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NOAA, Museum Tussle Over Historic Civil War Vessel

Neither wants to pay to preserve a ship that apparently no one wants to see.

The men of the USS Monitor around its pioneering gun turret in 1862. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress.

The USS Monitor, the US Navy’s first ironclad, revolutionized ocean warfare, then sank in 1862 off North Carolina. Now it’s involved in a fresh skirmish—between a museum and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Initially the protector of the Monitor’s sea-bottom berth, NOAA finished raising the ship’s remains in 2002 after the wreck was repeatedly disturbed by fishermen and errant depth charges. The agency entrusted the vessel, including its 120-ton revolving turret, to the private Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, which built a $31-million Monitor Center. But the center hasn’t drawn visitors as expected and donations have declined, leaving NOAA—a Commerce Department division charged with forecasting weather and managing fisheries—to plug gaps in annual preservation costs of $750,000.

NOAA says that was never part of the plan. The museum counters that the feds still own the ship and suggests that Congress step in. Meanwhile, the standoff may do what the Confederacy couldn’t: finish off the Monitor.

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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