Albert D. Bishop and the Great Chain

Albert D. Bishop was a marine engineer from the 1830s to the 1880s, based in Brooklyn, and best known as the inventor of Bishop’s Patent Floating Derrick. His derrick was designed to use a series of block and tackle mechanisms suspended from a mast in order to lift chains wrapped around sunken hulls. As the derrick on a barge lifted a sunken ship, the barge was counter-weighted using either a catamaran or flooded water compartments.

Bishop’s design made it possible for a floating platform to lift very heavy weights with a minimum of effort and expense. It made a big impact on the business of wrecking/salvaging.

Bishop was one of the marine engineers engaged to recover the steamer Atlantic after it sank in Lake Erie in 1852. Bishop first tried to lift the wreck of another steamer, the Erie, and suffered a spectacular disaster, described in my upcoming book The Heroic Age of Diving.

Following his Lake Erie debacle, Bishop returned to the New York area and managed a successful wrecking business. He was never known to have chased after treasure ships–but in 1855 he was tempted to attempt retrieval of a valued icon of the American Revolution: links of the Great Chain that had been erected across the Hudson River near West Point to prevent passage of British war vessels.

In the years leading up to 1855, huge iron links were auctioned as remnants of the Great Chain (many of which were counterfeit), but it was thought that much of the chain was still on the bottom of the Hudson. In reality, it was later documented that the chain had regularly been retrieved from the river during winter, and that most of it had likely been hauled in and melted down. Unaware of this, Bishop brought in barges to dredge that section of the river.

He didn’t find any of the chain links, but he did recover a section of the log boom that was used in conjunction with the chain to prevent the British from attempted to ram into and break the chain. Bishop donated (or perhaps sold) that boom section to the managers of the nation’s first historic landmark, Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, New York.

Today, that boom section is a prominent artifact on display at the Headquarters museum. It now represents not only one of the few examples of marine fortification from the Revolutionary War, but also as a reminder of the career of one of the notable marine engineers of the Industrial Revolution in America.


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