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Home > About the Chesapeake > Places and People > Monitor Man (from Window on the Chesapeake)
Monitor Man (from Window on the Chesapeake)

Image from Window on the Chesapeake
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Curtiss E. Peterson is, at heart, a gearhead, and this is good, for he has one hell of an engine to wrestle. Most of it is a rusty mess, it’s pretty much in pieces and any spare parts he needs he’ll have to fabricate himself—or cajole, bribe or beg someone else into doing it. There’s also the small matter of its age—140 years old—and the fact that it’s been sitting 240 feet down in the Atlantic Ocean for the last 139 of those years. Can he rebuild it? Curtiss—Curt on the little plastic tag that identifies him as chief conservator of The Mariners’ Museum—slides his eyes into a sly grin, though the rest of his expression stays perfectly poker. “Yes,” he says, and even his voice seems to smile at the prospect of this historic heap of iron and copper taking shape once again. “Yes.”

The engine in question belongs to the USS Monitor, the Union ironclad that famously duked it out to a stalemate with the Confederate ship CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862. In fact, the battle changed naval history, signaling the looming obsolescence of wooden sailing warships. With her nine-foot-high, armor-plated turret that could rotate in any direction, the Monitor could aim
Cover from Window on the Chesapeake
This story is an excerpt from Window on the Chesapeake by Wendy Mitman Clarke. To order this book, visit the Mariner's Museum.
and fire her guns without having to move her own position—a revolutionary development in naval warfare still in use today. She was also the first completely steam-powered U.S. warship.

Curtiss Peterson dips his hands into a clear liquid in a blue plastic tub and gently retrieves what looks like a series of small metal discs side by side. He thumbs away the dripping chemical bath like a father wiping soap suds from a child’s cheek, and suddenly something is visible, beautifully scripted numbers encircling each disc. He dips them back into the bath and washes his hands, then picks up the round metal face plate of an engine register. “Monitor,” is written in filigreed Victorian script arcing under the top curve of the plate, “1862,” along the bottom. In the middle are rectangular spaces where the digits on those small metal discs would slowly click over, showing the engineer how many hours were on the ship’s coal-fired steam engine. How did that man do his job? Why did he do things the way he did? Did he run his hands across the face of this register, perhaps wipe off the coal dust and smoke residue with his sleeve? These are the sorts of questions Peterson ponders as he delves deeper into the guts of the ship’s engine and the ship itself.

“This is so complex, there’s so much going on. I’m hoping to get a picture of how this worked. I want to see the system in it. I want to get some idea of what was going on and why was it going on. What had to happen to make the Monitor go? …You can’t conserve a forty-ton engine anymore than you can eat an elephant,” he says. “But you can take a bite. And that’s what I’m doing.”


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