Although they may have been good fodder for Deep Sea Detectives, and could be of historical significance to train buffs, these two little engines are really not that great a dive. You've seen everything in ten minutes, and there is nothing else around - no evidence of a ship or barge that might have been carrying them. For a railroad fancier, these old engines might hold great interest, but I think for most divers the novelty will wear off pretty quickly. They were originally found in 1985 by Captain Paul Hepler of the Venture III, then rediscovered during a NOAA survey in 1991, and finally re-rediscovered by NJHDA in the 2000s.
The locomotives are bigger than the 11 ton "Pioneer" shown at right, but otherwise structurally similar. The wheel layout, known as "2-2-2" ( oOo ) was very rare in the Americas, although fairly common in Great Britain.
However, the engines in question are little like the beautifully preserved Pioneer. The wood engineer's cabins have long-ago rotted away, along with most of the smokestacks and cow-catchers, leaving just the barrel of the boiler and the wheels. The engines are completely stripped of valving, instruments, lamps, and any other kind of artifact that might be of interest. Everything that remains is heavily encrusted with marine growth. Here are some images of the two locomotives, captured from the show:
Rather poor NOAA side-scan sonar image of the two engines
In this side-scan, it is clear that the two locomotives are slightly askew. If they were lashed to a barge that sank, you would expect them to be aligned parallel. They are, however, close together. If they had been deliberately jettisoned, you would expect that the crew would ditch one and then the other, not both at the same time, and they would land some distance apart. So the logical conclusion is that they were swept overboard by a large wave, or both broke their lashings and slid off the deck together when the vessel rolled.
It is odd that these heavy objects did not sink into the sand. Instead, they sit upon their wheels as if the sand were hard as rock, with a big space beneath each engine. MoDiver reports that the engines actually rest on iron gratings in the sand, something that the Deep Sea Detectives missed entirely. This would be the equivalent of modern warehouse pallets.
The two engines are about 10 feet apart, as depicted
in this otherwise inaccurate computer graphic.
They were probably constructed in the early 1850s, possibly by the Seth Wilmarth
Union Works - a South Boston builder of locomotives from 1848 till 1855.
With divers for scale - these locomotives are not big
Looking at a drive wheel
Drive wheel linkage and steam cylinder
Looking at one end of the boiler
The suspension below the front of the boiler
This computer drawing above is inaccurate - there is no trace of the engineer's cabs
or coal hoppers at the rear of the engines. The trailing wheels are all that is left.
Don't get all excited about diving these things - they are hardly worth the long boat ride, and once all the hoopla from the TV show dies down, no charter boat is going to take you there. The day I dove them, along with Chatterton and the film crew from Deep Sea Detectives, there was scarce fish life and no lobsters to be found. The entire site is small and dark and cold, visibility is usually poor, and currents can be vicious ( see Macedonia. ) This is not a beginner dive. In addition local historical organizations have "arrested" the site, legally prohibiting any tampering or removal of artifacts. During my dives there, I actually got a bigger kick out of the school of dogfish that was swarming around at about 30 feet; the subway cars are more interesting and much more accessible.
The New Jersey coast has more than its share of shipwrecks. From tramp freighters and Colonial-era sailing vessels to Nazi submarines and Cold War listening platforms, an almost limitless catalog of vessels and structures have met their end in these waters. But the strangest underwater relic of all might be two steam locomotives, upright and intact, sitting in 90 feet of water.
DEEP SEA DETECTIVES joins diver John Chatterton and his team of experts as they examine this bizarre site and try to determine what brought these massive machines to such an unlikely resting place. The mystery only deepens when we discover that these locomotives are missing links from the very first years of American railroading. With every answer raising more questions, UNDERWATER TRAIN WRECK is a fascinating piece of historical investigation.
Dan Lieb and John Chatterton
"The Mysterious Locomotives"
video courtesy of Dan Crowell, sdp-video.com
RECORD 8096 HISTORY
FE331SS/89--OPR-C147-HE-89; CONTACT #2; DIVER INVESTIGATION REVEALED TWO STEAM RAILROAD LOCOMOTIVES RESTING UPRIGHT SIDE BY SIDE ON the BOTTOM; BOTH WERE COVERED WITH MARINE VEGETATION AND CORAL; SHOALEST POINT OF the TWO LOCOMOTIVES WAS APPROXIMATELY 18 FT OFF A SANDY BOTTOM.
(NAD83); LOCAL DIVERS STATED THAT the LOCOMOTIVES WERE CARGO FROM the TRANSPORT SHIP ARUNDO, WHICH WAS TORPEDOED AND SUNK BY A GERMAN U-BOAT, U-297; EVALUATOR RECOMMENDED CHARTING A NONDANGEROUS SUBMERGED OBSTRUCTION WITH A KNOWN DEPTH OF 69 FT AS SHOWN ON PRESENT SURVEY. (ENTERED MSD 7/91)
By John Shiffman
Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted on Sun, Sep. 19, 2004
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.
"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."
Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 856-779-3857 or
The suggestion in the television program that the locomotives be raised and put on display borders on absurd. Each one weighs perhaps 35 tons, or more, covered with marine growth and filled with water. Raising the locomotives, which have been weakened by over 150 years of saltwater corrosion, would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to execute properly, and even then would have a high likelihood of damaging or destroying them.
If the locomotives ever were brought to the surface, then the almost impossible task of preserving them would begin. Exposure to air would accelerate the corrosion process a hundred-fold ( air contains 21% highly reactive gaseous oxygen, seawater contains approximately 0.5% dissolved oxygen. ) Without extreme measures, the locomotives would disintegrate into piles of rust flakes in just a few years, like the old anchors that you find in front of restaurants at the shore.
Proper conservation and preservation of the locomotives would probably involve decades of immersion in fresh water to remove salts, combined with electrolytic treatment to stabilize the remaining metal. Successful conservation of small iron objects is difficult; conservation of the 35 ton ** locomotives over many years would certainly cost even more than raising them in the first place - it is completely unrealistic.
Even if all these hurdles were overcome, the end result would be two ugly rust-pitted partial locomotive hulks, stripped of almost all of their equipment and running gear and swathed in anti-corrosion grease - hardly as charming as the photogenic little Pioneer above. It would probably be cheaper and easier to just build new ones from old blueprints, and those would have the added benefit of actually functioning, which these two never will again.
The only realistic fate for these locomotives is to be left on the bottom of the ocean exactly where it is, where it could reasonably be expected to last for another 100 years or perhaps longer. To get some idea of the complexity that would be involved in raising and preserving iron objects of this size, peruse the following pages, keeping the thought "35 tons" in mind as you do:
Any private operation to raise one of these locomotives would be a far cry from the US Navy's multi-million dollar efforts to raise the Hunley and the Monitor. To attempt this project on a shoestring budget would be a crime.
** Based on the observation that the 11 ton Pioneer is 3/4 the size of the sunken locomotives, a quick calculation gives an empty weight of 26 tons each. Since such things never scale linearly, this is almost certainly an underestimate, so 30 tons is a conservative figure.
Subtract the lightweight wooden sections that have rotted away, and small brass parts that have been removed - several hundred pounds at most.
Add 150 years of rust and encrustation. The accepted formula for rust is:
Fe2O3nH2O where n = 3/2
A simple calculation shows that corroded iron gains 67% in mass when it blooms into rust. Of course, this applies only to the surface layers of the metal, to a material depth that I cannot estimate, but I would guess between 1/16" and 1/4 ". Apply this to the entire surface area, including internal spaces. Some external rust will flake off.
To start estimating the weight of encrustation, remember that sea anemones are 99% water. Seawater weighs 64.6 lb/cu-ft, and the anemones could be assumed to form a 1-2 inch jacket over the entire external surface of the locomotives. I would guess at least a ton of sea anemones ( won't that be fun to clean up after drying in the sun? ) Stony coral is considerably heavier than water, and so would have an even greater effect. Mussels and hydroids could be scraped off prior to the lift.
Finally, add boilers and cylinders full of seawater - perhaps 3000 lbs of water weight that is not going to drain quickly.
I think 35 tons is a reasonable estimate for the weight of a single fragile locomotive that would have to be lifted out of the water without breaking it into pieces in the process.
A lot of New Jersey divers have very strong opinions on the subject of arresting this or any wreck. Arresting a wreck is no more or less evil than taking away artifacts. The ocean eventually digests everything, and what is not recovered will inevitably be lost. Those wrecks that are truly of historical significance should be protected and left to professional archaeologists. Such wrecks are rare. Underwater archaeologists are even rarer, and would not get to even a tiny fraction of what is down there if it was all reserved for them. Like many environmentalists, archaeologists can be prone to extreme opinions. Here are some excerpts of an email that I received from an armchair archaeologist:
As a nautical archaeologist I find your website unethical and, in places, downright illegal.
I hope you die in one of your ill-conceived "adventures" (excuse me while I die laughing).
This fanatic turned out to be attached to a major maritime museum that I will not name, and someone whose job deals with the public on a daily basis. ( I forwarded the message to his HR director; I hope he was fired. The moral of the story is: don't use your work email for death threats ! ) Fortunately, this one nut is not indicative of marine archaeologists in general.
I don't know if these locomotives really qualify as historically significant and deserving of such jealous protection. In any case, the point is moot - there is nothing left to be taken from them anyway. If you were greedy and selfish enough, you could get some explosives and blast a wheel off or something, and I agree with the court that would be wrong. The arrest also forbids throwing a grappling hook into the wreck, which is reasonable, since I have seen the damage that has done already. The arrest does not otherwise prevent divers from visiting the site.
Everyone is getting much too upset about this. How many of you ever wanted to dive these things before? How many have ever dived any of the subway cars, and how many have never even considered diving on a train? ( Isn't that right up there with diving on garbage? ) Tell the truth, how many have ever wanted to dive on anything but a bonafide shipwreck? So why are these locomotives suddenly so interesting now? Perhaps they should be preserved. At any rate, the organizations that have arrested the locomotives are tiny, and could never raise the sums necessary to properly raise and restore them, so they will be down there for a long time to come, and hopefully now unmolested by junk collectors. If anyone ever tries to arrest a popular wreck like the Mohawk, I'll be the first one to say lynch 'em, but in this case it may be right the right thing to do.
See Maritime Salvage Law by Michael C. Barnette, with sample arrest papers
images from Deep Sea Detectives / History Channel "Underwater Train Wreck"
( I hope they don't sue me )
underwater video by Dan Crowell / Seeker Digital Productions