As far as shipwrecks go, there was nothing fancy about the vessel found this summer at the construction site of the World Trade Center in New York City.
It wasn’t an old military ship with heavy artillery. It wasn’t a great cargo vessel laden with exotic riches from another continent. And it wasn’t a ship that might have been used by pirates.
Yet what University of Maine marine archaeologist Warren Riess discovered several months ago when he examined the boat was, in a sense, more remarkable than anything he could have discovered about a warship, ocean liner or pirate vessel.
Riess, a national expert in marine archaeology of the New England and mid-Atlantic regions, believes the remains, found about 200 yards from where the World Trade Center’s South Tower stood before the terrorist events of Sept. 11, 2001, is a light coaster from the late 18th or early 19th centuries that likely carried goods up and down the East Coast to a growing populace of the post-Revolutionary War era.
Analysis of the ship’s remains is ongoing, but Riess thinks it could be just the third vessel of its kind and age to have been discovered. The other two were found elsewhere on the East Coast.
In its time, the ship wouldn’t have been considered a significant vessel, which is the reason why no drawings or models have survived. Today, however, that insignificance is exactly why the find is so exciting for the nautical archaeological community.
For an archaeologist, it’s the difference between finding a buried treasure of gold and a buried trove of broken pottery.
One find tells a fantastic tale. The other simply tells a tale of daily life.
“The most interesting thing is we don’t know much about these ships,” says Riess, a research associate professor in UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences whose work in marine archaeology includes several shipwrecks and the Penobscot Expedition of 1779.
“The warships, the government ships, there are all kinds of drawings and models of those. But the everyday coasters of this time period, we’ve only found three of them, and we don’t have drawings in any detail. So to be able to study this is very important, because it tells us about everyday life at that time. It tells us about the 99.5 percent of the people who weren’t recorded, and it tells us about the level of technology at the time.”
The World Trade Center vessel is now also one of three ships of this vintage found in Manhattan. Unlike this coaster ship, the other two were transatlantic vessels.
The first was discovered in the early 1980s in an area now beneath the South Street Seaport Museum near the East River, a location almost directly across the city from the World Trade Center site. The second was found about two blocks south from the first.
The World Trade Center ship was removed from the site in five days so as to not hold up construction of the complex. The remains were taken to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, which serves as a clearinghouse for archaeological collections recovered from land and underwater projects.
The vessel was found about 25 feet below street level in an area that would have been beachfront to the Hudson River. Based on evidence at the site, Riess believes the vessel had been brought in for repairs or replacement. Whatever the reason, its beaching was intentional.
Researchers excavated conifer logs found perpendicular to the ship’s keel, which indicates it had been rolled onto the shore. Riess also found that an outer sheathing had been scraped off the planks of the ship, which could mean it was being readied for repairs.
Riess can only guess what happened next, but if his estimations are correct, the ship played yet another role in the expansion of a growing New York City.
“A shipwright probably took a look at it and said, you know, it’s just not worth repairing,” he says. “It looked like they took off the upper parts of the ship, probably to reuse the wood for buildings, houses, commercial buildings or barns, and they just left the bottom there and filled over it. I don’t think it was purposely brought in for the fill, but just happened to be there.”
The researchers found about 32 feet of the vessel from stern to midship, which Riess estimates is about half of its original length. The seaworthy vessel was lightly constructed, unlike a government ship built to exacting specifications, including a carefully crafted finish.
“With a government ship, they would have wasted wood to get it to look right,” he says. “This ship was made in an everyday shipyard for merchants. It was carefully put together with material that was available or at hand, rather than material sought out as perfect to use.”
Where those materials came from remains a mystery, as does the ship’s identity. Clues to the vessel’s travels may be found in the shells of tiny mollusks known as shipworms present in the ship’s wood skeleton. Even hundreds of years later, identifying what kind of shipworm left its shell behind can help determine where the ship might have picked up the mollusks.
One of the world’s specialists in the identification of shipworms, Kevin Eckelbarger, director of UMaine’s Darling Marine Center, examined some of the shells in the wood and found evidence that the ship may have traded in the Caribbean at least once.
“Here’s this vessel that helped create that important time period, right after America becomes a country,” Riess says. “This was the time when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were trying to figure out how to get the economy going. This ship was one of those tools used to build New York and the country.”
Originally published in UMaine Today Magazine, Winter 2010