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 [graphic] National Register Bulletin Nominating Historic Vessels and Shipwrecks to the National Register of Historic Places

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U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service


[image] U-boat U-505
Features particularly significant to a vessel should be documented in the National Register nomination. The filter cover had been removed by the crew of the German U-boat U-505 when they scuttled their ship to prevent capture. An American boarding party bravely risked their lives to close this cover on June 4, 1944. U-505 was the only German U-boat captured by the United States during World War II and is now on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. (Photo credit: courtesy, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago)

 [image] engine room of the S.S. Eureka
Operator's flat in the enine room of S.S. Eureka. The 1891 walking beam steam marine engine on board Eureka is the only operable 19th century walking beam engine afloat in America. (Photo credit: Edward de St. Maurice, NPS)

This section of the bulletin addresses the evaluation and nomination of shipwrecks. A shipwreck is any vessel that has foundered, stranded, or wrecked. This includes vessels that exist as intact or scattered components on or in the sea bed, lake bed, river bed, mud flats, beaches, or other shorelines.

The unique nature of shipwrecks has resulted in uneven and contradictory treatment of this class of resource by historians and archeologists. The National Register categorizes all submerged cultural resources as either sites or structures; shipwrecks may fit either of these categories. Vessels may appear in the material record as mostly intact hulls. In this instance they are historic structures. Vessels may also appear as broken or scattered sections of a structure with localized deposition of apparel, armament, cargo, and other artifacts, or other remains, widely separated with little or no continuity, or as a single representative item. In this instance, they compare most closely to archeological sites. Vessels may also appear as discrete elements of hull, machinery, artifacts, or other remains, widely separated with little or no continuity, or as a single representative item. In this instance, they compare most closely to objects or artifacts.

It should be noted, however, that for review purposes the National Register views each of the above site manifestations as archeological sites. Further, if these remains have been purposefully moved to another location (e.g., museum display or wharfside interpretive site), they are no longer considered archeological sites by the National Register. The documentation and evaluation of significance for each of the above examples (i.e., an archeological site or a structure) requires a different research approach. Clearly the research orientation, methods, and types of data collected may differ based on the degree of wreck preservation or dispersal. While the individual historian or archeologist may have a clear understanding of the research questions and data gathering technologies necessary to document these sites, the application of the National Register criteria to shipwrecks has not been well-defined or understood.

The study of shipwrecks may pose difficulties not encountered in the study of land-based sites. These difficulties result from environmental conditions (e.g., currents, cold, depth, turbidity), research time constraints, and the degree to which remains may be encrusted or buried. Further, simply because many shipwreck sites are underwater , they are unavailable to other interested, but non-diving researchers.

Because of the above difficulties, nomination of shipwreck sites requires particular attention to detail and approach. Clarity and specificity throughout the nomination are essential. Lack of clarity and specificity are at the crux of the past problems with shipwreck nominations.

Several factors must be addressed during the preparation of shipwreck nominations. Archeologists, historians, and interested individuals may be unfamiliar with the application of National Register conceptual and technical concerns critical for determinations of significance for this class of resource. These concerns fall in the general areas of description, significance, and geographical data. Specifically, they are: a) description including historic and present site description, natural and cultural post-depositional impacts, and description of loss or wreck event; b) significance including the direct application of National Register criteria, context, and integrity; and c) geographical data, including boundary justification and verbal description. Each of the above can be addressed in the entry categories of the National Register form.

The following discussion of environmental categories and concerns is a guideline for the preparation of National Register nominations of shipwrecks.


Shipwrecks exist in environmental conditions that at times make various forms of documentation difficult. Nonetheless, nominations should draw from all available descriptive information and should be as explicit as possible.

The description section should open with a summary paragraph which includes brief background information about the vessel, her general characteristics, present location, and condition. For example:

George M. Cox was built in 1901 in Toledo, Ohio, at the Craig Shipbuilding Company. Hull number 82 was originally consigned to the Holland and Chicago Steamship Company. However, the vessel was purchased by Graham and Morton Transportation Company, named Puritan, and given US registry number 150898. Based out of Chicago and used primarily in the excursion trade on Lake Michigan, the vessel was 233 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 21.9 feet deep. She now lies broken and scattered in a shallow, gravel lined gully and on an adjacent slope, separated by a reef southwest of Rock of Ages at the western end of Isle Royale.

The description discussion should consist of two parts: an original (historical) description and a present (archeological) site description. The historical description should discuss the vessel prior to her loss or what is known as the wreck event (primary deposition). If the vessel identity is known, the description should include the characteristics of the vessel as a floating entity including, but not limited to, as-built and modified characteristics. If the vessel identity is not known, the type, period, general characteristics, nationality, and function should be described.

The archeological site description must include a discussion of all exposed and identifiable features, artifacts, machinery, and architectural components. These should be explicitly documented and described. The description should also consider buried features and artifacts. If buried materials are to be addressed in the nomination, they should be documented through testing or remote sensing and the data that were generated should be discussed. When exposed material remains allow for reasonable inference concerning the nature of buried features, the information or data used to determine the nature, extent, and potential significance of the buried remains must be clearly presented.

Environmental and human impacts will affect a shipwreck site during and after archeological deposition. Environmental impacts may include erosion, slumping, silt deposition, storm activity, encrustation, and deterioration of the vessel, her fabric, or other material remains. Human impacts may include contemporary or recent salvage, dredging, looting, or vandalism, as well as archeological investigations and collections. The effect of these post-depositional impacts must be described and discussed.

A narrative of the events leading up to and including the loss of the vessel or the wreck event will also be helpful. The discussion may be used to explain partially the nature of site deposition and the extent of human impacts to the vessel while in a transition period, prior to human abandonment and up to its equilibration with the environment. If the events surrounding the loss of the vessel contribute to the significance of the site, they should appear in that section.

Graphic documentation is an essential element of a well-prepared nomination. Nominations must include a plan view site map. Other graphic documentation could include: contoured magnetometer data, side-scan sonar images, photographs and/or drawings of diagnostic or significant features and artifacts, stratigraphic profiles and historic views or plans of the vessel. In those situations where photography is not possible, i.e., extremely turbid water, the National Register will still accept nominations. However, a complete explanation of the circumstance and water conditions preventing photography must accompany the documentation.

[image] Jeremiah O'Brien
A number of historic vessels remain in operation around the United States. The last unaltered World War II Liberty Ship, Jeremiah O'Brien, makes an annual memorial cruise on San Francisco Bay. (Photo credit: Donald Kearns)

 [image] site plan for the wreck of the Monarch
Site plan for the wreck of the Monarch, Isle Royane National Park, Michigan. (Photo credit: Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, NPS)


The significance section should open with a summary paragraph clearly stating the areas of vessel significance, the National Register criteria used for evaluation, and how these criteria apply to the vessel. The summary should be a concise statement of facts, or supportable hypotheses, which addresses anthropological research issues, followed by documentation that addresses each of the areas of significance and demonstrates the applicability of the criteria selected.

Shipwrecks may be nominated using any or all of the National Register criteria as discussed in Section 1 of this bulletin. The application of National Register criteria determines the significance of a shipwreck, which is partially derived from an understanding of overall cultural context and the specific role of the vessel and her component elements within that context. The context statement normally addresses two aspects of vessel significance. The first is the historical overview of that class of vessel, her function, role, and contribution to national, regional, local maritime history, technology commerce, or similar topics. This information is to be used in conjunction with the second aspect of context: an assessment of the nominated vessel's specific role history. The nominated vessel's role and function can be documented using categories, such as:

  1. naval architecture
  2. marine technology
  3. engineering
  4. commerce
  5. transportation
  6. exploration/ settlement or
  7. military

If the vessel identity is known, and this information is used to establish context and/or role, her identification must be documented beyond reasonable doubt.

Context statements may also address anthropological and archeological perspectives. These can include: patterns of activity; contemporary cultural milieu and its effect on the role, function, or physical manifestation of the vessel as a floating entity; the range of variability within a class of vessel; or similar topics, if they can be clearly demonstrated to contribute to context.

Most importantly context statements must be confined to salient points relating to historic and archeological contexts. They should not become an indiscriminate listing of facts.

Shipwreck integrity is not limited to the survival of intact hulls. Integrity may also extend to a structure that exists in sufficient form to address architectural technological, and other concerns. It may also be applied to scattered or broken remains, if data can be generated that will permit the development of anthropological inferences and/or the formulation of testable research questions. Artifacts, soil stains, or casts of material remains (resulting from encrustation and later deterioration of the artifact) may also contribute to integrity.

Intensive salvage, looting, or the collection of artifacts, does not necessarily compromise integrity. Instead, these activities may change either the focus of research or the National Register criteria to be applied. In the event of salvage, looting, or vandalism, the site's remaining research value must be demonstrated. If artifact association with the site can be authenticated, collections from the site may be used to aid in establishing the remaining research potential of the shipwreck.

Isolated structural components, or other widely dispersed remains scattered on a coast line or sea bed, may also possess integrity. Sufficient diagnostic attributes must be present to permit identification of the vessel type and historical context or discussion of significant construction details, marine engineering, or other technological aspects; or discussion of the spatial relationship with similar significant remains; and a discussion of eligibility or significance.


General guidelines for verbal boundary descriptions are provided in National Register Bulletins 12 (now included in Defining Boundaries for National Register Properties) and Guidelines for Completing National Register of Historic Places Forms; those guidelines should be applied to shipwreck sites. The purpose of a verbal boundary description is to describe both the location and the physical extent of the nominated site. The open ocean or lake, however, can present a problem in the description of a shipwreck site location because there may be no readily identifiable landmarks or reference points. As a result a somewhat different approach from that normally used for locating a terrestrial site is needed for the description of a shipwreck location. Relocation of the vessel either on a nautical chart, USGS map, or on-the-water should be possible from the information provided.

[image] U.S.S. Monitor
Plan of the substantially intact wreck of the Civil War ironclad warship U.S.S. Monitor. (Photo credit: courtesy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

 [image] Brown's ferry
The documentation for the 18th century Brown's ferry wreck in South Carolina included a site plan, a photograph of the vessel remains, a significant diagnostic artifact recovered from the wreck, an Improved Davis Quadrant, and a model of what the vessel is presumed to have looked like when afloat. (Photo credit: Gordon Brown, photographer and Darby Erd, illustrator, courtesy of Archeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina)

Four elements can be combined to create an accurate verbal boundary description for National Register forms. They are: 1) a general verbal description of the location, 2) a chart description, 3) UTM coordinates, Latitude and Longitude, or Loran C, and 4) area definition. An example of each is provided below.

Verbal location: This should be the starting point for the section, for example:

America is located in the channel between Thompson Island and the main island, locally known as North Gap, out of Washington Harbor at the the western end of Isle Royale.

Chart description: Bearings must be accurate. The chart magnetic variation should be indicated and bearings referenced as true or magnetic. This information should be computed from current nautical charts and be complete enough to allow accurate field location, for example:

The vessel is 0.7 statute miles from the northeast tip of Grace Island on a true bearing of 331.5 degrees and 20 degrees true from the port-hand can buoy (C5) between Barnum and Booth Islands. The vessel is marked by a privately maintained port-hand navigation buoy in North Gap channel. America can be located in the channel by rounding the tip of Thompson Island, entering Washington Harbor, using the white beacon on Thompson as a point of reference on a true bearing of 119 degrees and traveling a distance of 0.2 statute miles.

UTM coordinates should enclose all sites following standard National Register guidelines outlined in Defining Boundaries for National Register Properties and National Register Bulletin: Guidelines for Completing National Register of Historic Places Forms. If UTMs are not available, longitude and latitude or Loran C coordinates are acceptable.

Area Definition: This describes the site and shape of the nominated area. When combined with the general verbal description, chart description, latitude/longitude, Loran C, or UTMs, this should provide an accurate location of the vessel and the area to be included in the nomination, for example:

The area included in the site is a square 2,000 feet on a side; the geographical center is the charted vessel position; UTMs, latitude /longitude, or Loran C coordinates.

A detailed boundary justification is a required part of the geographical documentation for the National Register. General guidelines for boundary delineation of archeological resources are provided in Defining Boundaries for National Register Properties from the National Register. The approaches advocated by the National Register in that bulletin should be fully applied.

Adequate determination of boundaries and site limits may be difficult for shipwreck sites. The site may be partially buried or coral encrusted; water turbidity or extreme depth may hamper site delineation; or, as a result of both natural and human impacts, remains may be broken into discontiguous scattered features. The latter situation presents the most difficult a problem for boundary determination and justification. If material remains from a shipwreck have been widely dispersed, anything other than a discontiguous site boundary must be justified by empirical data such as site testing, magnetometry supported by ground-truthing, or similar activities.

In all cases, a concise statement justifying the site boundary location, the delineation of the area, and all factors considered in the boundary determination, must be provided along with supporting documentation in the boundary justification. An example of a justification for an intact vessel, resting on the bottom, is:

America is an intact vessel with little structural damage. The boundary for this site is based upon visual examination of the bottom, accomplished by: 1) swimmer survey of the immediate area, and 2) swimmer survey on compass transects of the surrounding area out 300 yards from the vessel. The ship's physical remains and geologic formation in the area are stable; little deterioration of the vessel, erosion, or slumping at the site has occurred.

An example of a justification for a partially buried shipwreck with scattered remains, is:

La Fontaine is a broken and scattered vessel that is partially buried. The boundary for the site is based upon: 1) contoured magnetometer data in a plus or minus 4 gamma range; 2) site testing through the long and short axis of the site as determined by magnetometry; 3) artifact density on the surface and in the test locations diminishing to sterile soil; and 4) the location of an isolated feature (rudder) approximately 1/2 mile from the main concentration of wreckage. The rudder is treated as a discontiguous element with a separate boundary. Magnetic contour maps, test excavation, and artifact location maps are attached.

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