Piece of wood found at garage sale was part of the sunken USS Maine
The Washington Post September 18, 2023
For 20 years, a weathered wood and iron artifact was on display at a tiny museum in Park Ridge, N.J. A small sign stated it was “purported” to be part of the mast from the USS Maine, the U.S. Navy ship that exploded in Havana harbor in 1898 and ignited the Spanish-American War.
The story went that the worn three-foot-long spar with saw marks at one end had been discovered at a local garage sale, and then donated to the Pascack Historical Society. No one remembered the name of the person who had gifted it. Most at the museum doubted it was even authentic.
“The history was a little vague,” recalled Kristin Beuscher, the society’s president. “Somebody walked in and told us they had bought this artifact. The person selling it said it had been given to him by a friend who had been a diver on the wreck of the USS Maine. The donor believed it should be in a museum, so he brought it to us. There was no provenance to back it up. It was just a story.”
Two years ago, Christopher Kersting stared at the display case and wondered if the tale was true. The retired history teacher, who was planning to become a docent at the museum, decided to look into it. With Beuscher’s approval, Kersting began a quest to see what he could learn.
“It was a labor of love,” he said. “My grandfather was an 18-year-old in the Army in the Spanish-American War, so the artifact caught my attention when I saw it. Its provenance was questionable at best. Something told me, ‘Let’s find out.’”
Kersting first contacted Peter McSherry, who edits a website on the history of the Spanish-American War. McSherry suggested contacting the U.S. Navy, which in turn said it would pass Kersting’s photos and information along to Arlington National Cemetery — the military graveyard in Arlington, Va., that is home to the USS Maine Memorial.
The aft, or rear, mast of the USS Maine had been removed from the sunken ship during salvage operations and arrived in 1912 in Arlington, where it was installed on a granite base for the memorial to the 261 sailors and Marines who died as a result of the blast. Most are buried at the monument, located on Sigsbee Drive, named for Capt. Charles Dwight Sigsbee, who commanded the ship and survived the disaster.
How the heavy cruiser was destroyed remains a mystery. The USS Maine arrived in Havana Harbor in January 1898 to protect American interests during the Cuban war for independence from Spain. What happened the night of Feb. 15 is still debated. Historians and researchers differ on whether it was a Spanish mine or a fire in the vessel’s coal bunker that caused the massive explosion.
Regardless, the incident — fueled by sensational journalism accusing Spain of a premeditated attack — sparked calls for retaliation and led to a declaration of war by the U.S. Congress. Shouts of “Remember the Maine!” drove enlistments and led to the deployment of U.S. military forces, who quickly defeated the Spanish and took possession of Cuba, the Philippines and other territories.
Kersting’s large file of photos and documents ended up on the desk of Roderick Ganier, chief curator at Arlington National Cemetery’s museum. He read through Kersting’s documents about the small wood spar.
“We were offered this piece of wood that I had a gut feeling was authentic but had to be sure,” Ganier said.
To determine whether the spar could have been part of the USS Maine’s mast, Ganier turned to Steve Whitaker, a retired Navy captain and an expert on the ship’s history and construction. He traveled to New Jersey to examine the artifact.
“It was an interesting hunt,” Whitaker said. “It was like looking for a leaf on a tree in a forest in a preserve on a continent far away.”
Whitaker soon determined that the mast’s wood and iron fittings matched the materials used to construct the armored battleship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1889. He consulted records and plans in the archives of the New York Public Library to confirm his suspicions. He then examined paint flecks on the artifact. The USS Maine was originally painted white, then repainted tan and finally covered in black paint.
“There are definitely three types of paint remains on this relic,” he said. “There’s a black oil-based overcoat with a lead-based coat underneath that was sort of a straw color. Underneath that there are remnants of a whitewash paint.”
Whitaker then started examining photos of the USS Maine from before and after the explosion. Specifically, he looked at images that showed the aft mast and how it changed over time. The breakthrough came when he found an 1899 photo of the wreck in Havana harbor with the proof he was looking for.
“There is a narrow window of time when the ship is being taken apart, so we see the different stages of salvage,” Whitaker said. “The cross member of this spar is on the mast until we get to this photo, where it’s gone. You can see it was cut off.”
Evidence in hand, Ganier and Whitaker went back to the Pascack Historical Society. Beuscher was elated by the news. Then, she realized she had a decision to make.
“The artifact really didn’t belong in our collection,” she said. “Our museum focuses on local history. We could have sold this to a collector and made a lot of money but decided to do the right thing. The best place for it was at Arlington National Cemetery, where it could be properly preserved and displayed.”
In March, Ganier and Whitaker traveled to New Jersey to accept a gift of the spar from Beuscher and Kersting at the Park Ridge museum. In late September, Arlington National Cemetery staff will hand over the artifact to conservators, who will undertake a multiyear effort to protect it from further deterioration.
“It was exciting,” Kersting said. “When they came to take formal possession, it was a big event. One of the historians told us, ‘We rarely get to find things like this. It’s kind of like Christmas morning.’”
For Whitaker, the hunt isn’t over. He continues to search archives and records to try to determine who cut the spar from the mast — which in turn could reveal how it got from Havana harbor to a garage sale in New Jersey. Both Navy divers and private salvage operators worked on dismantling the USS Maine. He has narrowed his list down to a few suspects.
“I’ve been working on a project with the USS Maine for a long time,” Whitaker said. “It’s been a long process and interest. This is just one more piece of the puzzle.”