Category Archives: Notes from the Field

Counting Wrecks: Visualizing T.A. Scott’s salvage work, 1879-1902

This summer I updated my database of T.A. Scott’s rescue and salvage work for the period between 1879 and 1902. After not thinking much about this data set for three years, I plunged back into historical newspaper databases (much expanded and improved in just a couple of years) and added more than 50 events to the database. I’m sure there are more Scott salvage jobs still hiding in obscure newspapers, but I’m feeling pretty confident I found the vast majority. All told, the database includes 247 separate rescue or salvage events. It’s not clear how many he personally supervised (contemporaries often seemed to conflate Scott the man with Scott the salvage company), but I think it safe to say he was personally involved in most. The database includes the month, year, type of vessel involved in the incident, the vessel’s name, the type of wreck (founding, stranding, ice, fire, damaged), and whether or not it was recovered or repaired. After cleaning up the database with OpenRefine, I used Excel and Tableau Public to create the initial visualizations below. I’m working up some fancier ways to display this data… look for those soon.

The first two graphs show the annual and seasonal variation in Scott’s salvage work. Marine salvage was anything but steady and the wide variation in salvage work belies just how important non-salvage activities must have been to the T.A. Scott Company. Winter and spring were his busiest salvage seasons. Summer activity was slower because there were fewer wrecks and because he focused resources on lucrative (and relatively steady) marine construction jobs. I want to plot Scott’s work against the number of reported incidents in eastern Long Island Sound to see if there is any correlation between number of wrecks/incidents and his salvage activity.

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Other trends emerge as we dig into the data. Most notably, the bulk of Scott’s salvage work involved stranded schooners. Steamers and barges were tied for a distant second and an eclectic mix 13 other vessel types took up the remainder. Second, we have large gaps in the data — we do not know, for example, the “type” of wreck for 67 incidents. Possibly with further research we’ll be able to fill in these blanks. (to explore the graphs click here and here.)

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More to come soon…

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Summer in New London: T.A. Scott and the New London Maritime Society

Fall is here; classes have begun. But I’m certainly not ready to give up summer, and so we’ll reminisce. Two months ago I gave a pair of talks at the New London Custom House for the New London Maritime Society. My time there got off to a fantastic start — lunch at Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock. Not only was the lobster roll divine (maybe I have been too south for too long), but I also met a direct descendant of Captain Thomas A. Scott, the Dock’s namesake and the topic of my first talk: Chasing Scott: Researching New London’s ‘Master Wrecker.’ There was a great turnout for a mid-week afternoon talk and an overwhelming interest in the man I’ve been researching for a long, long time. I think a biography would be great fun…

After making plans to connect with Scott’s heir during the New London off-season, I whiled away the afternoon in the Maritime Society’s wonderful archive. Susan Tamulevich, the director, was a wonderful host, and I look forward to going back and spending some serious research hours in their library. I also had the pleasure of meeting David Zapatka. Zapatka was taking down his amazing photography exhibit “Stars and Lighthouses”–a collection of wondrous non-Photoshopped images of lighthouses lit at night with stars in the background. I’ve looked at a whole lot of lighthouse photographs and I’ve never seen any like these.  Check them out — I’m saving up for a print.

The evening talk had another nice audience and a great discussion. I jabbered about my current book project, which I’m now tentatively calling Shipwrecks and the Making of the Modern Beach. The talk was an opportunity for me to take that difficult step back and try to give a coherent overview of the project. It was a difficult, but invaluable and has helped me immensely as I put together the book proposal.

In the next post, I’ll share some of the research and graphics I finished up this summer on the illustrious Captain Thomas A. Scott.

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Mapping the American Coastal Frontier ca. 1800

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The last post explained how to use QGIS and historic census data to map population density. This post gets to that tricky “so what?” question.

So why map population density in 1800? My current project examines the social, cultural, and physical transformation of the American coast (my shorthand for coast of the United States of America) over the course of the long nineteenth century. I’m primarily interested in the oceanfront between ports, harbors, and the huge natural bays and sounds, that many a European explorer thought led to China, and how they became such a central—arguably essential—part of the American experience.

I’m currently slogging through the first chapter, a survey of the American coast on the eve of its transformation. It’s partly inspired by Marcus Rediker’s magisterial first chapter in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and similarly favors fruitful generalization over burdensome qualification. An important subargument of the chapter is to establish the 1800 American coast as a frontier. Well…maybe I do a bit of hair-splitting in the chapter. In any case, one of the many ways to define frontier is through population density. Hence, our maps.

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More Ships, Shipwrecks, and Coastal History

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So its taken a few more months than I thought to get back to Ships on the Shore. But what a few months it’s been! I’m happy to report that I recently began an appointment as a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of History at the University of West Florida in lovely, lovely Pensacola. (This seems a wise place to note that Ships on the Shore remains my personal blog and, as such, does not reflect the opinions of my employer.) My temporary hiatus from higher ed—and this blog—has ended.

A lot has changed on this here internet since Ships on the Shore launched in 2011. For one thing, blogs seem to have become a bit passé. (Don’t ask me where I heard that, though, if pressed, I’d point to an episode of Fresh Air.) Still, working on this blog really helped me research, write, and actually finish my dissertation. I hope it works the same magic as I turn that dissertation into a proper book. The nature of posts will change – there will certainly be fewer and they’ll probably range a bit wider than before as I reframe, revise, and…submit my first manuscript. I’m also working on some really exciting “coastal” projects at UWF and have a few relevant side projects that I hope to share with you as they come together in the months ahead. I’m eager to see how Ships on the Shore develops.

If you’ve made it this far: thank you. Your comments, questions, suggestions, and “views” make work that is notoriously (some say perversely) isolating… social. Please read, comment, click around. Send me an email. Tweet a comment.  Forward a post. Tell me what I got wrong; what I missed; what I got right. I truly appreciate it all.

 

Some posts that are in the works:

-The coast, the beach, the littoral…are they different? Does it matter?

-Why are coasts so damn complicated?

-Maritime cultural landscapes, disasters, and frontiers—picking historiographical “fights”

-Relearning basic GIS: mapping historic census data with QGIS

-Digital serendipity, or, how the New Jersey Shipwreck Database found me

-quick reviews of recent reads

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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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