Sunday, July 19, 2009

Railway Engines at the Bottom of the Sea

Following up on an earlier post, since the area chosen for this year's summer search is where the first, crushed ship of Franklin's may lie, the question of how to locate and identify a submerged railway engine takes on new significance. As noted in my earlier post, railway expert Dr. Michael Bailey took the lead in the historical work for this expedition; I've since located a few resources on the 'net that add something to his account. I wish that the National Railway Museum would put something more detailed online! Nevertheless, their exhibition page, along with this article from the BBC News, give some sense of the immense logistical challenges. Happily, the channel where Franklin's vessel may be found is free from the very high currents that made this project so difficult.

The vessel, the "Thomas," a 700-ton barque, had sailed in 1857, just a dozen years after Franklin, headed for Nova Scotia. She didn't make it far, foundering in the Hebrides and taking her cargo of railway engines to the bottom of the channel. But what type of engines were they? Initial research seemed to indicate that they were small service engines. Yet the engines found were not the engines expected, which gave a lesson in the ability of above-ground archaelogical work solving an underwater mystery. As Bailey recalled,

"Initial research indicated that the Thomas had been carrying two small saddle tank engines packed in kit form by the manufacturers, Neilson & Co of Glasgow. But when the divers found a 5 ft driving wheel, we knew that couldn't be right."

Eventually the engines were identified as 4-4-0 broad gauge tenders, specially built for a Canadian railroad. Since the engines had just left the factory, historians were able to discover much about their original manufacture, as (unlike similar engines remaining in use) they were not modified in any way. In the case of Franklin's engines, the differences in their configuration and type, according to Dr. Bailey, are significant enough that if one is found, and its working parts are at all visible to the remote cameras, it should be possible to say which engine -- and thus which ship -- met its fate at that place.

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