Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Trying to talk to the girls - or - disappointment

Throughout the process of stabilizing Monomoys No. 2 and 3, we are attempting to dredge up details about their construction and service history. There are precious few details and a lot of circumstantial evidence. The boats themselves like to tell us about their service life - where they've been damaged, repaired, painted, repainted, painted again - but they offer few substantial clues about their origin.

One of these are a series of numbers stamped onto the top of their keels, almost hidden by the keelsons, wear and age. These are as follows:

(No. 2) N36123
(No. 3) N36114

As usual, I am always very pleased when the ladies give me their numbers.

But there is a problem. Like that woman in the bar who gave me an 8-digit phone number, it turns out there are too many digits to identify the boats. Records from Norfolk Naval Shipyard show boats beginning with N- and having three or four digits. The National Archives in College Park has lists from Charlestown MA showing boats beginning with B- and also having three or four digits and from the Washington Navy Yard beginning W- and three or four digits. Noticing a trend?

It seems the Navy numbered its boats by the Navy Yard. This isn't so far fetched, as even today boats don't belong to the ships they serve - they are issued them by a shore-based authority. Hmmmm. If that were the case, then our boats belonged to the Norfolk Navy Yard. But there are no FIVE digit boats listed from 1888 to 1962, based on the records I've found - which, I'll admit may have some gaps. Besides, the boats were donated by the State University of New York Maritime College. How did they get there? The school had no information to offer on this. Also, it seems a little odd that two Navy boats would end up in the hands of a Merchant Marine training school.

Dig farther.

The boats have doubled frames, known in boatbuilding as sister frames. These are a common repair technique when frames are damaged or broken. But these boats BOTH have sister frames throughout their mid-sections, rather than sporadically as one might expect in a repair. According to several sources, boats built for arctic service were either built or altered with the midships frames all sistered. Again, no answers only more questions.

I went back to the numbers. If I remove the first digit and check the books, I come up with two 32-foot racing cutters built in 1939. Nope. If I remove the last digit however, I come upon the records of four "Monomoy Whale Boats" contracted for in 1904 with a notation "arctic svc" and "Peary Exp" penciled in the margin. NO WAY! Think about it - the last digits are 3 and 4 - could this have been simply tacked on as the boats were matched up - four to a set. Again, circumstantial, but hey - its a possibility. I immediately set about reading everything I could on Peary and Arctic adventures.

As it turns out, Robert Peary made several expeditions to the Arctic in attempts to be the first to reach the North Pole. In the process, he and his crew produced several illegitimate Inuit children and lost all but two toes. His 1909 expedition was recognized by Congress as the first to reach the pole, even though he refused to release his journals and logs - AND to do so would have required an all-too convenient departure from his previous days' distances.
The first piece of the whole mess that seemed to connect everything was that Peary's navigator - the man who he would rely on to determine their exact position at the pole - was one Ross G. Marvin - a graduate of the New York Nautical School in 1902 and the namesake of the present school's sciences building. DING! Marvin was killed by Inuits in a squabble over who got shotgun in the dogsled. Could Peary have given the boats to the school in his honor? That would explan everything!

But wait, this is all circumstantial. What I needed to find first were photographs of what could be our Monomoys onboard Peary's ship, S.S. Roosevelt. Peary's books provided everything I needed. In his books Nearest the Pole (account of the 1905-06 expedition) and The North Pole (account of the 1909 expedition that actually reached the pole) could be found numerous photos of his "whale boats". Deep breath.

No, they are not ours. Peary's boats were undoubtedly a narrower, sleeker style of whaleboat. In the 1909 expedition, he stopped at New Bedford to buy whaleboats. Those of the earlier 1905 expedition were Monomoy shaped but definitely smaller. No dice, sorry kids.

But we have the ledgers - the numbers, the notations. But they are clearly NOT Peary's boats. Could we have it all wrong? Absolutely. Right now there is nothing conclusive to tell us the boats are even that old. They were used by the school, run hard, broken, repaired - so many parts and pieces replaced. How did they survive so long?

There are so many questions to be answered.

All of this information was provided to the NHS Board of Directors, and with thorough review and discussion, it was decided to press on with the stabilization efforts. That entails getting the boats into a state where they will degrade least, thus preserving as much as possible.

Later this week, I'll be waiting on a vote to proceed with removing the existant stem post, which based on the feelings right now I am told will pass unanimously. After all, with only scanty information and conjecture, we can only do so much.

At the very least, the research was one hell of a ride!


1 comment:

The Bos'n said...

Thanks for sharing the research story on the Monomoys. I look forward to seeing more information as you discover new details!