Have sonar, will travel
July 21, 2016 1:25 PM   Subscribe

"In August 1868, a double-masted Canadian schooner named the Royal Albert was en route to Toledo, Ohio, loaded down with 285 tons of railroad iron when the heavy cargo suddenly shifted. The iron rails busted the hull open and sent the ship to the bottom of the lake. While the crew survived, the ship was lost for nearly 150 years—until earlier this month, when a group of underwater explorers finally discovered it."

During the late 19th century, it was common for heavy goods to be shipped to the midwest via ships traversing the Great Lakes. While many other goods were often delivered by smaller canal boats, heavier materials – like the iron used to build the country’s railroads – had to be sent on large ships like the Royal Albert, as Jim Kennard, one of the ship’s discoverers, tells Chris Carola for the Associated Press. During that time, thousands of ships sunk while crossing the Great Lakes, providing plenty of fodder for history buffs and underwater explorers.

The team that discovered the Royal Albert uses side-scan sonar to find wrecks.

They have located many others in Lake Ontario, including a USAF C-45 that crashed into the lake in 1952 after flying, pilotless, for 65 miles (the crew parachuted to safety after an engine failed - the plane kept on going for a while), the Atlas, a commercial schooner that sank in 1839, and the Three Brothers, a dagger-board schooner that sank in 1833.
posted by mandolin conspiracy (13 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I dunno at 300 feet down I don't think it has to worry much about looting by recreational divers. That's pretty close to the limit for divers using trimix. Excellent find though.
posted by GuyZero at 2:09 PM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

The wikipedia illustrations for dagger-board are amazing
posted by flaterik at 2:42 PM on July 21, 2016 [16 favorites]

Hmm. How much are the salvage rights to low-background steel worth?
posted by fings at 2:44 PM on July 21, 2016 [25 favorites]

Whoa, I was about to joke about who would want to steal a bunch of old iron rails from a shipwreck, but that is actually really damn interesting.
posted by indubitable at 3:18 PM on July 21, 2016

Now they know how many rails it takes to fill the Albert hull.
posted by moonmilk at 4:11 PM on July 21, 2016 [45 favorites]

The wikipedia illustrations for dagger-board are amazing

Cannot emphasise this enough.
posted by MattWPBS at 4:17 PM on July 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

moonmilk is my new Patronus.
posted by Mogur at 4:32 PM on July 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Back in the summer of 1967, off the coast of Turkey, my dad and his team of underwater archaeologists were the first to find an ancient shipwreck using side-scan sonar. Somehow they'd wound up testing the newly developed system, provided by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the request of the navy.

So they dragged the side-scan sonar unit behind a Turkish fishing trawler, up and down the coast, until until a promising blob appeared on a fifty-foot sheet of paper printed out by the sonar system. When my dad's team dove down in the two-person submersible Asherah to examine the target, they found a wreck at 300 feet, and they saw the roof tiles from an ancient galley and a ship's water storage jar. It was a technological success, but ironically the wreck was then too deep to dive on and excavate properly, and pretty soon after that they realized they couldn't afford the insurance payments for the Asherah, the world's first private research submersible, and so that was its last mission.

As for the wreck they found, its location has long since been lost.

But however you find them, shipwrecks really are time capsules. Even one like the Royal Albert, which might seem initially to be mundane, will yield all kinds of stories if it's excavated properly.

On land, archaeological sites are often limited to the remains of structures and a random assortment of nearby artifacts, a lot of it essentially ancient trash, most of it long-since looted. But when a ship goes down, it's often with a cargo, and with the personal possessions of the crew (which, you like to think, swam safely to shore), and all of those things in the aggregate can tell a story.

It's sometimes the most mundane things that tell the most interesting stories. Some of the ancient Greek and Roman wrecks my dad and his colleagues excavated as far back as the 60s are still giving up secrets. Amphora that just seemed like thousands of clay jars when they were raised from the Mediterranean 30 or 40 years ago and were locked in museum basements are now being subject to DNA analysis, and organic remains inside can show exactly where the olive oil or wine they once contained came from, which in turn tells you something about patterns of trade and consumption and all kinds of cool things.

One of my dad's long-time colleagues, Frederick van Doorninck, has spent decades investing the amphora from just a few wrecks, because he realized among other things that if you determine whose measurement systems were being used for shipping containers, you could tell who was controlling trade along certain routes.

And that's just clay jars!
posted by bassomatic at 4:58 PM on July 21, 2016 [55 favorites]

Hmm. How much are the salvage rights to low-background steel worth?

Wouldn't they need to use atmospheric air to make the iron into steel, thus contaminating it?
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 6:12 PM on July 21, 2016

Now they know how many rails it takes to fill the Albert hull.

You were on that so quick, and it's so perfect, that it's like you've been saving that pun all your life, just waiting for the right setup.
posted by not that girl at 9:15 PM on July 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Wouldn't they need to use atmospheric air to make the iron into steel, thus contaminating it?

For most radiation shielding applications, mechanical properties are not that important: if your shield doesn't cave in on itself, you're good. Blocks of low-background iron would be as good as blocks of low-background steel.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:11 PM on July 21, 2016

Wrought iron chain links (as in the old style of bloomery iron, not fancy scrollwork) and similar are selling for about $7/lb if they can be had at all, some smiths prefer it enough to make it worth the cost to recover it from old harbors and wrecks. This is too deep for cost-effective salvage without destroying the archeological value, so it's probably safe.
posted by Blackanvil at 7:36 AM on July 22, 2016

Looks like they just found another one:

Wed., Aug. 17, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y.—The second-oldest confirmed shipwreck in the Great Lakes, an American-built, Canadian-owned sloop that sank in Lake Ontario more than 200 years ago, has been found, a team of underwater explorers said Wednesday.

The three-member western New York-based team said it discovered the shipwreck earlier this summer in deep water off Oswego, in central New York. Images captured by a remotely operated vehicle confirmed it is the Washington, which sank during a storm in 1803, team member Jim Kennard said.

“This one is very special. We don’t get too many like this,” said Kennard, who along with Roger Pawlowski and Roland “Chip” Stevens has found numerous wrecks in Lake Ontario and other waterways.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:41 AM on August 17, 2016

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