Historic Boats, Historic Boards

The New Hampshire, early 19th century

Just off the coast of Manchester, Massachusetts, lies a historic American battleship. About 30 feet under the water, not far from the shore, the USS New Hampshire invites divers and historians alike. One local diver, however, has made the New Hampshire his own. “I hit a lot of other wrecks,” Norman “Dugie” Russell tells me. “Some I never found out what they were, others I knew what they were. This one I just had a love affair with, and after a time–unless somebody came up with something cool–I spent all my time on the New Hampshire.” Just wait ’til you see what he’s found, what he’s made, and what it almost cost him.

 As a shipwreck, the New Hampshire evokes a rich sense of the old grandeur of the American Navy. She was one of the last ships-of-the-line, some of the most impressive and awe-inspiring warships of the 18th- and 19th centuries. The primary battle strategy of these ships was to line up broadside and parallel to one another, load the cannons, light the fuses, and blast each other to smithereens over the briny deeps. Generally the larger ship won the battle, but this wasn’t always so; some ships were built for speed as well as firepower.

The New Hampshire, mid-19th century

The New Hampshire was one of these, a “74,” a class of ship heralded for its fleet maneuvering capabilities and the firepower that accompanied it. 74 cannons of varying sizes were mounted up and down the broad sides of her hull on three decks. The upper cannons were smaller, equipped for cannonballs, or ‘shot,’ at no more than nine pounds apiece. The lower decks is where the real firepower was found, as the lower cannons (usually 28 in all) were equipped for 32- and sometimes 36-pound shot. With an emphasis on less topsail and a smaller hull than the largest of the 19th-century tall ships, 74s cast a fearsome silhouette on the water’s horizon. Even the design of the ships carried a legacy; they were drawn up by William Doughty, who, 20 years earlier, was the engineer behind the USS Constitution, better known in American history classrooms as “Old Ironsides.”

She wasn’t always the New Hampshire, though. Congress authorized her creation in 1816, and she was “laid down” (or began construction) three years later in the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Maine in 1819 and christened the Alabama, the year in which the state was admitted into the Union. She was ready to launch by 1825, but due to economic concerns among the Navy–namely, the cost to man her a crew of over 400 and maintain her in a time of relative peace–her maiden voyage that spring was not to be. Instead, she remained at the shipyard for almost 40 years, well into the age of steam, long past her prime as a modern example of an advanced, and beautiful, ship of war.

Bullet casings from over 100 years ago

Her time came, however, in the form of the United States’ most costly conflict–the Civil War. In order to cut off supplies to Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, President Lincoln ordered the Blockade of the South, whereby the Union effectively monitored over 3,500 miles of American coastline, eventually cutting the shipping supplies of the Confederacy by almost 95%. The Union needed ships. The Alabama was ready.

She was renamed the New Hampshire in October 1863, promptly outfitted as a supply-and-depot storeship that winter, newly commissioned and launched in 1864. She sailed to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she remained until the end of the Civil War.

The next half-century passed in relative peace and normal operations for the New Hampshire. After the war, she sailed to Norfolk, Virginia (the current headquarters of the Navy), and served as a receiving ship for the next twenty years, until finally making the return trip to Port Royal in 1876. She resumed duty at Norfolk in 1881, and in 1891 was towed to New London, Connecticut, where she was finally decommissioned as a warship in 1892.

In 1904, she was renamed the Granite State. At almost 100 years old, the once mighty warship had enjoyed a proud, if not always illustrious, career; her 74 cannons hadn’t been brought to bear on an enemy in quite some time. Once, though, she was a ship-of-the-line, fast and strong, a pinnacle of engineering and aesthetics, as powerful as she was beautiful, forged and constructed among the great northern piers of America, a vision of the past which had once been the hope of the future.

She sank.

Under tow in New York City harbor

On May 23, 1921, while serving as part of the New York State Militia, she caught fire off the 96th Street pier in New York City, just north of Central Park. The culprits were a leaky Standard Oil Company pipe and another captain’s private taxi, known on the water as a “captain’s gig.” The fire destroyed the gig, a nearby naval office, supplies warehouse, and the Granite State. She was towed north, destined for Eastport, Maine, and the Bay of Fundy. Five days out of New York, on July 26, 1922, while the tugboat Perth Amboy lugged its salvage behind, the Granite State once again caught fire. With no errant oil pipes nor jolly captain’s gigs to speak of, the source remains unknown to this day. The two-man crew quickly abandoned ship, the towline snapped, and the Granite State was truly adrift for the last time. She drifted north throughout the day, smearing the Massachusetts sky with black tendrils of smoke. Night fell, the wind rose, and the once-great warship finally settled and sunk off of Graves Island, just outside Manchester, Massachusetts, waiting almost another half century for her most stalwart champion–waiting for Dugie. “It was a burnt-out hulk when she sunk,” he tells me. “It never made it that far–it caught fire again off of Mawblehead,” he says, his Bostonian brogue ringing true, “and drifted over to Manchester, Mass, and that’s where I went down and got it.”

An old newspaper picture of Dugie and some loot from a recent dive

Dugie learned to dive in the 60s, when SCUBA diving became popular. He dove for lobster, but once he discovered the wreck, however, his hobby took a new turn; “when I wasn’t sleeping, I was on the New Hampshire.”

He began recovering artifacts from the ship. The fire–or rather fires–had twisted and warped the metal and wood into bizarre and delightful hunks of historic scrap. Much of the scrap was fused together by the ship’s original trunnel pins, massive steel wedges akin to railroad spikes. Other pieces were pierced by dozens of the original copper sheeting nails. After years of bringing up just a few pieces at a time, Dugie commissioned a barge and crane, and hauled up about four tons of timber. That was more than 40 years ago, and he’s been crafting cribbage boards–mostly from that original four-ton haul–ever since.

He cut the salvage over many weeks and began bringing pieces to his basement workshop, where he works on them to this day. “In the wintertime I go down there, and I don’t care if there’s four feet of snow out front, I get the wood stove going and I’m nice and toasty. I make my cribbage boards, birdhouses, and whatever else, and the winter goes by in a blink.” Like many artisans, it is not his will he manifests upon the scrap; it is the other way around. “They kind of make themselves; I do what they tell me to do. I create whatever the piece tells me to create. It’s not like working with a 2×6 or 2×10, you know what I mean? The wood is all jagged and so forth from the fire and the wreckage itself. I do what the ship tells me. I can’t make the same piece twice; none of the wood is the same.”

One of the New Hampshire boards. A wood-eating worm's handiwork can be seen dead center.

The scrap yields boards of all shapes and sizes. Some of the pieces are solitary hunks of lumber or metal, while others are Frankensteined conglomerations of frame wood, copper sheathing, and bronze, square-headed decking nails, which Dugie fashions into cribbage pegs. The bronze nails were driven through the copper sheets on the bottom of the ship to protect the wooden underframe from wood-eating mollusks, more commonly known as shipworms–or ”termites of the sea,” Dugie tells me–which were known to bore their way and eventually destroy everything from ships to the piers and docks they were tethered to. It is the copper sheathing that helps qualify the ship as a historic site; the first American to successfully roll copper in a commercially viable way was none other than Mr. Midnight Ride himself, Paul Revere, patriot and workshop silversmith. He may have been motivated by an inherent sense of patriotism for the Navy of his new United States, but it is more likely he knew a good investment when he saw one.

A Revere & Sons copper sheeting pin

In a letter dated August 4, 1804, to his friend Thomas Ramdsen, Revere writes, “I have spent the last three years of my time in the Country where I have Mills for Rolling Sheets and Bolts, making Spikes, and every kind of copper fastening for ships. It has got to be a tolerable, advantageous business. I have one of my sons in partnership with me; he takes care of the business in Boston, I take care at Canton about 16 miles from Boston.” Revere’s Canton site, just south of Boston, lies not more than 50 miles from where the hulk of the New Hampshire, which once sailed with his patented copper sheathing, sits beneath the sea. Dugie even has Revere & Sons’ original contract for the ship.

One of his most prized possessions from the ship is one of the trunnel pins–all five-foot, 32 solid copper pounds of it. Another favorite sits at his waistline–a late 19th-century bronze belt buckle of the New York Militia, the bottom left corner of which was melted away by the fires. Though original and beautiful to behold, the pin and buckle also serve as everyday reminders of the one dive that almost sent Dugie to the grave.

In March 2009, he hadn’t been to the New Hampshire in almost 20 years. When the North Shore Frogmen’s Club asked him to join, he agreed, and borrowed some gear from a friend who owned a dive shop. “That’s mistake #1,” he recalls, “renting gear, putting gear on you’re not familiar with, that’s not a good thing to do. I’ve brought people up from the bottom that were dead when I was with the Sheriff’s dive team. That was one mistake I made, and shame on me for doing it.” His return to the New Hampshire almost cost him his life.

There’s a lot to say, but it’s better heard from Dugie himself–click here to listen to him describe his drowning and near-death experience.

Dugie and the 32-lb. trunnel pin

Whoa. Not many people associate “cribbage” with “danger.” Despite almost succumbing to the sea, cribbage, for Dugie, is a way to keep “the mind and body shawp.” As for how frequently he’ll make future dives, he’s unsure. “I’m almost looking forward to getting all of the wood done, made up, and sold,” he says, “and then it will be a part of my life that will be in the past. I’ll be sad to see it go, but it will be a relief that I can get into something more like my garden, which I like more and more every year.” I tell him it’s probably a little safer, too–“ya!” he laughs.

But not before one more dive. “I’m going back next month to take another peek,” he says, giddy with excitement. Back to the sea that almost killed him a year before. Back, once more, to the New Hampshire.

*          *          *

See Dugie’s work here. And how ’bout it–any near-death crib experiences for you?

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