Home Dive into History Dive Into History Series: Part Two – Research Library Essentials

Dive Into History Series: Part Two – Research Library Essentials

Donelin on the rocks - 1910

Article and photos courtesy Erik Petkovic

In the introduction to my latest book, Lake Erie Technical Wreck Diving Guide, I wrote the following: The fictional character Indiana Jones said “You want to be a good archaeologist…you’ve got to get out of the library!” Well, if you want to be a shipwreck researcher, you have to get into the library.

That statement is very accurate. You cannot do real research from your couch on your computer. However, before you start on your quest for that long lost information you are looking for in the library, or travel to a distant museum to begin looking, you can start much closer to home. In fact, you can start in your home – not on your computer, but on your bookshelf.

As in any discipline or scholarly subject, there are some essential volumes you should have in your own library. If you were an anthropologist, you would own Darwin. If you were a playwright, you would own Shakespeare. If you were a medical doctor, you would own some rare version of Gray’s Anatomy. If you were an explorer, you would own Hilary. Not only are these classics in their own right, but they are the foundation for which that particular discipline is built upon. These titles are what would be found on the required reading list for any 1001 college course dealing with that subject at its very introductory level.

Just as it is with these subjects, it is the same with diving. Every diver should have read Cousteau. Most divers have read Earle. All divers know of Ballard. These are on the essential reading list for divers. This may actually make a great future article – the top dive books list. Stay tuned. If we get some positive feedback for such an article, maybe we can make that happen.

Just as I would not expect every non-diver to have a copy of Ellsberg’s On The Bottom (great read by the way and should be a part of your diving library), I would not expect every diver to have a copy either. There are no colorful fish (no fish at all for that matter), no pictures of vibrant reefs with endless visibility and some sea turtles gracefully swimming with the current, and no photos of bikini clad ladies at sunset with swaying palm trees. It is a history book about salvage. It is deep. It is dark. It is dangerous. But these characteristics do not make it a bad book. In fact, it is widely acknowledged as one of the best dive books ever. However, most divers are into reefs and fish and immeasurable viz, not shipwrecks, which is why you may not have heard of the book.

Although I would not expect every diver or even every shipwreck diver to have copies of the research library essentials I dive into below, I would expect every shipwreck researcher to have the below, as these are the bricks in the foundation of shipwreck research. None of these books have all the answers, but these books can point you in the right direction.

It is difficult to start a research project without knowing where to look. As I wrote in the introduction to this series, shipwreck research is just as much about knowing what to look for, as where to look. These books can put you on the correct heading in the initial research phase so you are not missing your target and heading out to sea.

For the sake of ease, I have organized this essential list into two categories: books and recurring volumes. Although a book may have more than one publication date (as in a revised edition or second edition), the bulk of the content remains the same as previously published with the exception of the additions. Recurring volumes are publications which are published at a regular interval – annual, semi-annual, monthly, etc. The content differs in each volume. These volumes typically cover a specific timeframe or period of time, which is described in detail on the volume.


Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks

by Bruce D. Berman

If there is such a thing as the Bible of shipwreck research, this is it. There is a reason this book is listed first in this article. The sheer magnitude of a project which chronicles over 13,000 (yes, that’s a lot) of anything, let alone shipwrecks, is almost unimaginable. It is an older book published in 1972, but is a staple for the avid and serious researcher. The book is divided into six different geographical regions. Each region lists shipwrecks in alphabetical order. Each shipwreck contains information on up to seven different categories: name, type, tonnage, date of construction, date of loss, cause of loss, and place. The two most important items for the shipwreck researcher are the vessel name and date of loss. Of course, the location of the wreck is a bonus. These will help you the researcher narrow down the possibilities for locating additional information in other sources. I use the information in this book to do just that.

Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks

As with any book, there are some omissions. This book does not cover every wreck in American waters. Also, just because a ship is not listed, does not mean it did not wreck. However, it does cover a whopping 13,000 shipwrecks, and is my first choice for locating a ship and some basic information about its’ loss.

Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States 1790-1868

by William Lytle and Forrest Holdcamper

This book is also known in research circles as the Lytle List or the Lytle-Holdcamper List. Every shipwreck researcher must have a copy of this book. Period. Especially if you are researching wrecks in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The vessels in this book are arranged alphabetically and list the date and place of construction, tonnage, first homeport, and disposition. I use this book in tandem with the Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks.

The fascinating thing about this book is that it also contains a Loss List. This handy list contains the following information about a vessel’s loss: date of loss, place of loss, and circumstances of loss. This information is invaluable to the researcher. Armed with this information, a seasoned researcher can make quick progress in other places, specifically, archives and newspaper sources. See future issues for detailed descriptions about newspapers and archival holdings.

American Steam Vessels

by Samuel Ward Stanton

This wonderful book was first published in 1895. The hardcover book was an instant classic with over 400 multi-color illustrations. The book can still be found on the secondary market and in rare book shops. However, be prepared to pay upwards of $250 or more for a copy in good condition.

A more affordable version was published in 2002 as Stanton’s American Steamers: The Classic Illustrations. This paperback version is much more affordable than the original. The book contains 250 illustrations of steamships. In addition to the intricately detailed drawings, each drawing is accompanied by information including the year built, ship designer, ship builder, overall length of the vessel, hull length, engine and boiler information, and other significant vessel facts and details.

Great Lakes Books

As not all American shipwreck books contain information on Great Lakes wrecks (as the Great Lakes oftentimes get overlooked in terms of nautical disasters) I thought it prudent to include a small section on essential Great Lakes books.

History of the Great Lakes

by J.B. Mansfield

Originally published in 1899, this was and still is the seminal work of the history of the Inland Seas. The book is actually comprised of two separate volumes. The first volume contains the general history of the Lakes and the second volume contains the marine biographies of some of the most influential persons on the Great Lakes. I routinely refer to both of these works when I conduct any research for articles or books on Great Lakes shipwrecks. The marine biographies are extremely helpful. The details about the ports, shipbuilders, early history of towns, shipyards, etc. are undeniably beneficial. There are some phenomenal early etchings of ports, scenes, and vessels. This work is also of cultural importance.

The book was republished in 1977 by the now defunct Freshwater Press in Cleveland. Original copies of the 1899 version are astronomically priced. The 1977 version can be found online on a variety of used and rare book websites. The two volume set costs approximately $200. Even though it can be viewed as a high price for two books, every researcher interested in the Great Lakes should have a set.


by David D. Swayze

The subtitle to this book is: A Comprehensive Directory of Over 3,700 Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. Just like the length of the title, the book is comprehensive. The vessels in this book are alphabetically arranged and list pertinent information about each ship including name, type of vessel, measurements, and location and date of launching. Each entry also includes the name of the lake in which she foundered along with some details of her demise (if known). The book does not include the sources for each entry, but it does include the number of sources which were used to confirm each entry.

The Great Lakes Diving Guide

by Cris Kohl

This whopping 608-page book covers over 1,000 shipwrecks throughout the Great Lakes. Each shipwreck entry comes with a brief history and location. The book is also supplemented with over 1,200 photos and 175 artwork images! Cris is an extraordinary researcher. This is a great resource for those who are looking for some quick information which has already been researched, conformed, and presented in an easy to read manner.

The companion to this book, Great Lakes Shipwrecks: New Discoveries and Updates, features more than 100 additional wreck discoveries since the publication of The Great Lakes Diving Guide. These two books are essential for the Great Lakes researcher.

US East Coast Books

Gary Gentile’s Popular Dive Guide Series

Gary Gentile’s Popular Dive Guide Series

Gary has written scores and scores of books – literally. Not only is he a legendary diver, he is a legendary researcher. Gary’s Popular Dive Guide Series covers every major shipwreck along the US East Coast from Maine to Georgia. His books are intricately researched, extraordinarily detailed, and well illustrated with both underwater photographs and archival images. These books are truly second to none. Most serious wreck divers and wreck researchers I know and dive with, have all of Gary’s books. It is difficult not to have these books in your library as he did all the hard work in heavily researching each wreck. Each wreck features important identifying information such as name, tonnage, location and date built, cause and date of loss, ship measurements, official number, and much more. There is really nothing else to write except for you to put these books on your shelf.


List of Merchant Vessels of the United States

Published annually, these volumes were printed by the US Government and supposedly listed all registered merchant vessels. The key word here is merchant. The first volume was published in 1867 and continues to this day. Interesting to note is that merchant vessels which were registered in territories and lands claimed by the United States are included in these volumes, even before such lands became official US territories (such as Philippines) and US States (such as Alaska and Hawaii). The volumes also cover official U.S. government ships by agency: Agriculture, Army, Commerce, Interior, Labor, Navy, and Treasury.

An important item to note while searching this volume is the vessel’s official number – the single identifier which distinguishes each vessel from every other vessel in the world. This is essential, especially in the 19th Century when there were completely different ships plying the same waters with the same name. The key is the official number. Once that is located, research is made easier because you know you are searching the correct vessel.

As an example of how important the official number is to researchers, I was researching records related to the history of the Oneida. Conducting a search for Oneida revealed four types of vessels sailing under the same name in the same part of the Great Lakes at the same time. One was a side wheel steamer. One was a steamer. One was a schooner. One was a freighter. Two of the vessels were lost in the same part of Lake Erie and I was searching for one of them. I was not able to properly dive into the correct history of the correct Oneida until I located the official numbers of the respective vessels.

USLSS List with Official Numbers

Annual Report of the United States Life Saving Service

Annual reports for the US Life Saving Service (USLSS) were published each year from 1872 to 1914. In January of 1915, the USLSS and the US Revenue Cutter Service combined and were renamed the United States Coast Guard. The annual reports summarize everything from new stations to equipment procurement to statistics. Several important topics for shipwreck researchers in these reports are the summaries of life saving operations and shipwreck and casualty information.

The reports describe some of the more harrowing and dramatic rescues and deployments of the past year. Not only are the reports a great read, but they do provide important details on how rescues were performed during a long-forgotten era. Some amazing survival stories can be garnered from these descriptions as well.

The reports, which are cataloged by district, also include information on shipwrecks and casualties. Each time a station was called for assistance, the basic statistics were logged: date, vessel requiring assistance, lives lost, lives saved, and a description of what transpired. It is important to note, these reports were compiled and transcribed from the USLSS Station Logs. The entries in the annual reports can be used to track down the detailed descriptions of the shipwreck events in the log books. More on this in a future issue.


This list is not exhaustive. I did not intend for it to be so. Again, these books and volumes are references you can have in your own library in order to start your research. The titles listed in this article can assist you in locating the basic, but pertinent, information to commence your research. Particulars such as date of launch, type of vessel, shipbuilder, date of loss, and the ever important enrollment number, are quintessential for the shipwreck researcher.

I will harp on this point the entire series: it is just as important to know what to look for as where to look. The titles on this list can help you quickly locate the essentials before embarking to an archive, museum, or library.

Armed with some basic information you located within these titles (besides the name of the ship you want to research) you can commence your search. Typically, this is done in newspapers, which will be covered in great detail in Part Three.