Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Artifact of the Month: Our Bicentennial Chart

This chart, complete with the Old Point Comfort Light (which began operating in 1803) was completed by Chaplain David P. Adams in 1816 from surveys he conducted throughout Hampton Roads during the latter half of 1815. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington, HRNM)
From deep in our archives comes an extraordinarily precise rendering of what Hampton Roads looked like two hundred years ago.  Normally, the chart is behind several layers of physical security and is available by appointment only.  As our featured Artifact of the Month, however, it can now be seen by any visitor to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
During the construction of the current Naval Station Norfolk Chapel in 1941, then-Command Chaplain William W. Edel discovered the chart.  He taped it together and had it framed for display, subsequently obtaining permission from then-Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to name the chapel for Adams.  The chart remained mounted to a wall to the right of the sanctuary until 2013. (Photograph by Diana Gordon, HRNM)
Ironically enough, for three-quarters of a century the chart was available for viewing to anyone who chanced upon it, mounted upon a wall at the David Phineas Adams Chapel at Naval Station Norfolk.  Unfortunately, it was also exposed to a host of threats to its existence during that long period, including ultraviolet light and every barometric and humidity change, with nothing to protect the chart except for the ordinary glass covering the ordinary frame enclosing it.  That all changed in 2013 after Commander Denis Cox, who was command chaplain at the time, made it his mission to save the chart.  Through the assistance and support of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the Hampton Roads Naval Historical Foundation, and Conservator Pamela Young, the chart has been conserved and now has an infinitely greater chance at surviving for centuries to come.

The 1816 Hampton Roads Chart as it now appears inside a display case at the entrance to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. (Photograph by Michele Levesque, HRNM)
It took thirty hours of meticulously removing adhesive tape that had been indiscriminately applied to the chart.  New “rag stock” paper also had to be created from scratch to replace its missing cotton fibers.  The efforts brought the chart back from the brink of destruction, yet the restored artifact is faithful to the original.    

The chart's creator, David Phineas Adams, was a man of numerous talents.  He had risen from humble origins in Lexington, Massachusetts to graduate from Harvard University and for a time edited a literary magazine in Boston. He had also been a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York before serving under Captain David Porter aboard the frigate Essex as chaplain on his epic voyage to the Pacific during the War of 1812.  When not battling the Royal Navy or capturing British merchant vessels, Essex and her small squadron of prize vessels engaged in exploration and discovery, and Adams became one of the first Americans to explore and chart the Galapagos Islands, decades before Charles Darwin and HMS Beagle would make them famous.   

After USS Essex was ultimately cornered and captured by the British on March 28, 1814, Adams was sent by his captors on an arduous journey from Chile all the way to England bearing affidavits concerning the capture. It was not until February 24, 1815, that Adams finally reached home soil here in Norfolk.  

Although the war was over, Adams stayed in the Navy as a chaplain, taking up an assignment by then-Captain Stephen Decatur later that year to undertake a survey of Chesapeake Bay for the Board of Naval Commissioners.  "The well known talents and precision of this gentleman leaves no doubt of the accuracy of his lines of bearing, distance, and soundings," wrote Decatur of the completed chart.

We think you will agree.  

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