Category Archives: Dissertation Digest

The Party’s Over (for now)

I started this blog in the summer of 2011 to share my dissertation research and aggregate contemporary shipwreck news. It has been a fantastic experience–we were “freshly pressed” and nominated for the Liebster Award twice (thank you again J.D. and Patrick!). More important, I met a whole bunch of folks interested in shipwrecks, salvage and history. Many gave me a vital scrap of evidence or helped me see things in a new perspective. Thank you for taking the time to send me an email or post a comment–you made my dissertation better. 

But, as the estimable Willie Nelson once put it: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over. They say that all good things must end.” I’m happy to report that I successfully defended my dissertation, “The Shipwreck Shore: Marine Disasters and the Creation of the American Littoral,” last week. It’s been quite a process. I have a veritable boatload of suggestions and comments from my committee concerning how to turn my relatively concise dissertation into a proper book. But first I need some down time–let things percolate a bit–before embarking on the dissertation-to-book project. (I’m also on the job hunt–anyone out there need a hard-working historian?) Until then, Ships on the Shore will be on hiatus. Thanks for tuning in and keep an eye to windward for our return…


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Shipwreck Tourism: On my blog’s birthday

I started this blog a little over a year ago after an inspiring “public engagement” workshop at the University of Delaware. I envisioned it to be a platform to share research, receive feedback on my dissertation, and, well, engage the “public” (whatever that means). I never thought I’d enjoy it as much as or learn as much as I have. It’s been fantastic! Many thanks to everyone who reads, comments, or has stumbled upon Ships on the Shore. Come back! Click around — there are a couple of hundred posts about everything “shipwreck” buried in the archives.

One of the most fulfilling/surprising aspects of doing this blog 4 or 5 times a week for 13 months has been  finding the connections between my research on 19th-century shipwrecks and what’s happening in the world today. Just this year we’ve had the hoopla over the Titanic anniversary and the shipwreck and salvage of the Costa Concordia. Not to mention a gaggle of new archaeological “discoveries” and the whole Black Swan saga. Shipwrecks are everywhere, if you’re looking that is. No need to head to the dusty bins of history. But we do–most of us are as are fascinated historical shipwrecks as modern ones. Shipwreck tourism of one form or another is (nearly–there are a few naysayers) ubiquitous and this blog is another manifestation of it.

Why this collective fascination with costly, often deadly disasters? Why do people flock to shipwrecks? Why do disasters ‘draw’? What are the broader consequences of shipwreck tourism? These are deeply historical questions I’m trying to take a stab at through this blog and my dissertation. Fortunately, work on the blog has helped clarify the dissertation. Just this morning I stumbled upon video above. It’s a compelling, insightful meditation by Georg Keller about the tourism that has sprung up around the Costa Concordia. I’ve taken a few notes from it and I hope you enjoy it too.

Back to work…


Filed under Dissertation Digest, Notes from the Field

Historic Salvage Video

Research these days! You can’t google something once and be done with it anymore–new material gets posted/indexed/available online every day. Yesterday I searched “Merritt Chapman Wrecking Company” for the first time in a few months and came across this fantastic (if you press mute) video of a 1960s salvage of a floating dry dock.

Here’s the description from the video:

Rare 1960’s 16mm silent film footage of the salvaging of a floating drydock in a river. Unknown location, but possibly the Mississippi River near New Orleans. A tremendous salvage job of a huge drydock. Work performed by the Merritt Chapman & Scott Salvage Division. Some helmet and hookah diving shown.

Amazing stuff! I can only hope there’s more out there.

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Forgotten Wreck: Franklin (1825)

The New York Spectator published this relatively innocuous article on May 3, 1825.

Shipwreck.–We mentioned on Saturday, that a large ship was seen ashore near Barnegat. This vessel proves to be the packet ship Franklin, Capt. Munro, which left here on Wednesday, for Charleston. She went ashore on Thursday morning, in the fog, eight miles north of Barnegat, and went to pieces. The passengers and crew were all saved. The cargo principally drifted to sea, and some strewed on the beach.

That same day, the Franklin‘s captain, J.S. Munroe, wrote the letter below. It travelled far. This version appeared in Charleston, South Carolina’s City Gazette and Commercial Daily Advertiser on May 11th. It’s the first serious allegation of “land piracy” on the Jersey Shore I’ve come across (not counting occasional charges of locals taking a few capfuls of coffee and such from a wreck).

Capt. Munro, of the packet ship Franklin, which was cast away last Thursday morning on Barnegat, has addressed the following letter to the editors of the Mercantile Advertiser:

Permit me through the medium of your paper, to express my indignation at the treatment I received when unfortunately cast ashore in the ship Franklin, on Island Beach, six miles north of Barnegat Inlet. I fondly hoped that the unpleasant situation in which my crew and self were placed, would elicit feelings from the inhabitants entirely different from what we received–I thought we were cast upon an hospitable shore, where we should find civilized beings; but I regret to say that not more than 20 out of 200 or more, who assembled on the beach, but what plundered as of every thing they could get hold of, although every precaution in our power was used to guard against it. It is impossible for me to say what amount of property they embezzled–I have no doubt that valuable goods were frequently buried in the sand, in order to be removed at night. A new maintopsail, which with much difficulty we got on the beach, was taken from us. In time is is impossible to enumerate the many instances of a similiar nature. In the offing, there were several vessels picking up valuable goods, names of which I have in my possession, but presuming they will deliver the goods to the agents of the ship, I forbear at present to name them. I feel under great obligations to Mr. Wm. Platt, for his attention while there.–I conceive if 10,000 are required to protect our commerce in the W. Indies, an equal number are necessary on Island Beach.

~J. S. Munro.

New York, May 3, 1825

Despite Munro’s favorable opinion of William Platt, the Platt family was bad news. William Platt (possibly the same mentioned by Munro) and his son would later be hunted down in the New Jersey Pinelands by federal agents for their illegal plundering of shipwrecks in the 1830s. But more on that in another post…

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Of mooring chains and presidents

(note: this post is for my old man–who would have thought moorings were so important to the Founding Fathers?)

I’ve been writing and revising the first chapter of my dissertation for far too long. I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. Yesterday I was revising a few pages about the history of American lighthouses immediately after the adoption of the Constitution. Lighthouses were vitally important for the new federal government because they safely guided the maritime commerce that was essential for the fledgling nation. Duties on imported goods literally underwrote the operation of the federal government–between 1789 and 1800 almost 88% of federal revenue came from customshouse receipts!

The specter of shipwrecks haunted the new government (to put it a bit more dramatically than I could in the dissertation). Shipwrecks undermined the financial stability of the new government–reducing revenue and scaring off risk adverse merchants. Legislators acted quickly. The seventh act passed by the first Congress put all existing  “lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers… at the entrance of, or within any bay, inlet, harbor, or port of the United States” under federal control (until then they were controlled by the states). It was a sweetheart deal and states eagerly divested themselves of these fiscal and administrative headaches. In return, legislators gained control of the one proactive measure then available to prevent shipwrecks and protect the maritime commerce that was vital to their “republican experiment.” They willingly invested in the nation’s system of aids to navigation–the Washington and Adams administrations spent over $550,000 on maintenance, operations and new construction projects.

Like the members of Congress, the “high officers” of the new federal government “gave more than routine attention” to lighthouse matters, according to this historian. George Washington certainly did his part–going so far as to haggle over the replacement of a mooring chain. When a request came to replace “a mooring chain for one of the Floating Beacons of the Delaware Bay,” Washington replied thus:

“April 27th, 1793, Approved, so far as it respects the new chain; but is there an entire loss of the old one? Go. Washington.”

Now there’s a statement anyone in the mooring business would be all too familiar with.


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