Today’s post was written by Gina Kim Perry, Archivist in Digitization Archival Services at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
Newly available in the National Archives catalog are over 500 logbooks of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Ships (USC&GSS) from the series Ships’ Records, 1846 – 1963. This series is part of Record Group 23: Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1806 – 1981. The main mission of the Coast and Geodetic Survey (initially named the Survey of the Coast in 1807) was “to survey the U.S. coastline and create nautical charts of the coast to help increase maritime safety.”1 As the United States government’s first scientific agency2, the Coast and Geodetic Survey has gone through several name changes and its mission expanded over the years. In 1970 the agency was reorganized into various offices and services as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).3
The USC&GSS logbooks currently in the catalog cover the period from 1874 to 1942 for the following seven ships: Hassler (1874-1895), Discoverer (1922-1941), Endeavor (1879-1915), Explorer (1904-1939), Gedney (1875-1914), McArthur (1876-1915), and Pioneer (1922-1942). Included with the logbooks are seven volumes of medical journals from McArthur and one volume from Pioneer. These logbooks are part of select records digitized pursuant to a partnership between the National Archives and NOAA beginning in 2012.
Information for Genealogists, Historians, and Climate Scientists
Certain information in the logbooks should be of interest to genealogists and historians, and should also serve as a rich source of historical weather data for climate scientists. A typical logbook contains daily entries of the ship’s position, the ship’s movements, weather conditions, and descriptions of the day’s surveying activities. In addition, a “List of Officers,” usually found near the beginning of a logbook, is where the ship’s officers and crew are listed by name, rank, and date of joining and departing the ship – information useful to those researching family history. For example, from the “List of Officers” shown on the left page below, we can learn basic information about 14 officers and crew members, including the ship’s surgeon, who served on USC&GSS Discoverer for the period covered by the logbook from July 1 to August 26, 1941.
Some entries in the medical journals even contain physical descriptions of the ship’s crew, such as age, physical condition, eyes, hair, complexion, height, and marks, as shown below from the Medical Journal (Register 4) of USC&GSS McArthur for April 7, 1913.
Likewise, the daily weather data in the logbooks – recorded as often as every hour of the day or at least once every four hours, and including barometer readings, water and air temperature, and wind direction and force – can be used by climate scientists to fill in gaps in existing weather data and thus improve their understanding of the future global environment.4 The image below, for example, shows hourly weather data recorded by USC&GSS Endeavor on June 12-13, 1888, at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Life Aboard the Coast and Geodetic Survey Ships
These logbooks also provide a window into daily life aboard the Coast and Geodetic Survey ships, recording both the mundane and the unusual, such as rescue operations, accidents, and tragic deaths. For example, at 7:20 a.m. on August 18, 1894, the commanding officer of USC&GSS McArthur, Freeman Crosby, and a signal party of nine crewmen left the ship on a boat for the shore near the coast of the State of Washington to put up signals. The boat capsized coming through the breakers, and Crosby and four crewmen drowned:
From 8:00 p.m. to Midnight … They then pulled a few strokes towards the beach when a big breaker caught the boat and swung her starboard, nearly broadside to the surf. Before they could turn the boat, another breaker caught her and capsized her. This occurred between 7:20 and 8:00 a.m. After a hard struggle the five men above named reached the beach in a more or less exhausted or dazed condition. As soon as able they and settlers patrolled the beach until 2:00 p.m. & finding none of the others, they then started for the Oyehut.
Similarly, USC&GSS Pioneer also recorded an unfortunate drowning on October 11, 1928, when crew member Earl Forsberg fell overboard off the coast of Oregon, as described below on the left page in that day’s log:
Earl Forsberg, sea a.b. Lost overboard. Foot slipped while washing paintwork on outboard side of port motorsailer canopy. Launch had handrope on canopy and there was a safety line passed behind the man and his companion but when he slipped he was not holding on and slid from under the safety line. He wore rubber boots and these evidently carried him down quickly. His companion gave the alarm and the ship was immediately stopped, a life ring having been dropped over first, and a boat was lowered in less than seven minutes. The man was seen by the boat crew just as they took the water but when they started for him he sunk and was never seen again. The ship cruised in circles around the buoy, which was found, until dark but no sign of the man was found.
Over the years, these Coast and Geodetic ships were also involved in a number of rescue operations. For example, on December 15, 1909, USC&GSS McArthur pulled the Tug Fleetwood off the beach near Point Chehalis in Grays Harbor, Washington, as shown below on that day’s Remarks page:
At 12:06 P.M. Weighed and proceeded towards Pt. Chehalis where the Tug “Fleetwood” was on the beach. Steamed close in and got hawser onto her.
At 1:20 [P.M.] Had the Tug off – proceeded back to Anchorage off Westport.
On May 30, 1914, USC&GSS McArthur assisted the Ketchikan Power Company scow Blanche from sinking as recorded on the Remarks page for that day:
8:45 Hove up anchor and went alongside scow “Blanche” at the lumber mill wharf. The Blanche waterlogged. Connections made and pumped her out. Finished at 12:45. 1:00 cast off from scow and hauled back to Heckman wharf, making fast 1:15.
On October 13, 1903, USC&GSS Gedney found disabled Steamer Farallon near Juneau, Alaska Territory, as shown on the Remarks page below:
1:35 Stopped off Five Finger Lt House to communicate with boat’s crew from disabled Steamer Farallon – 1:50 Hoisted Farallon’s boat in dinghy davits & took crew on board….
USC&GSS Gedney continued towing Steamer Farallon to Tonka wharf in Wrangell Narrows until the next day, where Farallon could receive further assistance, according to the Remarks page below for October 14, 1903:
4:00 Standing down Fredericks Sound with Str Farallon in tow … 7:37 slow to allow Farallon to communicate with Str Bertha. 7:46 full speed ahead 7:52 Slow. 8:00 Let go Farallon abreast of Tonka wharf….
This is just a small sampling of the vast amount of information found in the logbooks. Whether you are a genealogist, climate scientist, or history enthusiast, you are welcome to explore and see what you can discover among more than 500 Coast and Geodetic Survey logbooks available in the National Archives catalog.
- “History Overview,” National Geodetic Survey, accessed July 7, 2022,https://www.ngs.noaa.gov/web/about_ngs/history/index.shtml.
- “The Nation’s First Scientific Agency,” History of Coast Survey, accessed July 7, 2022, https://nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/about/history-of-coast-survey.html.
- “USC&GS History,” National Geodetic Survey, accessed July 7, 2022,https://www.ngs.noaa.gov/web/about_ngs/history/indexhUSCGS.shtml.
- “About the Science,” Old Weather, accessed July 7, 2022, https://www.oldweather.org/about.html.