Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.
This post is part of an ongoing “road trip” featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (National Archives ID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service.
In an earlier post that I wrote about Lighthouses, I noted that the primary function of a lighthouse is to warn ships of dangers near the coastlines, yet there are a number of shipwrecks that dot the coastline of the United States, despite the efforts of lighthouses around the country. I recently returned from a vacation in Bermuda, which was settled by individuals who survived the shipwreck of the Sea Venture in 1609, which had sailed from England to bring supplies to the failing colony of Jamestown in Virginia. After, struggling ashore on Bermuda, the men from the Sea Venture, built two ships from the wreckage, the Deliverance and the Patience, which sailed on to Jamestown in 1610.
There are nearly 500 records of shipwrecks in the records of the National Register of Historic Places. Many wrecks are along the California coastline, including the brig Frolic (National Archives Identifier 123859795), which “wrecked in 1850 while en route to San Francisco, lie[s] approximately 120 miles north of San Francisco on the California coast inside a small, unnamed cove between Point Cabrillo and Caspar Anchorage . . . The wreck site is principally marked by a mound of kentledge (pig iron) ballast . . . Three admiralty style iron anchors lie at the northeast end of the ballast pile at the base of a large rock. A small cast iron cannon lies near the kentledge; it is badly worn by surf abrasion and the cascabel is missing. A large number of ceramic fragments lie scattered among the kentledge and in the rocks in a spreading pattern moving south from the main concentration of wreckage. The wreck of Frolic was discovered by local sport divers in the early 1960s. Since then, sport divers have made periodic forays and recovered loose items from the site. Additional cannon were removed; one is on display at the Kelley House Museum in nearby Mendocino.”
You can visit Fort Jefferson National Monument (National Archives Identifier 77843330) in Loggerhead Key, Florida, where there are a number of shipwrecks. “When President Polk signed an executive order creating the Tortugas Military Preservation [on] September 17, 1845, sixteen acre Garden Key was selected as the construction site for a super fort to guard and protect the U.S. Gulf Coast. Army Engineers drew up plans for a mammoth six-sided fort with three tiers of gun rooms towering 50 feet above ground. The hexagonal shape was not quite perfect since four sides were to be 476 feet and two sides 324 feet in length. Plans called for 450 cannon manned by 1,500 men at: full strength.”
“At the present time there are fifteen historic structures within the Fort area: Garden Key Lighthouse; Large Powder Magazine; Small Powder Magazine; Hot Shot Furnace; Dr. Mudd’s Cell; Officers Quarters; Engineer Officers Quarters; Bakery; Cistern; Moat & Counterscarp; the Scarp; Casemates; Bastions; The Terreplein; Enlisted Men/s Quarters.” In Dr. Mudd’s cell “are located a plaque and photo of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Although there appears to be no concrete evidence that Dr. Mudd was imprisoned in this cell, there are some references in the literature which indicate that he was confined in this area.”
Also, in Florida is the wreck of the USS Massachusetts (BB-2), (National Archives Identifier 77842421), “the site of a steel-hulled pre-Dreadnaught battleship, launched in 1893, that was scuttled for target practice off Pensacola in 1921. The wrecksite is in the Gulf of Mexico 1½ miles south-southwest of Pensacola Pass, Escambia County, in 26 to 30 feet of water within the Fort Pickens Aquatic Preserve (administered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection) on submerged lands belonging to the State of Florida. The site includes the wreckage of the 350 foot-long ship, parts of which have become disarticulated and lie alongside the hull. The only non-contributing resource within the site boundary is a cement monument with inset bronze plaque that designates the wreck as an Underwater Archaeological Preserve.”
The harsh weather around the Aleutian Islands in Alaska has also led to many shipwrecks around the craggy coastline, including the SS Aleutian (National Archives Identifier 75325632) and the SS Northwestern, (National Archives Identifier 75325360), along with the Cougar Ace, “a 654-foot Singapore flagged car carrier, [which] sailed from Japan on July 22,  with a load of 4,813 cars. The vessel was traveling along a great circle route to two ports on the West Coast of Canada and the United States. The vessel encountered di[stress].” (National Archives Identifier 166690900).
There are also a number of life saving stations in the records of the NRHP. Life saving stations were erected up and down the coastlines of the United States (as well as around the shores of the Great Lakes) to assist with shipwrecks and the rescuing of individuals from the wrecks. The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station (National Archives Identifier 47719903) was established in “1874 [by] the United States Lifesaving Service, an agency of the United States Treasury Department . . . on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Located near Rodanthe in Dare County, the station was called by the Indian name for the area, Chicamacomico. Because of the deterioration of the building and the need for a larger facility , the Service was forced to erect a new station there in 1911.”
“Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station is a complex of buildings of various ages built to house the expanding needs of the Lifesaving Service which later became the United States Coast Guard. This station, one of the first seven established in the state, has the most complete collection of buildings of any of the surviving stations, active or inactive. The 1874 board and batten station was converted to a boat house when the main Shingle style building was completed in 1911. In addition to these two sections, there are storage buildings for surf boats, trucks, and paint. Three water tanks remain, as well as a cistern, kitchen and flag tower. A picket fence surrounds a large yard which includes the main building , kitchen, the cistern and two of the water tanks. The main building is a typical lifesaving station of the early 20th century. It is a one-and-one-half story wooden frame structure built in the Shingle style, consistently used for lifesaving stations in this era . . . An entrance on the east side, called the Captain’s entrance, is covered by a one-story pedimented one-bay porch. In the tympanum remains a small sign bearing the inscription ‘U. S. Coast Guard/Chicamacomico Station.’”
“The Lifesaving Service has enjoyed a distinguished history. The agency was created in 1847 when it established its first stations on the coast of New Jersey. In 1854, the Secretary of the Treasury authorized the creation of new lifesaving outposts along the coasts of New Jersey and Long Island and on the Great Lakes. For about two decades activities of the Service were restricted to those areas.”
So if you find yourself shipwrecked – you might be able to return to the location someday, or you might even find yourself rescued by a member of the Life Saving Service.
Click on any of the hyperlinked National Archives ID numbers above to open the fully digitized records in the National Archives Catalog. The NRHP files include additional documents, photographs, drawings, and maps.
Some of the records noted above are restricted under the Freedom of Information Act, by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 304(a)(2). See the individual entries for their restrictions.