Torrent artifacts reach surface

Howitzer canon and toilet among items to survive 140 years of saltwater corrosion

Posted: Sunday, July 27, 2008

HOMER - Pratt Museum visitors were able to view what is left of a hairbrush left behind by one of the four hopeful women aboard the Torrent 140 years ago when it sank off Port Graham.

The dishes the 135 travelers ate from are now shards of china, and surviving ship braces made of bronze tell of the not-so fragile makings, which traveled through time to offer new clues for a historical window into Alaska's early American years.

A mountain howitzer canon and other artifacts recovered from the Torrent shipwreck site were unveiled at the Pratt Museum July 15, exactly 140 years to the day after the ship sank.

The Torrent was carrying 120 enlisted men, four women and 11 children on a mission to build a fort possibly near Port Graham, when it ran aground July 15, 1868.

Steve Lloyd, leader of the discovery dive team, spoke at the exhibit opening about the event.

"The bronze gun barrel on display here at the Pratt Museum last saw the light of day exactly 140 years ago this morning, when the Torrent sank at 6:45 a.m. on July 15, 1868," Lloyd said. "Thanks to the calm and selfless response of the soldiers and officers of the U.S. Army's 2nd Artillery, Battery F, no lives were lost and everyone aboard the Torrent made it off the sinking ship, reaching safety on the beach at nearby Coal Cove."

The lasting remnants of the ship are mostly metal parts,including a bronze toilet that have survived saltwater corrosion. The items are of interest to state and national agencies, as well as adventure shipwreck explorers like Lloyd and his crew. With Dive Partners Ken Koga, Nick Teasdale and Ursa Lively, Lloyd worked four one-week dives to assess and recover the artifacts.

At the Pratt's opening viewing, the metal objects were kept submerged in water for conservation purposes. Dave McMahan, state archaeologist with the Office of History and Archaeology, said artifacts will need to undergo treatment from salt to fresh water in order to preserve them. This will take about a year.

"Salt crystallizes when it dries on an object and that does damage to break down the metal," McMahan said.

McMahan said viewers won't always have to see the objects in water, but it will take time and money to place the artifacts on exhibit. The Pratt Museum will need to find funding and space for an eventual exhibit. In the meantime, the artifacts will be brought back to Anchorage with McMahan to begin the process.

The objects were only brought out of the water on Monday. The Coast Guard Cutter Hickory took a team out, which then brought the objects on board. It was an event that came together at the last minute.

"We weren't sure it was going to happen," McMahan said. "The howitzer and the munitions are federal property. Once federal property, always federal property."

However, the state received permission to remove the munitions artifacts from the water just days ago.

This unique chapter of Alaska history started shortly after Alaska was purchased from Russia and the federal government began sending U.S. troops to secure the new territory. The U.S. Army chartered the privately owned sailing bark and went north to establish a fort. The three-masted ship measured 141 feet in length and was 641 tons.

On July 14, the day before it sank, the Torrent sailed out of Kachemak Bay after the ship's captain, Lt. John McGilvray, decided Homer's spit would not be a suitable spot for the fort. Lloyd, in piecing together the history, drew from three primary sources, including McGilvrays first-hand account of the wreck.

"The ship tacked all day and night against a southwest gale, finally drawing close to Port Graham in the dim, overcast light of early morning," Lloyd wrote from his research. "The ships captain was not at the helm, and the mate had no experience in these waters."

As they sailed into the relative safety of Coal Cove, "the strong tidal currents of Cook Inlet swept the helpless vessel into the shallow, breaking reef that guards the entrance. The sharp rocks crushed the Torrents oak hull, and the ship began to break apart," Lloyd wrote.

Yet, everyone managed to escape into the water and made it to shore. They spent 18 days on a remote island before being rescued by another ship.

Eventually, most of the castaways were the ones who helped build Fort Kenai a year later.

"There would have been an entirely different page to history if they had settled here," McMahan said.

Residents of Kachemak Bay likely will have to wait until next summer to view the exhibit. That's when the preservation process could be finished for a return, McMahan said. In the meantime, there is work that will go into collecting the oral history of Nanawalek and Port Graham residents as it relates to shipwrecks, to contribute to the exhibit.

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