Sinking Of The Robert J. Walker
By James Donahue
The ruins of an ancient iron clad steamship were found by commercial fishermen off the coast of New
Jersey in 1970, but it was only recently that the vessel was identified as the Robert J. Walker, a historic pre-civil war
The Walker was one of the first iron steamships launched in the United States. It was commissioned
in 1847 for the Revenue Service but then used by the Coast Survey to chart the Gulf Coast, the East Coast from the Florida
Keys north to Mobile, Alabama.
As tensions loomed and it appeared that America would be embroiled in a Civil War, the ship concentrated
its chart work to the harbors that would be strategically important in the event of war.
The Walker, under the command of Lt. J. J. Guthrie, had just completed a survey in the Gulf of Mexico
and was steaming to New York when the schooner Fanny, a commercial sailing ship laden with coal, collided with it about 10
miles off the New Jersey coast on June 21, 1860. The ship was struck broadside and sank in about 30 minutes, taking 20 of
the 72 members of its crew to the bottom.
The officer at the helm that night was Lt. J. A. Sewall, the ship’s executive officer. Sewall
said they saw the Fanny approaching and he ordered the helm hard to port to steer clear of it. But the schooner put its helm
hard to starboard at the same time, putting both vessels on a collision course.
"She struck the steamer forward of the port guard and wheelhouse, cutting her down to the water’s
edge and carried away her own head booms. The schooner hung for a moment, then swung alongside, and carried away the forward
and quarter boats of the steamer. Getting clear of the schooner we worked ahead, but found the Walker was sinking," Sewall
He said many of the crew members went down with the ship, clinging to the spars and parts of the ship,
thinking they would be rescued before the ship sank. Sewall and the captain also went down with the ship, but managed to swim
free from the vortex and were pulled aboard the lifeboats.
In his report, Captain Guthrie said he was asleep in his bunk when the collision occurred at about
2:30 a.m. He said he was called to the deck and found the ship taking on water and in a sinking condition.
"A schooner was near us, which I hailed and requested to keep by as we were sinking. Soon after this
the engineer reported the fires extinguished and the water gaining very rapidly," Guthrie said.
He said he sent men below to see if it was possible to plug the leak. When he learned that the ship
was going to sink, Guthrie said he gave the order to abandon ship. Two of the lifeboats were crushed in the collision, but
two others could be lowered.
All of the instruments, charts and maps prepared that season in the gulf were lost with the ship.
The schooner S. S. Hudson, commanded by Captain L. J. Hudson, pulled the survivors from the water.
They escaped in two lifeboats that could be launched after the crash.
A report of the sinking in the New York Herald noted that a "heavy sea was running" and suggested
that the high seas contributed to the deaths.
At 132 feet the Walker was a small steamship compared to the more contemporary ships the ply the oceans.
It was one of eight side-wheel steamships commissioned by the U. S. government for use by the Treasury Department. They were
to serve as a forerunner of the Coast Guard.
The steamers of that era proved too slow, too costly and too difficult to operate and were all retired
or turned over to the Coast Survey for coastal charting. They were replaced by sailing ships.