship after its fall, ECU’s researchers did not surface empty-handed. Students emerged from the brown waters with plastic slates and mechanical pencils, which allowed them to draw parts of the ship underwater. On the slates the students noted portholes, paddles, hatches, shot rails and reinforced iron bars — all identified and documented during one of their 90-minute dives.
The field school was an archeological dive debut for Jennifer Cobb, a Ph.D. student in Coastal Resources Management, who said the experience helped solidify her choice of academic specialty.
“It’s fun; I want to be out there in the field,” she said. “We are out there touching a piece of history that has not been touched since the 1930s.”