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RC Mohawk

The RC Mohawk
Environmental Sentinel

By Michael Salvarezza and Christopher Weaver
Image: Courtesy National Archives
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East Coast Diving | Shipwreck Corner | Shipwreck Gallery

The RC Mohawk built in 1902 in Richmond, VA., and commissioned on May 10, 1904, was a proud member of the fleet of Revenue Cutter class vessels which were used in the service of the Treasury Department during the later parts of the 19th century and the early parts of the 20th century. Indeed, the “RC” in her name stands for “Revenue Cutter”.

The Mohawk was 205 feet, 6 inches in length and measured 32 feet in width. She was a steam driven single screw vessel and displaced 980 tons. She had an uneventful career servicing the Government by ferrying various cargo of US Mail, bank notes, currency and other assorted material up and down the Atlantic Coast.

On one noted event, she did successfully rescue 12 freezing men on May 1, 1909 at 6:00 pm from the 5 masted schooner Willaim C. Carnrgie that became stranded on a sandbar 1/2 miles south southwest of the Moriches Life Saving Station on Long Island, New York. Because of raging seas, surfmen were unable to successfully launch surfboats and the ones that tried narrowly escaped with their lives when their surfboats capsized. The Carrrgie was too far offshore to shoot a line, so all that could be done was provide a bonfire and a searchlight on the beach to help assist the RC Mohawk in its rescue attempt. The 12 crews were pickup from their yawl and were transported to New York.

On April 6, 1917, as the United States entered World War I, she was transferred to the Navy and began serving coastal duty during convoy operations in the area. It was to be a fateful transfer.

On October 1, 1917, in a strange twist of luck, she collided with a British Tanker, the SS Vennacher, one of the merchant ships she was assigned to protect. The Vennacher struck the Mohawk at virtually a right angle and within an hour, the ship had sunk. The USS Mohigan and the USS Sabalo rescued all 77 personnel on board. The Mohawk settled into 100 feet of water, ten miles south of Jones Beach and 12.5 miles from Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The wreckage is a scattered debris field and the most identifiable features of the wreck, is her boilers.

Although the Mohawk’s career was a mere footnote in the overall history of World War I, her remains, lying beneath the cool, north Atlantic waters, would enter an entirely new phase of existence in the years following the sinking. It would be one that would bear testament to the damage that Mankind is inflicting on the environment around us.

Years after the sinking, the location of the wreck of the RC Mohawk became the exact location for the dumping grounds for the municipal sludge and sewage barges from nearby New York City. Unfortunately, she was sitting directly alongside of a 6.5 mile rectangle designated for this purpose. Beginning in 1924, and continuing for six decades, a rain of toxic sewage and sludge fell upon the rusting hulk of the Mohawk, burying her in a deep layer of black ooze and smothering all marine life in the area. In fact, the area became known as “the dead sea” to local fisherman.

In the early-1970s, a group of intrepid divers began to dive on an unidentified wreck in the area and were greeted with billowing clouds of inky black ooze and silt. Still, they persisted in diving on the wreck, perhaps because of the plethora of artifacts that were available since few other divers ventured into the area. Then, in 1973, their persistence paid off with the recovery of the ship’s bell, the final clue necessary to identify the long forgotten Mohawk.

In 1986, the dumping stopped and the Mohawk was finally free from the constant onslaught of the poisonous waste of the nearby metropolitan area. The wreck, barren and devoid of the marine life that cloaks many of the other popular shipwrecks in the Long Island area, lay quietly at the bottom. Slowly, as the years have passed, marine life has begun to return to the wreck. Anemones, shellfish and crustaceans were among the first to reappear. Fish life, including the common Bergall and the Black Sea Bass are also finding refuge in the twisted remains of the wreck. However, the return of marine life has been slow and, interestingly, started at the top layers of the wreck first. Deeper, nearer to the bottom, the wreck still shows little life. The wrecks visibility, normally only about 2 feet have slowly increased and today divers have reported having 15 to 30 feet of visibility. It's also recommended that you don't eat any lobsters from this site due to past years of dumping, but is a divers haven for artifacts.

The effects of 60 years of pollution have not left the wreck entirely.

Ship Specifications

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Bottom Orientation:  
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Notes:  
 
October 1, 1917
May 10, 1904
205 feet, 6 inches
32 feet

980 tons
Revenue Cutter class vessel
Wood
100 feet
Broken-up, relief 15 feet
10 miles south of Jones Beach, NY
12.5 miles from Sandy Hook, NJ
Advanced
26867.5 - 43670.9

The once proud RC Mohawk, an intrepid member of the Revenue Cutter fleets and an honorable casualty of World War I, was the victim of an ignoble end. The wreck was desecrated by Man’s waste and became a vivid indicator of the disastrous effects of our pollution on the environment. Indeed, as the years pass, the Mohawk can be considered an environmental sentinel, marking the recovery from decades of dumping towards a healthy marine environment. Perhaps someday there will be no reminder left on the Mohawk of the tons of waste heaped upon her all those years.

Perhaps we can all learn from the terrible journey of the wreck of the RC Mohawk and remember that what we casually toss into our waters eventually settles somewhere…and often at the expense of one of our living neighbors.

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Last Modified: November 30, 2006

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