locales that embodied “outstanding natural, cultural, recreational and aesthetic” values for the people of the city and visitors. My nine years in San Francisco were an intensive lesson in the documentation and preservation of historic and archaeological sites in the park.
Thanks to a supportive and mentoring boss, Doug Nadeau, I was able to stretch my job assignments into archaeology and diving. One early project was the wreck of the Gold Rush steamship Tennessee in Marin County. Our labors in the sea and the beach sands were rewarded by hundreds of artifacts that we carefully mapped and recovered. The pieces of Tennessee graphically demonstrated how the steamer had been ground into tiny pieces by the surf and spit out onto the beach after Tennessee’s captain missed the Golden Gate on the foggy morning of March 6, 1853 and crashed ashore in the cove.
I also began to work outside of GGNRA, thanks to the NPS’s growing awareness of a vast array of shipwrecks within the boundaries of national parks. Another Gold Rush steamship wreck in a national park, S.S. Winfield Scott, in southern California’s Channel Islands, led to a project to map its remains and nominate the wreck to the National Register in April 1982. In deeper, calmer water than the fragmented wreck of Tennessee, Winfield Scott nonetheless was a broken hulk buried by shifting sand. Pieces of the wooden hull peeked out of the bottom in a sea of waving kelp. Pieces of the engine, and the two paddlewheel shafts, with portions of the wheels, are the most prominent features of the wreck. Diving on the “Winnie” added to my understanding of the first steamers to navigate the Pacific Coast, and reminded me of the importance of the Gold Rush in the early history of California’s development.
But the great breakthrough into the fascinating world of shipwrecks and underwater archaeology came that same year thanks to a project up the coast in nearby Drakes Bay. The project was run by the NPS’ new Submerged Cultural Resources Unit (SCRU), a team from Santa Fe, New Mexico headed by Dan Lenihan. His team included Larry Murphy, a big, brisk and competent diving archaeologist who would become one of my best friends. Dan had single-handedly built his organization out of the apathy and outright hostility of some in the NPS who thought the agency should be doing things other than hunt for shipwrecks. The iconoclastic Lenihan and his “damn the torpedoes” attitude were just my idea of right-thinking archaeologists, and Dan and Larry became my new mentors.
From Drakes Bay to the warm waters of Pearl Harbor and the battle-ravaged remains of USS Arizona, to a wreck at the turbulent mouth of the Columbia River to the atomic bombed fleet of Bikini Atoll, with interludes in Cape Cod, and back home at GGNRA, Dan and Larry taught me how to dive wrecks and how to “do” underwater archaeology.
Philosophical discussions over the role of anthropology in underwater and maritime archaeology, as well as a strong preservationist approach to saving wrecks from the ravages of treasure hunters also formed a solid core in my education. That work also
included working outside the National Parks, helping friend John Foster, California’s state underwater archaeologist, document and identify wrecks that included Gold Rush sailing ships sunk off the Sacramento’s “Old Town” on the Sacramento River, and a wreck that another good friend, wreck diver Dave Buller, had pointed out, which turned out to be a fascinating Gold Rush wreck, the clipper brig Frolic. When I took a year’s sabbatical from the NPS to go back to school and gain a Master’s in the field, I left with a solid background thanks to my friends.
My year at East Carolina University was another intensive period of study and work. A relatively new program founded by history professor William N. “Bill” Still and Gordon P. Watts, the first archaeologist to study the famous Civil War ironclad, USS Monitor, the “Program in Maritime History and Underwater Research” was one of only two schools in the U.S. to offer a graduate degree and a strong partner (and rival) to Texas A&M’s nautical archaeology program headed by George Bass, the founding father of underwater archaeology. Together, the two programs have produced the lion’s share of practicing underwater archaeologists in North America, as well as museum directors, curators and professors.
Arriving at ECU in 1984, I spent the year teaching basic U.S. history, studying, and completing a required field season’s work by surveying 60 miles of Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s beaches for shipwreck remains uncovered by seasonal erosion. With the loan of a four-wheel drive ranger patrol vehicle, and happily back in uniform for a few weeks, I surveyed dozens of wooden ships and steam engines sticking out of surf and sand with a group of fellow students, including Kevin Foster, who I would later hire to join me in the ranks of the NPS.
Just before I left North Carolina, though, came a phone call that once again represented a crossroads. Edwin C. “Ed” Bearss, the Chief Historian of the National Park Service, called from his Washington D.C. office with a simple question. As the only NPS historian with an impending graduate degree in maritime history and archaeology, and a proven track record for production (I’d written dozens of National Register nominations and studies), he wanted to know if I’d like to join an NPS team to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration manage the wreck of USS Monitor. I served as the project historian for the USS Monitor for the next few years, writing the study that made the wreck a National Historic Landmark. Assessing Monitor, a famous “icon” shipwreck, was a revealing look at why people think certain things are “historic” and worth saving.
As an archaeologist, I was, on one hand, disdainful of just studying “big name,” famous wrecks, arguing that the unknown, workaday ships (the floating equivalent of the “man on the street”) were more deserving of study as they were more indicative of the common experience at sea. But the how and why some ships become “famous” was in itself a compelling area of study. Today, as an archaeologist who has visited and studied a wide range of famous ships – USS Arizona, USS Monitor, Titanic, Carpathia, Mary Celeste, Somers, and many others, I find the noteworthy and notorious to be yet another archaeological window into the human soul.
The work on USS Monitor led to a new assignment for Ed Bearss. In early 1987, Ed tapped me to run a new program Congress had tasked the NPS with. Known as the “National Maritime Initiative,” the job was essentially to create a national maritime preservation program for the US government. Inventorying every known historic maritime resource, from floating ships and shipwrecks to lighthouses and shipyards, developing standards for their preservation and restoration, assigning priorities for preservation, and “appropriate roles” for the government and the private sector filled the next four years.