|Monitor Man (from Window on the Chesapeake)|
|[ Print this page ]|
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
|This story is an excerpt from Window on the Chesapeake by Wendy Mitman Clarke. To order this book, visit the Mariner's Museum.|
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.”