Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Mariners' Museum

It was the town of Newport News that prompted us to join dad on his business trip in the first place. Yes, there were the Petersburg and Richmond Civil War sites, the historic Jamestown and Yorktown, the capitol building and the majestic James River; all sites I had heard of and knew I someday wanted to explore. But it was a museum in Newport News that tipped the scales, because as soon as I mentioned a possible trip to Virginia Lauris declared “I want to see the Monitor!” It didn't take long to convince me - I don't know if it was the influence of my seafaring ancestors or the lure of making history come alive for Lauris, but we penciled the museum in on our travel itinerary. 

The Mariners’ Museum and Park is home to a vast maritime collection; it had just somehow never appeared on my radar. It was Lauris who had started reading history books about the American Civil War, and as he became more fascinated with the Battle of the Hampton Roads, our excitement to visit grew. The naval engagement that occurred at a harbor at the mouth of the James River on March 9, 1862 is remarkable as history’s first duel between ironclad warships and the beginning of a new era of naval warfare. Lauris had researched that portions of the historic ship were on display at the Museum, and so we adjusted our route to Norfolk to allow for time to see history come alive.

We stopped in on the day we visited Yorktown, with the plan to spend a couple of hours exploring – and of course to see the historic Monitor warship. Entrance to the museum is significant, especially if you wish to add the 3D movie to your admission; however even with two exhibits closed for renovation the museum had a wealth of fascinating maritime artifacts on display, and our two hours there passed quickly.

USS Monitor's gun

The USS Monitor was the first ironclad warship commissioned by the Union Navy. Having discovered that the Confederates were building an ironclad warship on the hull of the former steam frigate USS Merrimack (whose iron ‘sides’ were a product of the Tredegar Iron Works we had toured just a few days ago in Richmond), the Union was worried they would lose control of their James River blockade (and eventually Washington DC) to this new warship.  The CSS Virginia had already destroyed the sail frigates USS Cumberland and USS Congress when the Monitor arrived (and just in time to save the steam frigate USS Minnesota!), and after a four-hour battle neither ship was seriously damaged. Eventually the Confederates were forced to destroy the CSS Virginia as they withdrew in early May, after which the Monitor sailed up the James River to support the Union Army during the Peninsula Campaign. While under tow to join blockaders off North Carolina, a storm hit, and on December 31 the ship foundered. Monitor's wreck was discovered in 1973 and has been partially salvaged, with guns, gun turret, engine and other relics on display at the Mariners' Museum. It wasn’t quite the exhibit I had imagined, as all the salvaged parts are underwater in large tanks undergoing active desalination; part of the preservation process is to remove the chloride salts which had accumulated in the turret over 140 years on the sea floor.

NOAA photo on the left, source here, and the lifting device on display at the Museum

Also on display is the claw-like lifting device used by the Navy and NOAA to salvage the turret from the ocean floor, as well as a full scale replica of the turret as salvaged. We viewed the USS Monitor’s red signal lantern, the last object seen by the Monitor’s crew and then later the first artifact recovered from the wreck site. And we traversed the deck of the full-scale USS Monitor, located just outside the museum and connected with two walkways.

Having explored the multiple ironclad/Monitor exhibits we briefly ducked into the new “Polynesian Warriors” exhibition, its displays demonstrating this culture's and community’s focus on the maritime. The boys by this time had mastered “Museum Quest” on the borrowed iPads and were having fun searching for clues. (The interactive scavenger hunt has an app for the iPad, and kids can follow clues to find exciting objects within the museum… if you find all 9 you win a prize!) Our hunt took us out to the courtyard and into the International Small Craft Center.

With more than 150 boats representing 43 countries I was hoping to see a boat from Latvia. Geographically the closest we got was the competition sailboat from Denmark, however I wasn’t disappointed as the variety of boats present (in just one room!) was fascinating. A Venetian Gondola, a "Bull Boat" made from the bison bull, the Agai-ni-awaiau ceremonial canoe... to think how many shapes and materials can all be made to float! Eventually we headed through the courtyard and back into the main building.

The Age of Exploration chronicles the developments in shipbuilding, ocean navigation, and cartography from the 15th through the 18th centuries. Passing through the next exhibit is The Nelson Touch, devoted to Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson of the British Navy. Then Defending the Seas (a history of the Navy) and The Whaleship Charles W. Morgan – the exhibits seemed never-ending! Once we had made our way to the Collections Gallery we hit a dead end as galleries 6 and 9 are closed, but retracing our steps brought us back to the main lobby.

At the center of Museum are some of the most interesting objects. It is here that the Cape Charles Lighthouse Fresnel lens is located, and the eagle figurehead from the USS Lancaster. However Vilis’s favorite portion of the museum is the activity ship, offering the opportunity to explore what life was like aboard a ship on the high seas! The boys played checkers, climbed ladders, tried out the ship’s hammock and marveled over the contents of the trunks; the announcement that the museum would be closing came far too soon.

Once we had left the museum we took a short tour of the 550-acre Park. Open daily, the most popular attraction is possibly the five-mile Noland Trail. However we were quickly losing daylight, so we opted to instead drive the road that circles the Park and the 167-acre Lake Maury. On the far end of the loop is the Lions Bridge, crossing the dam between the lake and James River. Here we stopped to take a closer look at the four lions that stand guard on the parapets, and watched the daylight fade over the water. Tomorrow we would once more be venturing back hundreds of years through history – to the First Landing.


  1. My grandfather used to sail his oyster boat in the area while growing up. He created a 12" model of the original sailing ship, "The Emma Francis" towing a dingy. That model is in the Maritime Museum, usually not on display however.

    1. That's so cool! We did find the Miniature Ships exhibit, and the boys had a lot of fun noticing all the tiny details. Some day kids will be admiring your grandfather's model!


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