Highlands, NJ — Collisions at sea are among the most calamitous and terrifying of maritime disasters. This was especially true during the mid-1800s, when steam- and wind-powered vessels plied Atlantic coastal waters in ever-greater numbers during the nascent years of the American Industrial Revolution. In the pre-dawn hours of June 21, 1860, the sidewheel steamer Robert J. Walker was struck by a commercial ship off the New Jersey coast. The Walker sank, taking 20 crewmembers with her to the bottom of the ocean.
The next day, the schooner Fanny limped into port in Cape May exhibiting damage consistent with a high-seas collision. The Civil War began before an official inquiry could be conducted. No official ceremony for the lost men—part of a government coast-charting team—was held.
On Sunday, December 7, at 4:00 p.m., the fate of the Robert J. Walker serves as a backdrop to “Underwater Exploration: Tales of a Shipwreck,” a lecture by Dan Lieb at the Twin Lights National Historic Landmark Site in Highlands. Lieb is a founding member of the New Jersey Historical Divers Association. His program is part of the Millicent Mercer Johnsen Lecture Series, presented by the Twin Lights Historical Society. The event is free, however space is limited and reservations are required (call the lighthouse at 732–872–1814).
“Dan Lieb is one of the country’s most popular speakers on the subject of shipwrecks and we are so pleased he is making this presentation for us,” says Mary Jo Kenny, President of the Twin Lights Historical Society. “The Robert J. Walker was positively identified post-Sandy and is now being preserved through underwater archaeology and photography.”
In the chaos of ship vs. ship contact on the open seas, there was rarely time for measured action. Amidst the fear and panic there were selfless acts and moments of true heroism. We know this part of the Robert J. Walker story because more than 50 crewmembers were rescued.
“Dan is in a unique position to give us ‘closure’ on this episode,” says series co-chair Tim Dring (U.S. Navy, Ret). “The process of discovering, identifying and preserving something 85 feet underwater—and what the Robert J. Walker can teach us about our history and ourselves—will be a real eye-opener.”