Archives For Inland Seas


Eric Jay Dolin, whose previous work includes Leviathan and When America Met China, has generated yet another meticulously researched and well narrated piece of nautical history. Focusing on America’s lighthouses from inception to the current day, Brilliant Beacons is a sweeping, majestic piece that encompasses technology, material culture, engineering, personal histories and the strategic role lighthouses have played in America’s development and growth over the last three plus centuries.

Writing with the passion of someone who has long had a love affair with the sea and her incredible stories, Dolin draws the reader in with the origins of American lighthouse design and tirelessly waltzes through topics that lesser authors would render dry and boring. This is the second of Dolin’s books reviewed on this site and both have held particular meaning for me. The first being When America Met China, which, for someone who majored in Chinese language at America’s ninth oldest university, was of particular interest and is a phenomenal read. Having grown up in North Carolina, I have always had an affinity for lighthouses, especially given that I was a young teenager when the iconic Cape Hatteras light house was moved 1,500 feet to save it from being engulfed by the ravaging waves of the Atlantic. Thus, the subject of Brilliant Beacons more than intrigued me and, while I didn’t have the opportunity to read it at the beach, I read the first 25% from my home overlooking the Port of Tampa and the remaining 75% on a round-trip flight to New York City, a city forever linked with the sea.

Overall, Dolin’s narrative style enables the reader to make quick work of the book’s 400 plus pages. Saying Brilliant Beacons is the perfect beach read might sound a little cliche, however, the book is both illuminating and entertaining and the timing of its release at the height of the summer months could not have been better planned. Pick up Dolin’s latest and read away, you will be glad you did.


Underwater imagery by Jim Kennard

Underwater imagery by Jim Kennard

Great Lakes shipwreck explorers Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski and Roland Stevens recently announced the name of their latest shipwreck discovery. Back in July, the three explorers discovered a wooden dagger board schooner in the depths of Lake Ontario and have been working to identify the wreck in the intervening weeks. The wreck has now been identified as that of the Three Brothers, lost in 1833.

Traveling from Pultneyville, NY to Oswego, NY, a journey of only an hour by car, the ship was laden with a cargo of apples, cider and 700 bushels of wheat. The ship, her captain, two crew and a passenger never arrived in Oswego and it was assumed the ship was lost when flotsam and jetsam from the ship washed ashore several days after she set sail. The ship isn’t the only Three Brothers to rest at the bottom of the Great Lakes – a timber steamer by the same name sprang a leak and sank on September 27, 1911 and was re-discovered in 1996 after shifting sands uncovered her wreckage. The Three Brothers is yet another feather in the cap of Kennard, Pawlowski and Stevens who have discovered multiple wrecks in the Great Lakes. Ranging from a USAF plane to wooden schooners to British warships to steel steamers, the team has racked up an impressive number of discoveries.

Last night marked the 38th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a record breaking bulk carrier that operated on the Great Lakes from 1958 until 1975. Launched on June 7, 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was, for a time, the longest ship on the Great Lakes. Owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, but operated by Ogleby Norton Corporation, the Edmund Fitzgerald hauled ore from Minnesota’s iron mines to iron works in Michigan and Ohio. During her 17 years of service, the ship set multiple haulage records and became a local legend in her own time.

On the of afternoon of November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald departed Superior, Wisconsin bound for Zug Island, Michigan with a cargo of 26,000 tons of ore pellets. As the ship made its way along the Canadian coast, it ran into a storm at 1am on November 10th. The Fitzgerald reported winds of 52 knots and 10 foot waves, but soldiered on through the night. As November 10th wore on, the storm increased in intensity with rogue waves as tall as 35 feet assaulting the ship with massive walls of water. Suddenly, shortly after her last radio communication at 7:10pm, the Fitzgerald plummeted to the lake floor and disappeared from the radar screen of a nearby ship. Despite a search by both nearby commercial vessels and the US Coast Guard, not a single member of the Fitzgerald’s 29 crew was found.

A subsequent search by the US Navy and the US Coast Guard discovered the wreck of the Fitzgerald in 530 feet of water. The ship had been rent in two and the bow and stern sections approximately 150 feet apart from one another. Several expeditions to the wreck site have occurred over the years, including one by two intrepid deep sea scuba divers. The expeditions have recovered the ship’s bell and helped clarify some of the facts surrounding the cause of the ship’s sinking which has never been fully explained.

Egyptian boat

Khufu’s Solar Barge
CC Image Courtesy of Hannah Pethen on Flickr

Egyptian news site Bikya News is reporting that the museum which houses Khufu’s (King Cheop’s) solar barge has suffered a sewage leak that potentially threatens the preservation of the thousands year old barge.

Buried in 2500 BC, the solar barge was one of two barges buried in a pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Rediscovered in 1954, the barge was reconstructed and an entire museum built to house the magnificent 143 foot long vessel. The barge was most likely built to serve a ritual purpose in the after-life as its design does not lend itself to practical use on the water.

The Egyptians were not the only ones to provide their dead with boats or ships for the after-life. The Vikings often buried dead chieftains in enormous burial mounds complete with full-sized ships. Today, three of those ships are preserved in Scandinavia and are open to the public.

Graf von Goetzen

M/V Liemba
CC Image Courtesy of Kobus Botha on Flickr

Lake Tanganyika in southeastern Africa is the world’s longest freshwater lake and the second largest by volume. Plying the lake’s waters for nearly 100 years is the M/V Liemba. Originally built as the Graf von Gotzen in 1913 in Germany, the ship was intended to serve the colony of German East Africa. Upon the outbreak of World War I, though, the Graf von Gotzen was converted for use as a warship to help defend German East Africa. The commander of German forces in the region, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck , waged such a brilliant and effective defense of the colony that his forces were still at large at the time of the 1918 Armistice.

The Graf von Gotzen and her fellow gunboats so threatened Allied control of Lake Tanganyika that the Royal Navy dispatched two armed motorboats to defeat the German flotilla. Following a backbreaking journey through the jungles of Africa, the Royal Navy motorboats regained control of the lake and forced the Germans to scuttle the Graf von Gotzen in July 1916. Graf von Gotzen’s wartime experience served as the inspiration for C.S. Forester’s German gunboat Luisa in The African Queen.

In 1924, a British salvage team raised the Graf von Gotzen and, after substantial refitting, recommissioned her as the M/V Liemba, the Swahili name for Lake Tanganyika. The Liemba has been in constant use ever since and has subsequently become seriously run-down. Debates over whether to overhaul or scrap Liemba have raged for several years. The most recent plan is for an overhaul costing 20 million Euros to occur and for the ship to revert to museum ship duty after her retirement.

ironclad sinking

Lt. Cushing Sinks the CSS Albemarle

Before there were the Navy’s UDT, SEAL or SWCC units, there was Lieutenant William B. Cushing. Only a few days before his 22nd birthday, Cushing led 15 men in a daring raid behind Confederate lines against the ironclad CSS Albemarle. The Albemarle had been built by the Confederate Navy in a cornfield astride the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina. Shortly after her launch in April 1864, the Albemarle sortied down the Roanoke River in a combined operation with General Robert F. Hoke’s infantry brigade. Hoke’s brigade retook the town of Plymouth, North Carolina while Albemarle sank the USS Southfield and drove the remaining US Navy forces downriver.

The re-capture of Plymouth and the presence of Albemarle on the Roanoke River threatened Union dominance of the North Carolina coast. A successful sally by the ironclad could break the blockade then strangling the economic lifeblood of the dying Confederacy. Desperate to destroy the threat of the Albemarle, Union commanders entertained a unique proposal by young Lt. Cushing. Cushing proposed piloting a small picket boat up the Roanoke River and destroying the Albemarle with a spar torpedo. Spar torpedoes, the forerunners of modern self-propelled torpedoes, were a new innovation consisting of crude explosive devices mounted to a long wooden pole that were detonated either manually or on impact.

On the night of October 27, 1864, Cushing and his men silently steamed up the Roanoke River. Protecting the Albemarle was a barrier of chained logs and several sentries. Cushing maneuvered his boat to strike the Albemarle and opened the throttle to full speed. As the launch struck the log boom and rode up over it, Cushing detonated the spar torpedo and blew a massive hole in the Albemarle’s hull. Two of Cushing’s men perished in the attack, 11 were captured and Cushing and another escaped. The Albemarle settled on the river bottom and, unable to raise her, the Confederates quickly lost control of the Roanoke River and were forced to cede back to the Yankees. The Albemarle was raised by the Union and later sold for scrap in 1867.

Cushing continued his exploits with the capture of 3 blockade runners after the fall of Fort Fisher in January of 1865. The blockade runners, unaware Fort Fisher had fallen, were lured into Cushing’s trap when he continued to operate the fort’s signal lights as if it were still in Confederate hands.

china naval battle

Lake Poyang from Space
CC Image Courtesy of Richard Petry on Flickr

More than 650 years ago, Lake Poyang, China’s largest lake, was the scene of quite possibly the largest naval battle in human history. As many as a million sailors (although the number is more likely closer to 500,000) fought one another during a series of maneuvers lasting from August 30th through October 4th, 1363. The Yuan Dynasty, founded by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan, was in its death throes during the mid-14th century and multiple factions vied to fill the resulting power vacuum. Two of the most powerful factions were the Han and Ming and it was these two groups whose navies collided in epic fashion in the fall of 1363.

Determined to capture the strategic Ming stronghold of Nanchang, Han naval forces led by Chen Youling sailed across the waters of Lake Poyang and laid siege to Nanchang. Unfortunately for Chen Youling and his men, the lake shrinks every year during the summer and fall dry months. As the waters receded, Chen’s siege ships became ineffective and gave the Ming time to deploy forces from Yingtian (modern day Nanjing). Led by Zhu Yuanzhang, the Ming fleet relieved the besieged army in Nanchang and assaulted the Han fleet with fire ships. The Han fleet retreated down the lake and in a final battle on October 4th were utterly annihilated after Chen Youling died from an arrow to the head. Many of the Han sailors chose suicide over capture and estimates place the death count as high as 600,000. Perhaps this is why the lake has taken on a mythical role as China’s Bermuda Triangle. Leveraging his victory at Lake Poyang, Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming dynasty in 1368. The dynasty would last nearly 300 years before falling to the Qing in 1644.

civil war navy

Pulitzer Prize winning author James M. McPherson’s latest book, War on the Waters, is a concise naval history of the American Civil War. Most authors and historians focus on the great generals (Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, etc.) or the great battles (Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh etc.) and often ignore the vital role the navies played in the conflict both on the rivers of the western Confederacy and the high seas. Entire books have been written on various aspects of the naval war – riverine warfare in the west, blockade running, Confederate merchant raiders, foreign intrigue in Europe and the innovations that made their debut in the conflict. McPherson neatly summarizes each of these topics and arranges them in easily digestible chapters that proceed in chronological order.

McPherson’s organization and writing style allow both the uninitiated reader and the Civil War buff to understand the ebb and flow of the conflict and the various personalities, events and inventions that influenced the war. Perhaps most importantly, McPherson accompanies his chapters with strategic or tactical level maps that enable the reader to understand the events which occur in the chapter. McPherson understands the unwritten rule that the inclusion of a relevant map is worth multiple pages of text in helping a reader establish an awareness of the events being described. Along with the maps, various etchings and photos accompany each chapter and neither maps nor illustrations are confined to a few pages in the center or the beginning of the book. This allows the reader to visually grasp the crux of each chapter and makes both the maps and the illustrations more relevant to the narrative being told.

Overall, War on the Waters is a fantastic single volume history of the Civil War’s naval history. McPherson hits all of the highlights of the Civil War – CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor, blockade running, William B. Cushing’s daring raid on the CSS Albemarle, and the first successful attack by a submarine – in only 225 pages. War on the Waters is a welcome addition to the naval literature of the Civil War and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history, naval history or the Civil War.

Oliver Hazard Perry

CC Image courtesy of Archives de la Ville de Montreal on Flickr

Today marks the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie fought between American and British forces for control of the Great Lakes region on September 10, 1813. After British forces captured Detroit, MI, American military planners decided to build a small fleet near Presque Isle to wrest back control of Lake Erie and allow the recapture of Detroit. A force of 9 ships were quickly hewn from local forests and Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry sent to take command of the force.

On the morning of September 10, 1813, 6 ships under the command of Royal Navy Commander Robert Heriot Barclay moved to sweep the American force from the lake. While outnumbered 6 to 9, the Royal Navy squadron possessed more cannons (63) than the Americans (54) and the British cannons had a longer range than the Americans which had primarily equipped their ship with close-range carronades.

In a tribute to Captain James Lawrence who had lost his life aboard the USS Chesapeake earlier that year, Perry’s battle flag stated “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” At the outset of the battle, Barclay’s squadron had the advantage over the American vessels as possession of the weather gauge allowed his ships to outmaneuver the Americans and use their longer range fire power to pound the Americans. The British used their advantage to batter Perry’s flagship USS Lawrence into a hulking wreck, but undeterred, Perry transferred his flag from the Lawrence to the USS Niagara where he continued the action. Perry’s fleet had not let the British escape unscathed, though, as Commander Barclay and several of his officers had been wounded, putting command of the ships in the hands of less experienced officers. The British attempted to wear-to in order to bring their opposite broadsides to bear on Perry’s bruised fleet, but miscommunication and poor seamanship caused two of the British vessels to collide. Perry then split the British column, a maneuver even more deadly than “crossing the T,” allowing his ships to pour fire from both broadsides into the British squadron. This effective maneuver by Perry and his squadron devastated the British ships and one by one the squadron surrendered, giving Perry and his squadron the greatest American naval victory of the War of 1812.

Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie opened the door for an American invasion of Canada and the recapture of Detroit. It also was the first time an entire British squadron had surrendered in battle. Oliver Hazard Perry became an overnight American hero and his notification of victory, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” has been forever written in American naval history. More than half a dozen ships, including a class of modern-day frigates, have been named in his honor and the latest ship to bear his name is currently under construction in Perry’s home state of Rhode Island.

Ci Xi Marble Boat

CC Image courtesy of Kevin Poh on Flickr

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the end of the Boxer Rebellion. Inspired by anti-imperialist sentiment and religious mysticism, the Boxers were a nationalist Chinese group which rose up against Westerners across China in late 1899. Thousands of Chinese Christian converts, Western missionaries and other Western ex-pats were slaughtered in the ensuing violence. The Rebellion culminated in a 55 day siege of the foreign embassies in Peking which was finally lifted when 20,000 troops from Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US fought their way into Peking.

In a strange twist, the Boxer Rebellion owes much to the marble edifice pictured above – the Marble Boat on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Peking. Originally built in 1755, the structure was renovated in 1893 by order of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi with funds intended for modernizing the Chinese navy. Instead of funding the construction of a modern navy that could have kept Western forces at bay and prevented the further divvying up of China between competing Western nations, the Chinese built a ship useful only for delighting courtesans and guests of the Empress.