Sunday, June 24, 2012

CSS Neuse Gets a New Home

CSS Neuse early on display in the open.  Photo taken from Jerry Blackwelder, "The Fall and Rise of a Confederate Ship," The State (Sept, 1990).
Back in the early 1960s, three local businessmen from Lenoir County decided to invest in a common venture to bring the CSS Neuse up from the bottom of the Neuse River.  May 19, 1963, the large Confederate gunboat was finally pulled from the river and the state later took charge of it and moved it to the already existing Richard Caswell historic site in Kinston, NC.  See the video:  The Story of the CSS Neuse, a Confederate Battleship in Kinston, NC.  That was almost 50 years ago. Today, the boat gets moved into its final location... a temperature and humidity-controlled facility in downtown Kinston, North Carolina.  For nearly half a century, however, the boat did not have it so good.

Construction of the 158 by 35-foot sister ship of the CSS Albemarle had begun in New Bern in 1862, but Union forces took that city, shelled the unfinished gunboat, and the hull of the Neuse was floated upriver to White Springs (today's Seven Springs) above Kinston to safeguard it while being finished.  The Neuse was then planned to assist in recapturing the city of New Bern.  However, it would never make it back.  Instead, it would fire its guns only once in a land battle to cover its retreat from Kinston as the Civil War came to a close.  Before leaving Kinston, Commander Joseph Price and his "long-legged boys from the piney woods" set the steam engines to explode and scuttled the CSS Neuse in the shallow waters of the Neuse River where it would lay for a hundred years until the Civil War centennial in 1961 revived interest in it.

The beleaguered vessel underwent over two years of back-breaking effort to be pulled from the sandy bottom.  It suffered again under that effort, for maritime archaeology was still in its infancy.  Procedures and methods that we easily assume today were nonexistent in the 1960s.   As the picture below shows, there had been a substantial section of the hull intact when these efforts began.  Furthermore, after the boat was pulled from the water, it lay on the bank of the river for months until the state had taken charge and removed it five miles to Kinston.  It had been cut in three sections to make the transport.  Again, she suffered. 

Two photos of recovery: the Neuse still in the river showing deck planking (left) and the boat on the shore (right) before being transported to Kinston at the Richard Caswell site.
The Neuse was put in place at its new home in Kinston and a concrete pillar "shed" was built to partially protect it from the weather while Leslie Bright and his team worked for years to conserve the boat and the many artifacts associated with it.  Those efforts were largely finished by the 1970s.  The varying temperature and humidity, snows of winter, rains of spring, and the excesive heat of the summer have done continual damage to the CSS Neuse.  Even the leaves of fall threatened the boat with decay and insect infestation.  Year-round devastation resulted and successive treatments have been necessary to preserve the state's cultural resource. 

Furthermore, due to its position near the river bank, the Neuse had been exposed to nearly as many destructive forces as it experienced when scuttled in 1865!  Two hurricanes have threatened to rebury the boat and Hurricane Floyd in 1999 destroyed the visitor's center associated with it.  The boat was removed closer to Highway 70 and placed under a new temporary structure while plans were made to move it lock, stock, and barrel into a new facility in downtown Kinston. New exhibits have continuously been designed and built by East Carolina University's Museum Studies Program under Dr. John Tilley in anticipation of Neuse's future.  I enjoyed being a part of the last of those classes before this move today. 

The story of its resurrection and life over the past half-century have been a tragic one.  The people of Kinston, who had fallen in love with their huge tangible historic artifact of a bygone age, have sought for those many years to preserve the Neuse for as long as possible.  Their love of this boat can be seen today on a corner of downtown Kinston, in the construction of the only ironclad replica ever built (half-scale), the CSS Neuse II.  It sits in a park just behind the new building designed to preserve the boat today.  Certainly, these residents and the state have put a lot of effort into the CSS Neuse.

Photos of the first housing near the Neuse River.  At left is a full view of the Neuse and at right is Leslie Bright (foreground) and his team as they took efforts to conserve the boat.  Photos from Underwater Archaeology Branch in Fort Fisher, NC.
CSS Neuse II in downtown Kinston location (left) and the CSS Neuse remains on display in a newer shelter near Highway 70 (right).  Photos by Baylus C. Brooks.
North Carolina Historic Sites maintains the boat and its artifacts today.  The website announced plans for the new facility in downtown Kinston on Queen street.  The move was more than a decade in the planning. 

Empty home at 6 am!  Photo by Baylus C. Brooks.
Today, June 23, 2012, is the day of the move.  It began at 6:00 am. The Neuse's temporary housing near Highway 70 is now empty and the three sections of the CSS Neuse have been loaded onto special wheeled devices for their transport downtown.  These three sections will be hauled down Highway 70 by semi-trucks to its new home at 100 North Queen Street in the brand new CSS Neuse Interpretive Center, designed by Dunn & Dalton Architects of Kinston.  The move was performed by Wolfe House & Building Movers LLC of Pennsylvania. Wolfe is owned by the Blake Moving Company of Greensboro, contracted by the state for the move.

CSS Neuse site director Morris Bass and Dusty Westcott with NC Historic Sites prepare the specially-designed video car to videotape the move (left) and the truck with the first section pulls out of the old Vernon-road facility onto Highway 70 (right).  Photos by Baylus C. Brooks.recovery

William Rowland snaps pictures as he happily observes the second truck as it exits the old facility (left) and the third truck exits with the bow of the boat (right).  Photos by Baylus C. Brooks.

The first truck pulled out of the old Vernon-road facility at about 6:30 am.  The three sections were formed in line while on the highway and before the move began, which would be done in unison.  William (Bill) Rowland was on hand to witness this historic event.  Bill, who has a manuscript collection at East Carolina University's Special Collections in Joyner Library detailing every aspect of the CSS Neuse's recovery and history, including GPS coordinates of the known positions of the boat and its artifacts, was on hand with a big smile. He makes his way downtown to await the boat's arrival and join with the gathering crowd.

The three sections of the CSS Neuse were lined up on Highway 70 before the trip downtown (left) and Bill Rowland goes downtown and dons his hardhat for the installation of the first (or stern) section of the boat in the new facility (right).  Photos by Baylus C. Brooks.

The first, or stern section arrives and is guided by remote control into the building.  Photos by Baylus C. Brooks.

Another happy person, Assistant Site Director Holly Brown snaps pictures as the Neuse glides into its new home (left) and as the crowds gather even thicker on an early Saturday morning in downtown Kinston (right).  Photos by Baylus C. Brooks.

The middle section (about 50 tons) moves into the building (left), Bill Rowland showing off the bow and final section (middle) before it goes into its spot below the "ghosting" that will give visitors an idea of the shape of the original hull.  This ghosting will be lowered onto the Neuse's remains once it has been secured into place.  Photos by Baylus C. Brooks.

The three sections of the hull were separated from the trucks and then remote-control guided into place by the special wheeled devices attached below them.  Holly Brown states that the devices allow for a full 360-degree turn radius for maximum maneuverability.  This is a professional job well done.  It went off without a hitch and was mostly over by noon.  I'm sure that made Bill very happy.  Just look at his face!  :)

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