Saturday, September 25, 2004


Divers discover, protect rare pre-Civil War steam engines off New Jersey coast


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NEW JERSEY -- Two rare, pre-Civil War steam locomotives, almost completely intact, have been discovered sitting upright, side-by-side, at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, several miles off the central New Jersey coast.

The submerged engines were discovered in 1985 by a charter-boat captain. But the significance of the find was not realized until two years ago, and not made public until Friday, when a federal judge ordered the relics protected.

In the next few days, a surrogate U.S. marshal will dive 90 feet to the ocean floor a few miles east of Asbury Park, to attach a laminated notice to one of the locomotives. The notice includes a marshals' warning that tampering or poaching is now illegal.

Two organized groups of amateur railroad and diving enthusiasts obtained the court order. They hope to retrieve and restore the distinctive and decorative steam engines, which are encrusted with a century and a half of barnacles and other sea life.

"It's a real archeological find - there are only a handful from that era that still exist," said David Dunn, director of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, which is not involved. The six-wheeled engines are among the earliest American workhorse locomotives, designed during "an era when these machines were considered the space shuttles of the mid-19th century."

Jim Wilke, a railroad historian who lives in Los Angeles, said the find is unusual because "these machines are exactly as they were when they went down in the early 1850s." Most similar engines that survived to become museum relics, he said, were refitted again and again over decades, and represent hybrids with modernized parts.

"These engines are extremely rare," he said.

The Smithsonian Institution, for example, owns a similar one, the Pioneer. A somewhat smaller, slightly younger, eight-wheeled steam engine, the People's Railway No. 3, is on display at the Franklin Institute.
John H. White, a former railroad curator for the Smithsonian, described the discovery of the two steam engines near New Jersey as "unusual, an oddity."

"They don't tell anything we don't already know," White said. "It's just interesting that they survived all this time. We don't have much from the 1850s. These are new pieces that were unknown."

To recover the steam engines from the Atlantic, the leaders of the diving and train enthusiast groups acknowledge they will need professional help.

"This is, really, out of our realm," said Victor Crisanto, chair of the New Jersey Museum of Transportation, which won the legal protection for the engines. The private museum has operated the Pine Creek Railroad, a railroad preservation organization at Allaire State Park, since 1952.

The group took the first legal step on Friday, when it appeared before U.S. District Judge Joseph Irenas to ask for custody of the abandoned steam locomotives. They presented him with several pieces of physical evidence removed from the engines, including a foot-long bell and a 38-inch piece of decorative trim that hung above a wheel.

"They could probably raise this thing without a court order because they are outside of New Jersey waters, but the real reason to do it is to protect their rights and keep interlopers away," said Peter E. Hess, a Wilmington lawyer who represented the group.

The discovery is bound to become more publicized this month, Hess said, and will be featured on a History Channel documentary tomorrow at 9 p.m.. "Everyone and their brother will want to go and try to grab a piece of brass off the trains," Hess said.

Crisanto and historians said they have little information about the engines' history - the precise year they were built, for example, or how they landed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

But by analyzing certain clues - the wagon-top boiler and the valve controls, for example - historians believe the steam locomotives were manufactured in New England, probably Boston, between 1851 and 1854.

Beyond that, they say, little is certain, because railroad records were poor. Some historians suspect the engines slipped off a freighter headed south during a storm. But that is just a guess.

Apparently, the engines sat undisturbed several miles from Asbury Park for more than a century, until 1985, when a charter-boat captain, Paul Hepler, found them while checking netting.

"The captain told me about them years ago," said Dan Lieb of Neptune, the president of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association. "We were out on his boat, looking for lobsters, exploring shipwrecks. And when he told me about the locomotives, I thought, 'I don't want to look at trains,' I want to see shipwrecks."

Years later, Lieb said, he finally decided to see the trains for himself. He and fellow divers soon became infatuated. They took pictures and made drawings. Then he began making inquiries via the Internet.
At first, some speculated that the trains were sunk by the Germans during World War II, citing well-known attacks in the area at the time.

Eventually, the divers' information and details reached White, the former Smithsonian curator.

"They finally sent me a videotape - and I said, 'Aha! I think I know what these are,' " White said. "The cylinders were on an angle, a very antique feature. The double valves, one on top of each other, another antique feature."

They were tank engines, circa 1850.

Lieb, who had been reading White's book, American Locomotives: An Engineering History, 1830-1880, took the news to Crisanto and his fellow train enthusiasts. "They came to one of our board meetings and brought drawings, pictures, a few artifacts," said Crisanto, the all-volunteer museum's chairman. "And... our jaws kind of hit the ground."

SOURCE - Philadelphia Inquirer

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