The Monitor comes home

The Civil War gun turret that turned naval history upside down completed its momentous journey back from the depths Saturday, coming to rest in a mammoth steel conservation tank at The Mariners' Museum.

Recovered by Navy divers Monday from the seas off Cape Hatteras, N.C., the USS Monitor gun turret headed up the James River aboard a Lockwood Bros. barge shortly before 8 a.m., retracing the path of the warship's summer 1862 patrols. It landed near the Lions Bridge about 11 a.m., then disembarked on the back of a giant 88- wheel hydraulic platform trailer, drawing both cheers and gasps of awe from a crowd of about 1,500.

"Seeing it come across the river on that barge, it looked pretty big -- and it became bigger the closer it got," said nautical archaeologist John Broadwater, chief scientist of the Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expedition that recovered the huge 120-ton artifact.

"One man next to me said that it looked formidable -- and he was right. It really looks intimidating when you see it up close."

Designed and built by Swedish-American engineer John Ericsson, the revolutionary iron Monitor changed naval history with its odd- looking but lethal rotating turret, which enabled its guns to fire in any direction regardless of which course the ship was sailing.

Naval historians describe the vessel as the ancestor of the modern battleship, and they point to the Monitor's March 9, 1862, clash with the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia -- also known as the Merrimack -- in the Battle of Hampton Roads as the end of wooden warships powered by sail.

Wrecked off Cape Hatteras less than 10 months later, the ship's location remained a mystery for more than a century -- and it continued to puzzle historians for many years after the site was found because of the lack of reliable documentation from the Civil War.

But its new home at the museum -- which plans to open a $30 million 60,000-square-foot USS Monitor center in 2007 -- should provide scholars and the public alike the chance to unravel the secrets of the once-elusive legend.

"It's unbelievable that we're standing here -- looking at something we could only talk about and speculate about before," said Civil War historian Tim Smith of York County.

"I always knew it would be large -- but in real life, it's huge."

Longtime Monitor historian Edward Miller, part of a 1973 U.S. Naval Academy research project that helped locate the wreck later that year, sized up the enormous cylinder with similar admiration.

"It's only 9 feet tall and 21 feet across inside, but it really looks huge," he said.

"I'd always hoped that I would be able to see it on land one day. It's awesome."

Such formidable bulk did little to intimidate the Lockwood Bros. riggers, who went about transferring the turret from barge to land with methodical care and precision.

The 20-member crew continued the delicate yet ponderous task with a kit of colossal jacks, dollies and other heavy-hauling tools, transporting the priceless cargo about three-quarters of a mile to the conservation tank, then setting it on the floor after hours of systematic lifting, lowering and adjusting.

Nearly 200 people watched as the riggers began their tedious work, including Williamsburg engineer Jim Kelly, who played a key role in designing the eight-legged spiderlike lifting frame that helped the Navy divers pluck the turret from 240 feet below the surface.

Earlier in the day, Kelly had looked on in triumph from the barge as the turret pulled up before the expectant crowd.

"I had to ride in with it. That's the last time something like this is truly yours," he said.

"But I'll be back to work on it soon, I think. I can't let go of it now."


* The Mariners' Museum will be open free of charge from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. Continuing work on the USS Monitor gun- turret conservation tank might interfere with the public's view of the historic Civil War artifact. But numerous other exhibits focusing on the conservation of the steam engine, propeller and other parts of the Civil War ship recovered on previous expeditions will remain open.

The museum is at 100 Museum Drive, Newport News. For more information, call 596-2222 or visit online at

* For an extensive story and photo gallery, visit us online at ussmonitor

Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or by e-mail at