Monday, November 7, 2016

A Mystery Beneath the HRBT

Marine Archaeologist Dr. John Broadwater looks out over the James River from the tip of Willoughby Spit, where one or more ship hulks lie just off the beach, extending towards the eastbound lanes of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel at the upper right, which carry traffic from across the river in Hampton, seen in the far distance. (Photograph courtesy Bill Utley)
No matter where you go in the world, you are rarely far from relics of history.  While underwater archaeologists from the Naval History and Heritage Command travel the globe in search of discoveries that not only clear up old mysteries but also redefine our understanding of naval history, Hampton Roads is the kind of place where untold discoveries await just below the surface.

Case in point: The Hampton Roads Naval Museum's singular collection of Civil War artifacts from the sloop-of-war Cumberland and the Confederate raider Florida.  Both wrecks lie within a half-mile of one another at shallow depths in the James River.

For this week's post we turn our attention to something lying just beneath the surface to the east of those two wrecks, at the tip of the narrow tendril of sand between Sewells Point and the Ocean View section of Norfolk known as Willoughby Spit.  Overlooked by most commuters passing nearby on the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (HRBT) southeast from the Virginia Peninsula, a dark form lapped at by the waters of Chesapeake Bay has been shrouded in mystery for decades. Generations of local residents have passed along the apocryphal tale that the jumble of dark metal mostly obscured by sand is that of a German U-Boat that tried unsuccessfully to make it into the roadstead during World War II, only to become fatally trapped in steel antisubmarine netting.

HRNM Curator Joe Judge cleared up the mystery for readers of the Bay Journal in 2010 when he identified the shallow hull as the remains of the torpedo boat USS Stringham, which was decommissioned in 1913 and sold to a private company a decade later.  But when you consider what the torpedo boat actually  looked like, it is not difficult to imagine why she would have been mistaken for a submarine for all these years.

Painted a dark green, the torpedo boat USS Stringham, photographed in 1907 during the Jamestown Exposition, contrasted sharply with the USS Maine (BB-10) in the background.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Although not a submersible, Stringham and other torpedo boats like her were built during the same era of technological transition that was taking place in navies around the world near the turn of the last century.  The submarine was invented around the same time simply as a submersible form of torpedo boat, while vessels like USS Stringham were employed to do the same thing on the surface.  These fast, lightly-armed boats would close in for the kill with their torpedoes and withdraw before the huge, sluggish pre-dreadnought battleships of the time could react.  By contrast, early submarines made up for lack of speed with stealth. 

It stands to reason that the first torpedo boat commissioned by United States Navy in 1890 would be named after the daring Lt. William B. Cushing, who used a steam launch equipped with a fixed spar torpedo to sink the Confederate ironclad Albemarle in October 1864.  The invention of the screw-driven torpedo during the 1880s paralleled the development of small, fast, inexpensive boats to carry them, making them a cost-effective way for navies to neutralize much larger, more expensive capital ships in the way Cushing did. 

USS Cushing (TB-1) was not only the first of a new class of warship for the Navy, but it also inaugurated a new way of naming vessels for figures who played key roles in American naval history.  Torpedo Boat 19 was named for Flag Officer Silas Horton Stringham, the commander of the newly-established North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in Hampton Roads after the outbreak of the American Civil War.  Although his long service to the United States Navy began during the War of 1812 and he was a captain during the Mexican-American War, his status as a key figure in naval history, particularly in Hampton Roads, was cemented after the outbreak of the Civil War, after many other long-serving naval officers resigned to join the Confederacy.

Silas Stringham, who first saw combat during the War of 1812 as a teenage midshipman, is shown here after his promotion to rear admiral in 1862. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Aboard his flagship USS Minnesota (where William B. Cushing was working as an acting master's mate), Stringham entered Hampton Roads in May 1861 and quickly began rounding up blockade runners. Three months later he commanded a joint Army-Navy expedition, along with Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, against Confederate forts Hatteras and Clark guarding Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina.  Stringham later accepted the sword of Confederate Commodore Samuel Barron after he and nearly 700 other prisoners were taken into custody on August 29.  Stringham was relieved by Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough aboard Minnesota on September 23, 1861, less than six months before the Battle of Hampton Roads.  

Sponsored by Edna Stringham Creighton, granddaughter of Rear Adm. Stringham, and commissioned on  June 10, 1899, USS Stringham performed a number of operational duties up and down the eastern seaboard, including Hampton Roads, including as a host for the nation's news media, until succumbing to that fate that befalls all warships great and small: obsolescence.  Only the very elect of historic ships escape the fate of torpedo boats like Stringham, which was built too late to have earned a mention in history during the Spanish-American War. 

Well before World War I, this type of vessel was outmoded by a new class of ship, the "Torpedo-Boat Destroyer," which was designed specifically to protect capital ships from torpedo boats.  This was later shortened to "destroyer" (DD).  It just so happens that the last Spruance-class destroyer was also named in honor of the man whose daring, unconventional attack changed naval warfare.  USS Cushing (DD-985), the fifth ship named for the legendary naval officer, was decommissioned in 2005.  The Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt-class multirole guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) continue to serve an important role in protecting the larger ships of strike groups today.

Decommissioned on November 21, 1913, Stringham was stored at Norfolk Navy Yard for nearly a decade until she was sold to the E.L. Hurst company in May 1923 for the sum of $256.76.  After being purchased, however, she somehow came to came to rest in the shallow water at the tip of Willoughby Spit instead of being broken up at a shipyard in North Carolina.  What remains to be sorted out is just how and why this happened.  
This undated aerial photo looking east taken sometime after the ex-USS Stringham (TB-19) came to rest just off the tip of Sewells Point, presumably in the early-1920s, but before the construction of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (HRBT) during the mid-1950s, shows the hull of the torpedo boat just offshore, with what might be a barge alongside.  Whether this is evidence of an effort to re-float the hull or to fill it with concrete as part of an effort to limit beach erosion remains to be established. (Courtesy the Ocean View Station Museum  
Over the decades, the mystery of how and why the ex-torpedo boat came to rest off Willoughby Spit receded back into the mire, replaced by a legend about a lost German submarine, but new technology has reignited the mystery.  Dr. John Broadwater, after a four-decade career as a marine archaeologist, including postings as chief scientist of the USS Monitor expedition and serving as senior underwater archaeologist at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, has brought us evidence that might force a reassessment of our assumptions about the former Navy torpedo boat.
This enhanced satellite image shows the presumed remains of the former torpedo boat USS Stringham, along with a submerged barge alongside, plus a second, larger, unidentified vessel which extends roughly to the north, completely under the eastbound lanes of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (HRBT). (Courtesy John Broadwater)
Recent satellite imagery has shown the unmistakable outline of a second, larger hull behind the former USS Stringham.  If accurate, this means that perhaps the torpedo boat was not accidentally lost after all, but was perhaps put there deliberately as a part of a concerted effort to stave off beach erosion.  There could even be yet another, as yet unknown story here waiting to be uncovered.  Only further research and exploration will solve this mystery.  Meanwhile, we are reaching out to you, our readers, in an effort to gather any other evidence you might possess as to the identity of the second vessel, or any other details or clues you might know of.

Since the original publication of this post, HRNM senior docent Hunt Lewis has conducted extensive research into the identity of the mystery hull and has concluded:

Internet research of ship casualties as far back as 1900 do not indicate that any vessels of the size of the “Mystery Ship” went ashore on Willoughby Spit. Careful scaling of the outline of the “mystery ship” against the known dimensions of the torpedo boat Stringham reveals that the outline closely matches that of the underwater half-breadth plan of a Word War II Liberty ship. During the construction phase of the first HRBT tunnel, the inactivated Liberty ship SS E. Kirby Smith was being used as a grain barge and was rammed during a storm by the SS Nyland on March 17, 1956 within the confines of Hampton Roads. The SS E. Kirby Smith was damaged to such an extent that the ship was broken-up locally. Available records so far about the SS E. Kirby Smith end at that point. It is my conjecture that before the SS E. Kirby Smith was completely scrapped, the cut down hulk was purchased, towed to its present position and sunk as a “ready made groin.” Little notice was taken of the event because very little of the hulk probably appeared above the water, and by that time the hulk had lost its identity as the SS E. Kirby Smith.

As new technologies have recently revealed famous lost shipwrecks such as the WWII-era aircraft carrier USS Independence (CVL 22), new mysteries have also emerged right here in Hampton Roads, even in the shallows under the bridge thousands of today's Sailors take to Naval Station Norfolk every morning.  Please stay tuned as we continue to search for clues, and in the meantime, please chime in! 


Unknown said...

Great article, Clay!
I hope our ASV Maritime Heritage Chapter will be able to survey this site soon!

Unknown said...

In the early 90's I was a commercial diver. We got a call from Norfolk dredging to investigate an obstruction their cutter head had run into. It was a steel ship hull buried in the sand close to the bridge and the wreck u wrote about.

Unknown said...

From Wiki

"Stringham was placed out of commission on 21 November 1913 at the Norfolk Navy Yard, was struck from the Navy list on 26 November 1913, and designated for use as a target on 17 December 1913. Never actually used as a target, Stringham remained at Norfolk until sold on 18 May 1923 to E. L. Hurst of Roanoke Dock for scrapping."

Unknown said...

Great Article:

I grew up on Willoughby. Every morning before he went to work my dad would take me to the end of Willoughby (before tunnels) and buy me a box of animal crackers and we would look a the German submarine.

Unknown said...

Can you fish in this area?

rkm said...

My parents and my brother used to visit our aunt every so often and we took the ferry. I was only about 7 or 8 years old in 1954 - 55. I vividly remember that sunken ship as being a submarine. The frame was still intact at the time.

rkm said...

I used to visit my aunt, who lived in Hampton, with my parents and brother in 1954-55. I was only 7 or 8 at the time. We took the ferry. I vividly remember that submarine resting there. It's frame was still intact. There's no way I believe that it was anything other than a submarine.

Woody said...

My family spent the summers at Willoughby all through the 1950's & '60's. My sister and I, along with our friends, would often explore the remains of the Stringham (which we had heard was a German submarine, too!). If a ship had been sunk North of her, I would think we would have noticed. I would also think that there would have been some news coverage of the event.
Woody Norvell

Mack Johnson said...

My great uncle Jim Evans died last year at 99 and was an OV-lifer and local historian. He told us that during WWII, those ships were intentionally sunk there on the beach (in a perfect line!) to be used as target practice.

Unknown said...

Was your Uncle Jim the Capt Evans that was a ferry boat captain? If so I remember him from the late '40s. I was born in 1943 and we lived at Ft Monroe following WWII until 1950. My grandparents lived in Willoughby. When I got to be a "big girl" around 1948 I was allowed to ride the ferry alone to visit Willoughby IF Capt. Evans was on duty. As a favor to my grandparents I was allowed into the wheelhouse where Capt Evans kept an eye on me and delivered me to my grandfather after the ferry unloaded. Long time ago!!

Putmont said...

Silas Horton Stringham was my 4th Great Uncle. His parent were Daniel Stringham and Abigail Horton. Daniel was a twelve year old wagon-boy for Horation Gates at the Battle of Burgoyne during the revolution. In 1816 they settled in Terre Haute Indiana as on of the three initial civilian families to pioneer the city. They are buried near Coxville Indiana.