More than 153 years after it was lost in a collision at sea, the wreck of the ship Robert J. Walker, a steamer that served in the U.S. Coast Survey, a predecessor to NOAA, has been positively identified.
The iron-hulled Walker, though now largely forgotten, served a vital role as a survey ship, charting the Gulf Coast — including Mobile Bay and the Florida Keys — in the decade before the Civil War. It also conducted early work plotting the movement of the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic Coast.
Twenty sailors died when the Walker sank in rough seas in the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, 10 miles off Absecon Inlet on the New Jersey coast. The crew had finished its latest surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York when the Walker was hit by a commercial schooner off New Jersey.
The side-wheel steamer, carrying 66 crewmembers, sank within 30 minutes. The sinking was the largest single loss of life in the history of the Coast Survey and NOAA.
The New York Herald, reporting the Walker’s loss on June 23, 1860, noted that a “heavy sea was running, and many of the men were doubtless washed off the spars and drowned from the mere exhaustion of holding on, while others were killed or stunned on rising to the surface by concussion with spars and other parts of the wreck.”